A young, screeching falcon shared the bill with juicy blueberries for tasting during a field day that served as further evidence that the challenging crop is alive and well in California, not exactly the most hospitable place to grow the tasty fruit.

In California, challenges include the fact that blueberry plants are much happier with a soil pH of 4.5 to 5.5. It’s common that soils in California’s growing regions are significantly higher than pH 5.8, and that can result in iron chlorosis and reduced blueberry plant growth and yield.

While the falcon can be hired to keep other pesky birds from swiping the sweet fruit, other steps must often be taken well out of view to help plants thrive in California, including acidification of soil or irrigation water.

The University of California Kearney Ag Center in Parlier, the location for the blueberry open house and tasting, continues to hold a special place for research on blueberries with a plot that has more than 60 varieties, including what researcher Manuel Jimenez calls “senior citizens” going back 15 years.

Jimenez, Tulare County farm adviser with UC, talked of his newest research effort to determine how well some varieties may do if they are grafted onto a native species called Viccinium abroreum that does well in soils with higher pH levels.

The study is also looking at whether plants on that rootstock will do well in areas without added organic materials. It’s common for growers in California to add organic matter as mulch when first planting and replacing those materials as often as every other year.

Separate studies at Kearney have found that agricultural waste products such as pecan and walnut shells, pine shavings, almond wood chips are good for mulching.

Emerald, Jewel and Star cultivars have been grafted onto the arboretum stock in the field, and the small, young plants are a sharp contrast to the bushy ones under shade cloth in a neighboring plot.

“We will recommend grafting in the nursery, not the field,” Jimenez said. Some plants did not survive field grafting at the Parlier center.

Separately, the University of Florida is also conducting grafting research to the same rootstock because it may offer higher pH tolerance, a deeper root system, a single trunk growth characteristic and higher drought tolerance.

The blueberry harvest is in high gear in California, where it’s estimated more than 40 million pounds will be harvested this season. And the North American Blueberry Council estimates the continent’s blueberry production this season has surpassed the half billion pound mark for the first time in history.

It’s a busy time for falconers like Fred Seaman, chief executive officer of Atascadero-based Airstrike Bird Control. The company uses falcons to chase away pest birds from crops that include blueberries and grapes.