Predictions and promises are easy enough, as long as they’re vague. On the other hand, few people really remember the predictions, so why not take a shot and even get specific? Here are some of mine, for the next ten years in the Pacific Northwest tree fruit industry.
Some things won’t change: labor quantity and quality; water, land, and air resource issues; and regulatory and market demands. While the political pace may remain sluggish, societal changes will be fast and furious, hard to predict, and hard to follow.
Instead of reacting to these megatrends, however, we will strategically develop and implement science-based technologies and solutions. This is an easy and obvious call to me—a continuation of what we have been doing over the past ten years. The Pacific Northwest tree fruit industries have very successfully delivered to domestic and foreign consumers products that are more consistently delicious, safe, and healthful. Today’s consumer enjoys higher quality and value than ever before, at prices that are unbelievably affordable by any measure (but still don’t return sufficiently to the grower). Emerging technologies continue to enhance our ability to produce ever higher packouts of target fruit, while handling and shipping innovations bring those products efficiently to market.
Of course, the challenge of the next ten years is to not simply maintain that innovative edge, but to enhance it—producing, handling and delivering to consumers fruit products alluring enough to push per-capita consumption four to five times higher than currently.
Meeting the challenge will require innovative research and Extension of unprecedented magnitude, based upon technologies derived from an increasingly tighter, regional partnership among researchers, private sector technology providers, and the tree fruit industry in the Pacific Northwest.
Researchers and Extension providers will be working in a consciously systematic approach. Excellence in the traditional ag disciplines, whether ag engineering, entomology, food science, genetics, physiology, plant pathology, soil science, will remain important, but transdiciplinary expertise in ag economics, information technology, psychology, and sociology will be brought into the mix. Research projects will be evaluated based more on their impact rather than their scientific glow. Extension will be based on fee for service, or possibly privatized.
Land-grant departments will be supplemented, then replaced by mission-oriented centers. At the national level, the new National Institute for Food and Agriculture will become much more than a cosmetic makeover of the USDA’s transitional research structure and transform land-grant and USDA Agricultural Research Service programs. We will consider the entrance of “foodies” and their ilk into the ag system not as a threat, but as an opportunity.
Here at home, Washington State University will continue its spectacular ascendancy in specialty crop research and extension, especially in tree fruit, recruiting world-class faculty, and dramatically increasing its undergraduate and graduate student enrollment. Research and Extension centers in Wenatchee and Prosser will add faculty and facilities to become the research, educational, and extension foci of the College of Agriculture, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences. Maybe they could change the name back to Ag College?
The first products of research funded through programs like WSU’s Emerging Research Issues, the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, and the Specialty Crops Research Initiative will reach commercialization. The National Tree Fruit Technology Roadmap will really start to pay off. We will not only know the DNA sequences of our tree fruit crops, but directly apply genomics and genetic information to generate waves of new scion and rootstock cultivars of apple and cherry (maybe even pear!). For the first time, orchard genetics will be specifically developed for modern orchard systems in the Pacific Northwest. Genetically modified organism technologies will gradually find their way into commerce, but only if modified traits are of significant commercial value.
New cultivars will be horticulturally and environmentally friendlier, incorporating pest and disease resistance as well as architectural and bearing habits amenable to more efficient culture and harvest. Their fruits will explode with incredible new flavors, aromas, textures, and colors. Phytonutrient mania will have subsided as we simply eat more of these inherently healthful fruit products, but nutrigenomics will tailor diets optimized for individual health needs.
The amounts of water, nutrient, and chemical inputs required for protection and growth will be drastically reduced and their timing optimized as we utilize physiology and engineering to prescriptively and precisely deliver inputs via spray, drip, injection, or carried on nanocreatures.
Engineering solutions will be aggressively brought to bear on Pacific Northwest tree fruit. No, we will not see widespread robotic harvesting in the next ten years. Yes, we will see a whole range of new mechanical assist and automated applications: mechanical bloom and fruit thinning (both random and targeted), autonomous sprayers and mowers, automatic pest and natural enemy monitors, in-field just-in-time packing, and waterless and pneumatic handling systems.
Information technologies will deliver hardware and software solutions as well. Individual fruit and buds will be traceable and manipulated accordingly. Crop estimation will accurately predict crop load and assess individual fruit size and quality. Consumers will scan an individual fruit to download a video of its producer.
Within the tree fruit industry, a new generation of leaders will emerge to face the ever-quickening pace in the global marketplace. One thing won’t change, however: They will need to be just as impatient, bright, hard-working, and passionate about tree fruit, their environment, and their community as our current and previous generations. Thanks to them, we have the next ten years to contemplate with confidence and resolve.
Finally, and predictably, I am certain that more research is needed. We face enormous challenges in many areas, both old and new: soil health and replant issues, microsite-adapted genotypes, crop load management, heat and light stress, biocontrol. I am equally certain that the new generation of researchers and Extension providers will build on the successes of their predecessors. Thanks to all those who have done so much in the past ten years to bring science-based knowledge and technologies to our industry. I look forward to your continuing project reports in 2020.