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Washington State University’s new research orchard needs industry support, says Dr. Jay Brunner.

Washington State University will hold a field day on July 22 to showcase its new research orchard located at Sunrise Lane between Wenatchee and Quincy.

WSU bought Sunrise Orchard in 2006 to replace the research blocks at the Tree Fruit Research Center in Wenatchee, which is in what has become a residential area. Dr. Jay Brunner, executive director of the center, said this is the last year that the old orchard will be used for research. The new orchard, which is much bigger, is better suited to modern research, which often requires large-scale experiments.

Sunrise Orchard had 150 acres of orchard (including 80 acres of certified organic orchard) when WSU purchased it and 137 acres of undeveloped land, some of which was designated for buildings. The university has been gradually replanting and converting it into a state-of-the-art orchard that will allow scientists to conduct research relevant to the modern tree fruit industry.

Brent Milne of Entiat, Washington, who serves on an industry advisory committee, said research conducted at the orchard will be crucial to the future of the industry over the next 20 to 30 years. It’s the place where new growing techniques and new cultivars will be developed.

“Without research, this industry’s going nowhere.” he said. “We always have to have research, and that’s the place to do it.”

Agricultural businesses helped provide infrastructure, such as irrigation system, deer fencing, electrical supply, and equipment compound. The Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission allocated $500,000 and staff time for development of the orchard, and nurseries and fruit companies donated trees.

Since 2007, close to 30 acres of apples, pears, and cherries have been replanted, mainly for research projects in horticulture, plant pathology, and insect pest control. Brunner said the plantings have been designed for multiple uses. The trees are on Malling 9 rootstocks and are planted three feet apart with ten feet between rows. Selections from WSU’s apple breeding program have also been planted at the orchard.

Advisory team

An orchard management advisory team made up of Milne, Dave Piepel, Tory Schmidt, and Tom Auvil, has been meeting frequently to advise on the management of the new high-density plantings and identify potential sources of support for the orchard. Milne said industry donations of equipment, trees, trellising supplies, etc., are critical at a time when Washington State University is facing large budget cuts.

The university is working with the tree fruit industry to develop a long-term vision for how the orchard will be developed.

One of the challenges for the immediate future is to continue to develop the infrastructure in terms of completing the equipment housing and maintenance areas, Brunner said. There are plans, if resources are available, to install modular buildings that scientists could use as labs to process field samples rather than driving almost 20 miles to Wenatchee. Advisory committee members have recommended that an irrigation pond be installed to store water from the river early in the season or during peak use times.

The remaining 65 acres of organic apples are leased to an orchard management company, and that arrangement will likely continue for five years, unless a major grant allows more of the orchard to be redeveloped, Brunner said.

WSU originally provided $150,000 a year for operation and maintenance of the orchard, though that has been cut by $10,000 for the next biennium. The funds are used mainly for labor and supplies. With less funding than expected, the research center will have to prioritize where it uses labor and depend more on research program funds to cover part of the development of new blocks and their operation and maintenance, Brunner said. Income from the organic block will likely vary from year to year and will be used to cover shortfalls in funding for equipment or for high-priority projects.

Funds designated to the university from the estate of Lilly and Grady Auvil have been used to buy a low-profile tractor with cab for the new high-density plantings, as well as a weed sprayer, an all-terrain vehicle to pull the weed sprayer, and a large-capacity dump trailer. However, more equipment is needed.

“We’re stretched,” Brunner said. “All of our equipment is pretty old. We need at least one more tractor and two new sprayers this year to be in a position to manage the orchard properly in the future.”