One of the challenges tree fruit entomologists will face in the future, along with new invasive pests, will be to find adequate funding for research. That’s the concern of Dr. Jay Brunner, who plans to retire, at least partially, from Washington State University by the end of this year.
“I think it’s going to be more challenging because of the competition for limited resources for research,” he said.
Brunner, 66, joined WSU as an entomologist at the Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in 1978. Since 1998, he’s also directed the center, devoting about half his time to administrative duties.
Over the years, he’s seen shifts in sources of research funding as state support has declined. More costs have to be covered by grants, and that can change how research is done.
“If everything is grant driven, you have to generate proposals—especially at the federal level—based on what their criteria and priorities are,” he said. “It can drive research in a certain area that may not be of highest priority to the industry.”
However, a number of WSU scientists have received funding through the federal Specialty Crop Research Initiative for projects to address critical needs of specialty crop producers. The initiative, authorized by the 2008 Farm Bill, gave priority to projects that were multistate, multi-institutional, or multidisciplinary and that would communicate the results to producers.
“Even though it was very competitive at the national level, WSU scientists, in collaborating with people at other land-grant institutions and universities, were very effective in acquiring resources,” Brunner said. “It’s allowed the tree fruit industry to leverage their funds with federal funds to get more bang for their buck.”
WSU scientists also receive support from the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, which collects more than $4 million annually for research through grower assessments.
Brunner was heavily involved—along with Dr. Jim McFerson, manager of the Research Commission—in WSU’s recent Tree Fruit Campaign, which resulted in Washington orchardists pledging an additional $32 million for research and extension at WSU. The funds will be collected through a special grower assessment over a period of up to eight years.
Part of the funds will be used to further develop the Sunrise research orchard near Wenatchee, which was established five years ago under Brunner’s leadership. The funds will also pay for new endowed-chair research positions in areas important to the industry and additional extension positions.
The commitment ensures that the partnership between WSU and the industry will continue and that WSU will be able to hire the best faculty to work with the industry, Brunner said.
Two new positions in at the Wenatchee center have already been filled. Dr. Stefano Musacchi was appointed research pomologist, and Dr. Des Layne is leader of the tree fruit extension program.
Two existing positions at Wenatchee created by retirements are also being filled. Dr. Lee Kalcsists starts in March as tree fruit physiologist, and a plant pathologist is being recruited.
“I think we’re hiring some really great people, and that’s a good feeling,” Brunner said.
The center has three entomologists: Drs. Elizabeth Beers and Vince Jones, and Brunner. When entomologist Dr. John Dunley left four years ago, the position was cut.
Brunner hopes that a new entomologist will be hired to continue his research programs. He’s prepared to stay on for a time until a new director of the center is hired.
“I have a passion for this place. If they didn’t hire an entomology position back, we would really be gutting what’s been an excellent and high-value program,” Brunner said.
He’s proud of what’s been accomplished, and stressed that it’s due to a lot of people’s efforts, not just his.
“It’s been a fun career,” he reflected. “It’s been a real joy because people are open to research and new ideas, and it’s generally a very progressive industry willing to try new things—even willing to risk some of their orchards to try new things. And then, there’s just the general support they give to research through self-taxation. It’s one of the best models for that in the country.”
In his retirement, Brunner plans to do more travelling. He and his wife, Sandy, have already done a lot of mission work through the Saddlerock Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Wenatchee and help support a school in Guatemala that they visit each year.
West Mathison, president of Stemilt Growers, Inc., Wenatchee, who attends the same church, said Brunner has been a wise leader who is able to get to the heart of an issue in very few words and can galvanize people.
“Whether you see him at an industry meeting, or a church meeting, or involved in his mission work, he always carries himself with the same humble persona and wisdom that we’ve seen on the research side,” Mathison said. “His impact for the greater good has been felt and will continue to be felt here locally as well as in other areas, especially Guatemala.”
Wenatchee orchardist Mike Hambelton said Brunner has probably done more than anyone to bring research to the farm.
“He’s taken the science and turned it into economic reality,” he said. “He’s convinced the huge farming operations to go from harsh chemicals to mating disruption. He’s done the experiments and knew how to make it work.”
Dr. Jim McFerson said Brunner is a humble, genuine, caring, and honest person and a strong leader.
“When we look at what we have in 2014 in our tree fruit industry, thanks to Jay’s individual and team efforts, we have a transformed pest-control culture,” he said. “Jay’s been in the lead on that every step of the way.” •