EUGENE -- What Bill and Anita Cook should have been doing once the weather cleared last Wednesday was pruning their 60-year-old Atlantic, Jersey, Dixie and Stanley blueberry bushes -- snipping away at older, weaker limbs crowding out the stronger ones as they prepare to bear fruit this summer.
Instead, the Cooks' eyes are fixed on the muddy ground beneath the bushes on their one-acre farm in west Eugene. They were preoccupied with a painstaking task: picking up "mummy berries," one by one, and pocketing them.
This job has become as necessary as pruning because of the growing threat that the mummy berry fungus, Monilinia vaccinii-corymbosi, poses to Northwest blueberry farmers.
With some help from the vinegar fruit flies that found their way to the Willamette Valley a few years back, the fungus has wiped out half of the Cooks' yield, for two years in a row. Other farms have seen entire blueberry patches devastated.
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And because the mummy berry is particularly adept at not just surviving winter but shooting millions of spores that are carried by the winds from one field to the next, every bad year could mean the next one is worse, if the fungus isn't properly controlled.
Berries attacked by the fungus are called mummies because they look like mummified berries: dried, shriveled and gray-white, instead of plump, juicy and blue.
The fungus is discovered only at the same time blueberries are nearly ready to harvest, and they look like what they are -- duds, ugly useless fruit.
It's after they drop to the ground that the mummy berry threatens to do the most damage to future crops.