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The Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission is aiming to take some of the guesswork and risk out of planting new fruit varieties.

It is developing a network of test sites in different geographic areas, where advanced selections can be evaluated in a more scientific way than in the past, said commission Manager Jim McFerson.

"What we’re trying to do as a commission is work with the researchers and consultants to develop a more expedited testing system."

McFerson said the tree fruit industry in the Pacific Northwest supports the development of improved cultivars, but one of the main bottlenecks has been gathering enough accurate data for producers to make decisions. Advanced testing needs to be done in realistic commercial conditions, he said. "And that’s rarely done, especially in tree fruit, because of the time, cost, and expertise needed."

In many cases, growers plant new varieties, knowing little about how they will perform because they are inadequately tested, he said. "So, someone’s got to figure it out, and the developers and the nursery industry have not done a very good job in the past because of the limitations. It’s expensive."

McFerson said to think of Washington as one apple-growing area with the same conditions is "patently absurd," so the commission has carefully selected test sites that represent different soils, climates, and harvest seasons. It currently has six test locations in Washington and Oregon, and is collaborating with Oregon Sweet Cherry Commission.

Optimal

Dr. Bruce Barritt, apple breeder at WSU, said it’s important to test varieties in different areas because there will be certain locations where they grow optimally. For example, when a Fuji apple is grown in Washington State, it will have a sugar level of about 16° Brix and a fair amount of red color by the time it is ready to harvest. The color and the internal quality are about at their optimum at the same time.

But a Fuji apple in California tends to mature internally before it develops color because it’s not cool enough for the red color to develop.

Similarly, Honeycrisp grown in a cool area of Washington is likely to have optimal color and internal quality at the same time, whereas in hot areas, such as the Tri-Cities, the apple might be soft by the time the external appearance is good. And there are a few places where Red Delicious is at its optimum, Barritt said, but in 90 percent of the places it’s grown, the quality is not good.

"If you want to get maximum quality for the consumer, you should not grow the same apple everywhere," Barritt said, who expects that in the future, more varieties will be grown in narrower environments to be sure of having optimum quality.

The commission provides financial support to both the cherry breeding program and the apple breeding program at Washington State University. Previously, the apple and cherry breeding programs operated separately and had their own evaluation systems. Now, their activities are more coordinated, McFerson said, and the same sites could be used to evaluate apple, pear, and cherry scions, as well as rootstocks.

Evaluations at the test sites are coordinated by a partnership of the Research Commission and researchers working directly with grower cooperators, with the commission helping to gather data. McFerson sees many advantages to working collaboratively in tree fruit breeding programs, from the genomics all the way through to the testing.

The aim is to do more thorough testing in a shorter time frame, so that varieties can be made available to growers more quickly.

"The ultimate goal is we will have a reliable source of information for our industry and for research programs that we can use to make better decisions," McFerson said. "It’s always a calculated risk any time you’re putting the kind of money growers have to into a new variety. You’re risking tens of thousands of dollars per acre, so the more risk we can take out of that decision, the better off we will be. We’re not eliminating the risk, but we’re certainly making that decision more straightforward."