How will WSU varieties be released?
There are alternatives to the strictly managed variety system, Jim McFerson believes. The research perspective
Washington State University is preparing to release several selections from its cherry and apple breeding programs, but just how they will be commercialized is not yet known.
Dr. Jim McFerson, manager of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, which has provided funding for the breeding programs, said three cherry selections developed by Dr. Jim Olmstead when he was with WSU at Prosser, are in the final phase of testing.
An apple selection developed by Dr. Bruce Barritt at WSU has also been earmarked for release after further evaluation.
The Research Commission has been in discussions with the WSU Research Foundation, which owns the material, and the breeders about how to proceed. McFerson said the foundation would develop a call for proposals inviting individuals or groups to submit comprehensive business plans for commercializing the selections.
"We want to be involved in a process that is transparent, fair, and timely," he said.
Keith Jones, director of the WSU Research Foundation, said the foundation has been discussing with the Research Commission and other entities how its new varieties can be commercialized but does not have the process laid out in great detail yet. However, the varieties are going through the patent process, and a request for proposals will be sent out this year.
"We're trying to manage it carefully so it works well for everybody," Jones said. "We've been working for more than a year with the Research Commission and doing a lot of background investigation figuring out how to best use these varieties to the advantage of the industry."
Whether the new selections will be commercialized as managed varieties, open varieties, or something between the two will depend on the products, the potential markets, and the business plans selected, McFerson said. "What we're saying is we don't want to declare or develop a single approach, a single process, a single management plan for the products that will come from the breeding programs we support. I believe that's also the WSU Research Foundation philosophy. There's not going to be one template and one plan."
Is it working?
In the past, the industry has marketed individual varieties with what was considered a clever marketing name and a set of characteristics that gives someone an advantage, he noted. "What a lot of people are looking at now is, 'This managed variety equals the next big thing,' and that we must have a highly controlled, managed variety. Supply is limited, therefore demand is high. Revenue is controlled, therefore profits are maximized.
"That's certainly a valid approach," he said. "Is it working for any managed variety right now? Nobody knows. It's not clear. I think, conceptually, a managed variety can be a successful process, but I don't think we know in terms of profitability to the grower.
"I believe that we need to be careful as an industry about buying into the managed variety hyperbole. I think there are alternative methods. I don't believe there is the next big thing."
McFerson thinks that the highly structured and managed variety schemes are somewhat archaic because consumers' buying decisions nowadays are not based on the name recognition of single varieties. That type of marketing and promotion program no longer exists in many other specialty crops, he pointed out. Plums, for example, are being marketed as a series of cultivars with different maturity dates under the same brand name, but without being identified individually.
McFerson explained that he does not believe that the WSU Foundation has any particular model in mind at this point.
"I think what we would look for is to be motivated by the best business plan," he said. "We're looking to maximize the impact of the breeding program's products on the program itself, on WSU, and on our industry."
WSU now boasts one of the strongest research teams in the world in the field of genetics, genomics, and breeding of rosaceous plants, he pointed out. Genomics is the study of genes and their functions, and genetics is the study of how traits are transmitted through genes.
Better than ever
McFerson believes that products of WSU's breeding program are going to be better than anything anyone has ever seen before.
"We will have so much good product that a lot of this marketing mania will be unnecessary," he said.
The result will be a package consisting of fruit with superior characteristics developed in the Pacific Northwest for Northwest growers, along with a progressive industry ready to take advantage of those new cultivars in new production and handling systems, he said.
"We can no longer take a variety that's not suited to our production or handling environment and attempt to make it work. The consumer deserves better, and we're going to deliver a lot better in the future," he emphasized.
"I think from the research perspective, we ultimately want to benefit the consumer and our industry by providing genotypes that are superior in their productivity, their quality, their environmental friendliness, and impact on our local economics.
"I don't think there will be room on the shelf for any new product, apple or otherwise, that isn't repeatedly a good eating experience. You're not going to succeed unless you have superior genetics in the future. I have great confidence that we can improve the quality of the product to the consumer and improve productivity for the grower.
"That's what this partnership is about—not so much about how are we going to market something, but how are we going to utilize science and technology to deliver the best genetics to the industry along with the other technologies we can use to maintain global competitiveness."