Cranberries and shellfish on the work menu for new Extension specialist

LONG BEACH, Wash.  — When a teenaged Laura Kraft got her driver’s license, the first thing she did was drive to a store and buy fresh fruit. When she got there, the high price of blueberries shocked her.

A woman stands next to a large sign that says Washington State University Long Beach Research and Extension Unit
Laura Kraft

Fast-forward a few years to a University of Georgia seminar on fruit pests.

“The instructor talked about an invasive fly that came in a few years before and wreaked havoc on blueberries,” Kraft said. “I realized that had a direct impact on me; that’s why they cost so much on that first drive.”

Since that day as a student, Kraft has made a career out of her affection for fruit, eventually becoming an entomologist who specializes in integrated pest management.

“I think bugs are interesting, but I’m in this career because of my love for fruit and food,” she said.

Kraft brings that passion to WSU as a cranberry and shellfish specialist at the Long Beach Research and Extension Unit, where she will help the cranberry industry, which has a variety of pests hurting growers. She will also work on fighting pests plaguing the local shellfish industry in Willapa Bay.

The combination of cranberries and shellfish made for a challenging search to replace longtime WSU Extension Specialist Kim Patten, who retired a little over three years ago.

“It’s an unusual position,” said Malcolm McPhail, a longtime cranberry farmer and member of the hiring committee. “But we think Laura will be a great fit. Her research and the questions she had showed her curiosity and interest in helping both industries.”

Both cranberry farmers and shellfish industry representatives sat on the hiring committee, and McPhail said everyone agreed Kraft was the top candidate.

Kraft’s early plans include convening focus groups of producers in both fields to learn about their priorities and where assistance is most needed.

“I’ve never worked with shellfish before, but what biologist doesn’t want to be a marine biologist?” Kraft said. “This is like a shortcut to that field. I’ve already been talking with local industry leaders and learning about the problems they face and how best to help them.”

That curiosity and determination to build relationships will be key to her success, said Karen Lewis, director of WSU Extension’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Program Unit.

“Laura brings a strong skill set to this position, and I am confident she will build an effective Extension program in the region,” Lewis said. “Her early engagement with industry indicates that she sees an opportunity to develop partnerships and build the capacity needed to solve current and emerging issues for the cranberry and shellfish industries.”

Much of Washington’s cranberry and shellfish harvesting industries have been located in Long Beach and Willapa Bay for many decades. Even though Kraft has never lived in the Pacific Northwest, she’s adapting quickly.

“Laura became well-informed and is really on top of things,” McPhail said. “We’re all impressed by how quickly she’s acquainting herself with people and the area. We’re pleased that she’s here and ready to help our region’s agriculture.”