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Was the Tree Fruit Technology Roadmap a success or failure?

Around ten years ago, this novel research initiative boldly declared that the tree fruit industry would not be profitable in the global marketplace unless it delivered the highest quality fruit to ­consumers and reduced production costs 30 percent.

I will concede that overall production and handling costs have not been reduced at all, let alone by 30 percent. However, I would assert that the overall quality of fruit and fruit products delivered to the consumer has never been better. I believe the national tree fruit industry is now committed to the vision of the Roadmap and its insistence on delivering the consumer a consistently superior product.

Kudos go to industry for its increasing adoption of new technologies and ­application of science-based knowledge to enhance production, storage, and processing operations. Their investment in new genetics, new horticultural practices, new crop protection programs, and new postharvest tactics is paying off.

Growing and delivering target fruit pays off because it meets market demands, creates value, and delivers higher returns, thus reducing unit costs along the supply chain. Ultimately, what matters most is not the total cost, but profitability.

Credit for those new technologies and knowledge that enable industry innovation goes to the researchers and extension professionals across the country who have answered the Roadmap’s call to address technical barriers through a systems approach focused on stakeholder priorities.

The Roadmap played a significant role in the creation of a common vision, strategic research priorities, and a positive focus among agricultural scientists and research institutions involved with tree fruit, not only in the Pacific Northwest, but nationally. Equally important, the Roadmap helped generate funding opportunities of a sufficient magnitude to address industry problems.

Similar initiatives of other specialty crops like berries, citrus, and wine and grape, joining with trade associations, contributed to the broad Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, which had a significant influence on the landmark 2008 Farm Bill. That federal legislation, for the first time, created opportunities for specialty crop scientists to seek significant amounts of funding in competitive programs like the Specialty Crop Research Initiative.

In its four years of existence, the SCRI has funded dozens of projects addressing stakeholder priorities in tree fruit and other specialty crops. In addition, the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program has provided funding opportunities for further dozens of projects. While these achievements are threatened by the current congressional ­showdown on the budget in general and the Farm Bill in particular, it is difficult to imagine that specialty crops will ever again be considered “minor crops” or that scientists working on apple, berries, cherry, grape, hops, peach, pear, potato, or zucchini will not have an opportunity to compete in a peer-reviewed process with their colleagues in field crops or livestock. This is a paradigm shift of cosmic proportions for which the Tree Fruit Technology Roadmap can claim some credit.

Furthermore, within the Pacific Northwest, the Roadmap catalyzed a whole range of investment in tree fruit research and extension activities. Over a dozen new scientists have been recruited into new positions to work on tree fruit. These scientists have successfully competed for millions of dollars in funding at the federal and state level, building a legacy that will continue to pay off through their careers and redound to the benefit of our tree fruit industry.

Referendum

It is gratifying for me to point to the recent passage of a referendum by Washington apple and pear growers to impose an assessment that will raise an endowment of $27 million over the next eight years to invest further in research and extension with Washington State ­University, our most significant research partner. This endowment, the largest ever in WSU history, will be invested to take research and extension activities in Washington to the next level, benefiting both current and future generations of our industry.

While not a direct endorsement of the Tree Fruit Technology Roadmap, this far-sighted action by the Washington pome fruit industry certainly carries its vision forward.

Of course, any such campaign, waged over ten years, is not the work of a single individual. Credit for the initial Roadmap concept and foundational work goes to Dr. Fran Pierce, former director of the WSU Center for Precision Agricultural and Automated Systems. Early stalwarts in Roadmap activities came from across the country: Dr. Herb Aldwinckle, Cornell University, Geneva, New York; Phil Baugher, Adams Country Nursery, ­Pennsylvania; Clark Seavert, Oregon State University; Dr. Dariusz Swietlik, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania. At the federal level, Drs. Scott Cameron with the ARS and Tom Berwick and Dan Schmoldt of the USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture were early supporters. ­Without the tireless efforts of Jim ­Cranney, then at U.S. Apple Association, the Roadmap would have never been realized. Finally, Washington industry leaders like Dave Allan, Tom Butler, Charlie de La Chapelle, Jim Doornink, Rob Lynch, and Brent Milne kept the Roadmap on track.

Is the Roadmap a success?  It failed to lower production costs, but our tree fruit industry undeniably has more promising and profitable days ahead because we came together ten years ago to commit to a bold and innovative vision for our preferred collective future. Consumers can also look forward to continued access to  safe, affordable, healthful, and delicious fruit and fruit products.