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An autonomous vehicle is being developed as part of the project “Comprehensive automation for specialty crops.”

An autonomous vehicle is being developed as part of the project “Comprehensive automation for specialty crops.”

The last Farm Bill not only provided an unprecedented amount of funding for research to benefit specialty crops, but changed the whole culture of tree fruit research in the United States.

It’s led to major collaborative efforts to find practical solutions to problems that growers face, said Dr. Jim McFerson, who was among many in the research and producer communities who worked with state and federal policy makers to ensure that the 2008 Farm Bill included help for specialty crop industries as well as program crops. In the case of tree fruits, the primary impetus was the need to produce quality fruit at a lower per-unit cost.

The Farm Bill allocated $250 million through the Specialty Crop Research Initiative over a five-year period, with an unprecedented 100-percent match required from industry. By the time the last round of annual awards is made in 2012, the SCRI will have spawned almost half a billion dollars of new research on specialty crops.

Grants are awarded on a competitive basis, and a significant number of producers serve on the review panels. Priority is given to projects that are multistate, multi-institutional, and multidisciplinary, and that show how the results will be communicated to producers and the public.

The 2008 Farm Bill also provided far more funding than in the past for the Specialty Crop Block Grant program, which began in 2001. A total of $224 million was allocated over five years, to be awarded through states, with a minimum amount per state and the rest in proportion to the size of the specialty crop industry in the state. The grants are awarded by state departments of agriculture.

“This was the first time significant attention was paid to specialty crops, and the first time significant amounts of funding were made ­available for these horticultural crops,” McFerson recalled.

“One of the real successes we had was engagement with our stake­holders. We weren’t simply trying to create more money so researchers could get more funding. We were trying to create a climate where specialty crops got enough attention and funding to address problems that challenged all of us. It was not researcher driven—it wasn’t about getting money for research.

“It was about identifying research areas where we felt there were scientific and technological advances to be made. It was about substituting brain power for horsepower,” he said, noting that the program has allowed some creative and visionary scientists to put their ideas to the test.

Ten years ago, the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission compiled a Technology Road Map, which was a strategic plan on how to address the industry’s problems through technological innovation. The Road Map expanded into a national effort to secure more funding for tree fruit research in the last Farm Bill.

“I credit the commission for having the vision to go after this,” said former commissioner Denny Hayden. “Jim McFerson was a dynamo in this realm. He understood it. He understood the players. He understood the scientific community, and he understood the administrative people in Washington, D.C., that he needed to interact with to get this to move. I think it will go down as one of our greater ­successes.”

Hayden said the results so far have exceeded his expectations. “We’re way ahead of where I thought we would be at this point in time,” he said. “It’s put so many more dollars into this industry we would not have had. We’ve been able to leverage our investment. This is money we would have had to pull out of our pockets. I think the industry’s really going to benefit from it.”

New approach

The most significant impact of the SCRI is a new approach to how research is tackled, McFerson said. Specialty crop interests are working together to find practical solutions to their common problems instead of the commodities working independently as they did in the past.

“Prior to SCRI, we had a fragmented research and extension community. I think we’ve really changed the culture so we’re looking at a systems approach,” McFerson said. “We realized we could not solve all apple problems working with scientists in Washington.”

The Research Commission, which funds research projects on a more modest scale, is also supporting more collaborative projects. “We don’t have enough people and resources,” he said. “We’ve got to stop whining about that and talk about how we can utilize who we’ve got and enhance their capabilities.”

Some projects funded soon after the program began three years ago will be wrapping up soon, and should generate new tools for fruit growers to use. But as the projects begin to bear fruit, Congress’s Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction is mulling over major budget cuts that could impact the next Farm Bill.

“If the Select Committee is going to be trying to come up with a huge amount of savings in the overall federal budget, some of those things will come out of agriculture,” said Christian Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council. Leaders of the Senate and House Agriculture Committees were expected to try to rewrite some provisions of the next Farm Bill before Thanksgiving so the Select Committee could include them in its recommendations.

“Where research will fall out is one of the big questions,” he said. “My thinking is the SCRI program will be saved, but whether or not the total amount of money will be preserved is a different question. The upshot is, there are big-time politics yet to be played out,” Schlect said.

On the positive side, Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, a strong proponent of research funding for specialty crops, chairs the Senate ­Agriculture Committee. Also, Senator Patty Murray of Washington State is co-chair of the deficit reduction committee.

In November, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the tight federal budget would mean less Farm Bill funding than in the past. It’s been proposed that mandatory programs be cut by $23 million. Vilsack said direct payments to farmers are likely to be eliminated. “We have to simplify existing programs, we need to reduce redundant provisions, and we need to put a premium on creating innovative solutions to address our current and future problems.”

It would be a shame, McFerson said, if the SCRI turns out to be limited to the current five-year window. Though the funding provided through the initiative was significant, many worthwhile projects had to be turned down. McFerson estimates that double or triple the amount could have been spent on worthwhile projects if the money had been available.

“We’re very much hoping we can keep the SCRI intact.”