Blueberries A Salty Aftertaste

April 16, 2004
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LANSING — Road salt is leaving a bad taste in the mouths of blueberry farmers in West Michigan, as lawmakers push for less corrosive, environmentally safer alternatives to be used on roadways.

Road salt can reduce the number of berries produced and the size of bushes. In some instances the salt has killed bushes, according to farmers and researchers. Transportation officials say other products already are being used, but farmers complain that not enough is being done.

“A lot of these berries are on busy roads, and they kick up a lot of mist,” said Craig De Vries of West Olive, who maintains 56 acres of blueberries, roughly 50,000 bushes, at four locations. Roughly 500 of De Vries’ bushes have been damaged by road salt.

“We already have to defend the chemicals we use (fertilizers and pesticides), and salt is probably worse on the berries.”

Rep. William Van Regenmorter, R-Georgetown Township, is introducing a resolution that calls for the Michigan Department of Transportation to evaluate and recommend alternatives for state roads.

“If there is an alternative to road salt that’s environmentally friendly and cost-effective, we need to make a change,” he said. “It’s the realization of the damage to the crops, especially blueberries in western Michigan. We have considerable crop damage.”

Ben Kohrman, director of communications for the transportation department, said the state already applies alternatives to de-ice roadways.

From Berrien County north to Allegan County, state road-workers have been using a 90:10 solution of magnesium chloride and agricultural byproduct from beets and corn since 1998, as well as the traditional salt-sand mixtures.

In some counties, the department also has reduced salt use by 30 percent by wetting the salt mixture before releasing it, helping it stick rather than be blown off by passing traffic, Kohrman said.

The transportation department also installed a 1.2-mile anti-icing system in the U.S. 131 S-Curve during its 2000 reconstruction in Grand Rapids.

“We’re actually using these methods all over the state,” Kohrman said. “We’re always looking to be environmentally friendly and more cost-effective.”

Meanwhile, Ottawa County will hold a public forum to discuss road-salt damage to blueberry farms at 7 p.m., April 26, at the Fillmore Street Complex in West Olive. Ottawa and Allegan counties are the most impacted areas, researchers say.

Van Buren, Ottawa, Allegan, Berrien and Muskegon are the top five blueberry-producing counties in Michigan.

Ottawa County Planning Director Mark Knudsen said some blueberry farmers in the county are losing more than $250,000 annually because of salt damage.

“The bushes are starting to die off,” he said. “In the past, it’s just been a burn.”

Knudsen said apple farmers and subdivision owners also have problems with their trees and shrubbery near streets.

More than 550 blueberry growers in Michigan support a $63 million industry. The Michigan Blueberry Growers Association is the largest marketer of fresh and processed cultivated blueberries in the world.

A five-year study of a dozen blueberry farms in Ottawa County indicated a substantial loss of flowers on bushes damaged by salting. At one farm, a bush not affected by road salt had 370 flowers while an affected bush had 145 flowers.

“At these kinds of traffic, there’s a very great amount of salt becoming (like an) aerosol that’s landing on bushes,” said Chuck Pistis, director of Michigan State University’s Ottawa County Extension.

MSU horticulture professor Eric Hanson, who conducted the study, said blueberry bushes are most susceptible to salting because of the exposure of the fruit.

“They get quite a dose,” Hanson said. “The injury is a few hundred yards downwind from roads. The injury to bushes, year-to-year, can be devastating.”           

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