Paige Shumate Short has grown up seeing the world through blackberry-colored glasses.
Her life took on a deep purple glow in 1983, when she was an economics major at Georgetown College and her late father, Wayne Shumate, replaced tobacco on the family's farm near Carlisle with blackberries.
From the harvest of their first crop to her hope today to use the compounds that create the berries' rich colors to treat cancer, Short has raised the value of these native brambles to new heights.
At first, the five acres of fresh berries that Wayne Shumate planted were sold locally at Bob Slone's Foodtown supermarkets, but the crops were so plentiful that another outlet was needed.
"It was his passion," Short says.
By 1992, Wayne Shumate and business partner Billy Gatton Jones had formed WindStone Farms and produced a hit jam now sold in thousands of stores, including small Kentucky Proud retailers and Wal-Mart. But the story does not end there.
Shumate initiated a successful campaign that had blackberries declared Kentucky's state fruit in 2004. It was a natural fit.
"Blackberries grew wild when settlers crossed the mountains," says Short.
They're well suited for planting in many Kentucky soils and growing conditions, and they are part of our cultural heritage. This time of year, caramel-frosted blackberry jam cake is a traditional favorite, and the wild berries can be found for free if you know where the good brambles grow.
The original WindStone plantings were the Hull variety. But more recently, the preferred choice is Chester, a thornless, semi-trailing cultivar with large, sweet berries, smaller seeds and resistance to spring temperature fluctuations.
Blackberry canes take two years to mature, bearing fruit on second-year canes, which must be cut back in the fall. The perennial roots send out new growth about March, and the fruit ripens for picking in late June and early July.
Now with about 35 acres of brambles planted, Short, who stepped in to manage the business when her father passed away in 2005, has ventured into new and exciting directions. She's using blackberry extract as an ingredient in botanical products and working toward gaining federal approval for its use in medical treatments. She has dubbed it "berryceuticals."
Short formed a blackberry pharmaceutical company called Four Tigers LLC with former University of Kentucky pharmaceutical sciences professor and researcher Russ Mumper, who now works at the University of North Carolina's Eshelman School of Pharmacy.
Mumper says blackberry extract has been shown to possess not only antioxidant qualities but anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and cancer-fighting ability. Possible uses being studied for commercial development and in federal trials range from an extract in chewing gum to a healing cream that might provide protection against skin cancer. Another study is of a special capsule that can carry the concentrate to the intestines to treat colon cancer and other bowel diseases.
Studies also are looking at how to identify, concentrate and stabilize the beneficial components in blackberries, even down to the molecular level.
"The more productive and concentrated those components are, the more effective they are in treatments," Mumper says.
To that end, researchers are studying not only the extent of the blackberry's beneficial effects but how to intensify them. A freeze-dried blackberry extract is now available as an over-the-counter additive.
Taking that idea a step further, Four Tigers is collaborating with UK plant biologists through a National Institutes of Health small-business grant to develop a new cultivar whose berries contain 100 times the beneficial compounds of the average blackberry-patch plant.
With the increased public awareness of the positive effects of antioxidants, there's great promise in the creation of a blackberry cultivar with a higher concentration of the beneficial components.
Paige Short puts it simply.
"Some evenings I walk into the blackberry patch," she says. "Everything else disappears, and I dream about where we can go with it. All that we are doing is for the betterment of mankind."
That dream, shared with her husband, Dan Short, and son Bryan Shumate Short, is an evolution of the ideas that this multi-generational family business explores.
What to expect next? Beyond just the products of medical research, perhaps you'll see the creation of a Bourbon County blackberry brandy. Experimental batches have been made over the years by Short's mother, Kay Shumate, along with friends including former Gov. Martha Layne Collins and her husband, Dr. Bill Collins.
Short also hopes that more people will grow blackberries. She is interested in buying extra fruit regionally, so send her a note at Four-tigers.com for more information.
A good way to start learning about blackberry growing is by reading Cooperative Extension Publication HO-15: Growing Blackberries & Raspberries in Kentucky, available online at www.ca.uky.edu; click on "Publications" and search for HO-15.
The publication was co-authored by UK horticulture professor and extension fruit and vegetable specialist John Strang. Short says Strang advised her father to grow blackberries almost three decades ago. That idea certainly took root. It was cultivated and it blossomed into a business, which has invigorated the health of our community in many ways.