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How do we utilize science-based knowledge to implement horticultural practices, make proper management decisions, and develop the optimal orchard? This question never grows old, nor can it be answered in the same way by every grower, given the accelerating rate of change in the global tree fruit market and the similarly accelerating rate of change in horticultural innovation.

This eternal question is addressed in the current issue of the Good Fruit Grower. It kicks off 2009 quite appropriately and should stimulate readers to read cover to cover not only in this particular issue, but through those remaining in 2009, and even recent years of back issues. The story of innovation in the tree fruit industry is an old one, and the Good Fruit Grower documents that story as well as any publication out there.

This question of the optimal orchard has certainly spawned seemingly endless discussion in the scientific world, in trade publications, among extension workers, and in the orchard itself, as tree fruit producers attempt to piece together the great puzzle of the perfect planting system. The sheer amount and complexity of the information available to address the question is overwhelming, so it is useful to simplify the problem by breaking it down into components.

This puzzle concept was used by Dr. Bruce Barritt (who recently retired from leading Washington State University’s apple improvement program) to focus attention on the key components of an individual orchard block: rootstock and scion genotype; tree type and quality; tree density and arrangement; irrigation and support systems; pruning, training, and crop protection practices.

Additionally, Dr. Barritt emphasized the need to integrate those various pieces not only in relation to each other, but also within the context of the grower’s specific resources of land, labor, and capital. Finally, he, and other scientists, have routinely urged the grower to step back and consider an individual block holistically, as a system and as part of a dynamic business plan.

No wonder planning and planting a single new block can leave growers feeling they have been blasted by a pomological tsunami. And that doesn’t even consider the proliferation of new scion and rootstock genotypes, managed or unmanaged, that must figure into the decision and significantly affect how the pieces of the planting system puzzle fit. Thus, the apparently simple question is still frustratingly hard to answer unequivocally. One thing we do know: More research is needed!

Perhaps another answer to the question should be considered: The optimal orchard is one that is profitable and sustainable. Essentially, that is the approach the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission has taken in defining its mission. We manage our growers’ dollars in a portfolio addressing industry priorities with a range of near- and long-term research and extension activities. We support good science and good extension, but the bottom line is relevance to the Washington tree fruit industry and impact on profitability and sustainability.

When it comes to horticulture and the optimal orchard, tree genetics and horticultural management in a specific orchard block establish many profitability parameters, but clearly the postorchard supply chain leading to the consumer’s eating experience will have much to do with revenues return to the grower. Solving the planting system puzzle can only be done in the context of satisfying the consumer, which requires individual growers not only to consider the specifics of an orchard block, but the handling and marketing of the fruit produced in that block. It is essential to work towards an optimal orchard by lowering unit costs of production. However, to achieve and sustain profitability the fruit must consistently satisfy consumer demands. How to do that, while taking into consideration the specific location, resources, and challenges of an individual grower?

I believe the Washington tree fruit industry, and in reality the worldwide industry, have never been this well-positioned to design and implement the optimal orchard. Good Fruit Grower magazines have been replete with guidance on tools, resources, and management. Subscribers can access on-line issues back to 1995. You are only a few key strokes away from over 200 articles on each of the components of the planting system puzzle: rootstock and scion genotype; tree type and quality; tree density and arrangement; irrigation and support systems; pruning, training, and crop protection practices (www.good fruit.com/issues.php).

In addition, the Research Commission Web site has a searchable database of all funded projects back to 1997 (www.tree fruitresearch.com/searchable-database/). Washington State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service Web sites are also rich sources of applied and basic work that can contribute to an informed design and implementation of the optimal orchard.

Even better for Washington producers, we are benefiting from an unprecedented investment by our state and federal government in tree fruits and specialty crops that has brought new researchers and extension workers to the Pacific Northwest. The December 2008 issue of Good Fruit Grower featured four new university faculty who will be applying their talents to various aspects of the optimal orchard: Karina Gallardo at WSU-Wenatchee and Mykal Taylor at WSU-Pullman in ag economics; Todd Einhorn and Peter Shearer with Oregon State University at Hood River in plant physiology and crop protection, respectively. These outstanding young scientists join other WSU, OSU, and USDA-ARS scientists who are increasingly successful in winning state and federal funding, most notably in the Farm Bill’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative, in which over $3 million were awarded to Pacific Northwest scientists and many more millions awarded to scientists in other states who are collaborating in projects with direct impact on our tree fruit industry.

Even with this burgeoning research and extension capacity, we will not likely solve the question of the optimal orchard. Nonetheless, we will be investigating the critical components more effectively than ever, looking at the whole system, and bringing those research and extension activities more vigorously to our tree fruit producers and processors.

As Bruce Grim, the new executive director of the Washington State Horticultural Association, indicated in the December Good Fruit Grower, our tree fruit industry needs organizations that "provide direction and leadership as the successive waves of innovation sweep over our industry."

We are lucky to have in this industry a publication that does that, by so effectively providing a communication channel helping to solve the planting system puzzle.