Dr. Des Layne, Washington State University’s new and first tree fruit extension team leader, began work on February 1 with no modest ambition in mind.
“I am eager to help the WSU folks raise the profile of their online presence, to add new content, and to create the highest quality tree-fruit resources that are available any place in the world,” he told Good Fruit Grower.
The university created Layne’s position last year after Washington apple and pear growers voted to pay a special assessment to fund research at WSU. It is the first of several endowed chairs relating to tree fruit that will be created as the funds are collected from growers over the next eight years or so.
The tree fruit industry Layne has joined differs greatly from the one he left in South Carolina, where he was state extension horticulture program leader at Clemson University. Peach is the primary crop grown there, and the state’s total fruit industry has a farmgate value of about $100 million, compared with the $1.25 billion value of Washington’s apple-dominated industry.
But Layne says he has a good working knowledge of apple, cherry, and pear horticulture and pest management. “I’m up to speed with all those crops. As far as what’s going on in Washington and the specific needs of the growers—that’s what I need to know.”
While a horticulture student at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, he assisted his father, Richard, who was a peach breeder with Agriculture Canada. His graduate work at Michigan State University focused on orchard management and environmental stress of tart cherries. In 1997, he joined Clemson, where his research focus was on orchard systems management and new cultivar evaluation and development.
Layne was named Outstanding Extension Educator of the Year by the American Society for Horticultural Science in 2008. Two years ago, he launched an educational Web site called Everything About Peaches, which the society named the best Web site in 2011. He has also created more than 50 educational videos that can be found on YouTube.
Enhancing the Washington industry’s online resources is just one of his goals. First of all, he’ll spend several months meeting with industry leaders, WSU faculty, and members of the Tree Fruit Endowment Committee (an industry group that advises WSU on how the special assessment funds should be allocated).
He’ll also visit growers—not just the most progressive ones—to find out what their specific needs are in terms of tree fruit extension and outreach. He wants to see the full spectrum of orchards, so he can identify opportunities to help growers who might not be currently making money to use technology and educational programs to become more efficient and more profitable, if they’re so inclined.
“I want to get to know the people to understand their issues, as diverse as they may be, to find creative ways to address their needs, given whatever resources we have, and to capitalize on the skills of the people who are already here,” he said.
Layne will work with WSU’s three tree fruit extension specialists—Tim Smith, Karen Lewis, and Gwen Hoheisel—to develop a strategic plan and set priorities to represent the best interests of the industry before moving forward, he said. WSU plans to create up to five new positions in information and technology transfer, in addition to Layne’s, as a result of the special assessment.
Layne hopes that WSU will hire people who have a heart for extension and really want to serve the industry.
“Extension people are different than a lot of others,” he said. “They do this because they love the industry, they love fruit, and they’re committed to it. My impression of the folks at WSU who work with the tree fruit industry is they get it.”
Layne, who is based at the Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee, envisions that he will work closely with researchers as well as extension faculty. One of his strong interests has always been cultivar development, and he’s interested in working with WSU’s apple breeder Dr. Kate Evans and cherry breeder Dr. Nnadozie Oraguzie to test new selections. Though WSU doesn’t have a pear scion breeding program, he’d like to work with growers who are interested in testing new pear rootstocks and varieties. “Unless we have good cultivars, we don’t have anything to market,” he commented.
Nowadays, most research projects, whether local or national, require an extension component, he said, but often extension is the weak link. That’s not to say extension itself is weak, he stressed, but sometimes results of research don’t reach the growers as they’re supposed to or the extension expertise is brought in too late. He’d like to see tighter connections between research and extension right from the development of the project all the way to the end when the results are disseminated.
Ultimately, Layne hopes to create solutions to growers’ problems so they see tangible benefits in terms of better returns, reduced costs, or improved marketing ability that stem directly from what extension has done.
Layne, 49, said that, as a full professor, he’s already achieved his academic goals. “Now, I can focus on serving the industry to the greatest extent possible, and I don’t have to worry about jumping over a lot of academic hurdles,” he said.
“I am just so impressed with the commitment that the tree fruit industry has to partnering with the university so their needs can be addressed through research and extension,” he added. “This is a perfect model for other states. It’s really unprecedented in tree fruit as I know it, to be able to come into a position where I have the resources I need to be excellent and work with excellent people and an excellent industry. It is very exciting, and I’m eager to get busy.”