By Jody Brumage
The small communities of Kearneysville and Leetown in Jefferson County, West Virginia have been a center of scientific research for over sixty years. One of the laboratories centered in the area is the Appalachian Fruit Research Station, a part of the Agricultural Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture. Opened in 1979, the laboratory was the result of over fifteen years of efforts to secure land, funding, and a mandate for the institution.
Image to the Right: Senator Byrd's 1963 proposal for the scope of research to be conducted at the Fruit Research Station.
Not all of West Virginia’s farmers were immediately behind the effort. An editorial published in the Martinsburg Journal by an area orchardist thanked Senator Byrd for turning his attention to the problems plaguing the industry, but stated that the research initiatives he was planning were not going to provide any meaningful solutions if labor shortages and rising costs were not addressed. Other farmers were dismayed when the Department of Agriculture published an advertisement stating the need for 5,000 acres of good orchard land to support the research of the proposed laboratory. Another editorial called this request ridiculous, questioning any farmer who would willingly give up so much valuable growing land.
Senator Byrd’s proposed laboratory also faced an uphill battle in Congress. Throughout the late-1960s, several requests for funding, including more feasibility studies, land acquisition, and construction costs were met with less than enthusiastic support. To the senator’s dismay, a counter proposal considered placing the laboratory in Blacksburg, Virginia near the existing fruit research program at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech).
Twenty years after the opening of the laboratory, Senator and Mrs. Byrd attended a special ceremony in 1999 for the unveiling of a newly-developed species of plum tree. The new variety was named the “Bluebyrd Plum,” and the senator noted in remarks at the ceremony that among the many things named for him during his career, this was the first time such an honor involved a fruit variety. The laboratory envisioned by Senator Byrd and the Department of Agriculture in the early-1960s continues to conduct valuable research today which supports fruit growers across the United States. Some of the areas of study originally included in the laboratory's mission continue today, including disease resistance and harvest management.