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Washington State tree fruit growers will be asked to pay a special research assessment to strengthen research and extension programs at Washington State University.

The university has launched a major fundraising campaign with a goal of raising a billion dollars overall to fund priority programs. Of the total, $42 million would be specifically for its tree fruit programs. Dr. Jay Brunner, director of WSU’s Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee, said that feedback from the tree fruit industry shows that producers value the partnership with WSU and recognize the return on their investment in research.

When asked about additional research funding, most industry members said they would prefer to contribute to a fundraising effort in which the whole industry participated, since everyone stands to benefit.

As the university cannot collect assessments, the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission is proposing to levy a special assessment equal to the current research assessment, with the goal of raising $32 million within the next eight years. If the money is raised sooner, the assessment will end then.

Growers will have the opportunity to vote on the special assessment in a referendum that will be held this year, with apple, pear, cherry, and stone fruit growers voting separately. Cherry growers currently pay $4 a ton to the Research Commission, and apple and stone fruit growers $1 a ton. Pear growers, whose regular research assessment is collected by the federal marketing order for pears, also pay around $1 a ton. Before running the referendum, the Research Commission must assess the impact of the proposed increase on small businesses.

WSU is hoping that allied industries will provide the other $10 million for the Campaign for Tree Fruit. Northwest Farm Credit Services has already donated $500,000 to be shared between the tree fruit and wine campaigns.

Endowments

The $32 million to be raised through the assessment is intended to go to three ­endowment funds:

  • A $12-million endowment (generating $480,000 in annual income from interest) will fund six research positions focusing on specific high-priority areas: horticulture, plant physiology, molecular biology, integrated pest management, soil ecology, and engineering and automation. Currently, the Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee has seven faculty positions, down from 11 three years ago. Dr. Gene Kupferman, postharvest specialist, and Dr. Larry Schrader, plant physiologist, retired at the end of 2010.

The endowment will cover research funds for the endowed chairs but not salaries.  Once the position is established, WSU is obligated to cover the salaries and benefits of the faculty member. Brunner said the campaign is a “one-time deal” to ask for money for the endowments that will continue to work for the industry going forward.

  •  A second $12-million endowment will fund five positions in information and technology transfer who will work under a new tree fruit team leader. These new untenured positions will augment the university’s extension and outreach work and will not replace existing extension faculty. They will do applied research but also work directly with the industry, Brunner said. “It will ensure that information gets out in a timely manner.”

Resources for extension in Washington have been declining. There are currently 3.7 county-based extension positions dedicated to tree fruit, including a vacant position in Yakima that should be filled soon. Each extension educator covers around 70,000 acres. Brunner said that the positions created through the endowment would enable WSU to deal with important emerging issues, such as new pests and diseases and food safety.

  •  An $8-million endowment (generating $320,000 in annual income) will ­provide about half the operating funds for research orchards at the Wenatchee and Prosser research and extension centers, with the other half coming from state funding.

The $10 million that the university hopes to raise from companies associated with the industry, such as packers and suppliers, would be used to create an endowment fund for student fellowships and internships, to improve fruit handling and storage capacity at the research and extension centers, and to develop research orchards. Brunner said it is important to have modern orchards so that the research conducted in them has direct relevance to the industry. Sunrise Orchard, near Wenatchee, has about 35 acres of new research plantings and the university is ready to develop another 20 to 25 acres when the funding is available, he said.

Tremendous benefit

Bruce Allen, a member of the WSU Tree Fruit Leadership Team, said that while it might seem like a huge amount of money that growers are being asked to ­contribute, they stand to recoup their investment quickly.

For example, the owner of a 50-acre orchard producing 50 bins per acre (around 20 tons per acre) would pay an additional assessment of $1,000 per year. If, because of research, they were able to save one spray or make more efficient use of water or fertilizer, it could cover that additional assessment.

Allen, a fruit grower and packer at Yakima, Washington, said public funding cuts are hitting almost every type of program, and those industries that are able and willing to make a significant commitment to enhance WSU’s programs will have the advantage.

“To me, it’s pretty cut and dried,” he said. “There are two ways this industry can win. It has the potential to be a huge economic benefit to anybody who’s going to be in the industry in the next ten years, let alone thirty years. And the industries that step up to these challenges are the ones that can get a leg up on those ­industries that don’t.”

Norm Gutzwiler, a cherry grower at Wenatchee Heights and a board member of the Washington State Fruit Commission, said it is a difficult time to ask growers to pay more money, particularly in the cherry industry, which has gone through a number of tough years and could be impacted by freeze damage this season.

“When you have tough times in the fruit industry, it becomes a little more difficult for people to try to pay another assessment,” he said, “but we have to be able to stay in business long term, and we can’t do that without good research.”