Blacksburg berry farm turns living lab - FOX 21/27 WFXR Roanoke/WWCW Lynchburg News, Weather

Blacksburg berry farm turns living lab

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You might not put a lot of thought into the berries you're having with breakfast this morning but some local students and educators are. A Montgomery County berry farm started to give you a place to pick your own but has now turned into a living lab where new discoveries are blooming.

Elementary educator Bill Sembello had a vision when he bought 3 Birds Berry Farm in Blacksburg. "I anticipated the farm being where kids could come with their family and teachers to learn about agriculture and nature," he explained.

It's grown into much more than the pick-your-own berry farm he expected. "Lots of graduate students have come and done really deep science research projects."

Students and professors at Radford University and Virginia Tech use the farm for work in ornithology, horticulture, entomology, like Virginia Tech Professor Doug Pfeiffer who's doing work on invasive pests that are new to our area. "This is an additional site with additional varieties growing the berries," he said. "In a different scale under commercial conditions so it greatly increases the work we can do."

Right now, Sembello is growing a black raspberry, a variety developed Colorado grower Pete Tallman. Sembello says black raspberries typically don't survive anthracnose disease but this one is.

"This is kind of ground zero for the disease," he said. "It has a tendency to die so if it was going to survive here, it's going to survive anywhere."

Tallman's black raspberry, named Niwot -- it's name released for the first time now -- is patent pending right now, meaning in just a few years you might be able to get your hands on them. Niwot gets its name from a Village in Tallman's area.

"I'll definitely smile and I might send Pete an email that says, 'Hey Pete, I saw Niwot in the grocery store. Good job."" All because of work done right outside downtown Blacksburg.

Sembello says commercial production could happen in 3 to five years.