The tree fruit industry is at a tipping point as leaders try to re-engineer it to address the challenges of today’s economy, observes Washington State University administrator Dr. Dan Bernardo. He explains that those challenges—labor availability, global competitiveness, increasing production costs, and increasing demand by consumers for high-quality products—all require research-based solutions.
Other nations, such as Australia, China, and various South American countries, are throwing huge amounts of funding at research and education in an attempt to capture the market, Bernardo noted during a recent WSU Fruit School covering the topic of Competitive Orchard Systems.
"Our response needs to be oriented towards producing the highest-quality product possible and developing cost-reducing technologies to narrow the
gap between the cost of production in Washington State and those competing countries."
Bernardo, who is dean of WSU’s College of Agriculture, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences, said the top tree-fruit industry in the nation deserves the
highest quality research and outreach program, and WSU is striving to deliver that.
A truly world-class research and education program requires: faculty, state-of-the-art facilities, progressive academic programs, and a fruitful partnership with industry, he said.
And such a program should cover the complete research supply chain, from molecules to market.
In the past few years, WSU has put together a tree-fruit genomics team that is one of the top, if not the top, research teams addressing rosaceous genomics in the United States, Bernardo said. Faculty include bioinformaticist Dr. Dorrie Main, geneticist Dr. Cameron Peace, and molecular biologist Dr. Amit Dhingra.
Genomics involves the study and interpretation of gene sequences in living organisms. It enables scientists to unlock the genetic sequences in the plant genome and to understand how genes translate into certain characteristics in the plants, Bernardo explained. The WSU team recently announced that it would be leading a worldwide effort to sequence the apple genome.
With genomics tools, new fruit varieties can be developed faster than they have been traditionally.
"We believe this is the next major technological breakthrough that will revitalize and is revitalizing most industries within plant sciences," Bernardo said.
The first release from WSU’s apple-breeding program, which began in 1994, is imminent, he said. The university is hiring a new apple breeder to succeed Dr. Bruce Barritt when he retires this year, as well as a new stone-fruit breeder, who will be located at the Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser.
WSU is also working to deliver new tools and technologies to aid in orchard management. The Washington AgWeatherNet received state funding to promote the technology and now has 85 weather stations around the state, primarily in the agricultural areas of central Washington.
Entomologists at the Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee have developed a Web-based Decision Aid System for orchardists that uses AgWeatherNet data.
A new agricultural technology facility has been built at Prosser with the goal of making some significant and quick contributions in the area of automation and mechanization, Bernardo said.
WSU has been investing in the areas of sensory evaluation, marketing, and economics. Consumers are driving what producers are doing in their orchards and farms, Bernardo pointed out, and WSU has developed a sensory program led by Dr. Caroline Ross that will help assess varieties that come out of its breeding programs and find out which varieties will be attractive to consumers.
WSU is also reinvigorating its agricultural economics program and is hiring a horticultural economist, who will be located in Wenatchee, but will be a conduit back to the agricultural economics department on the main campus at Pullman.
"We’re making some good strides in an area that has not received enough attention at WSU perhaps in the last decade," he said.
A new facility is planned in Wenatchee that will include a fruit-quality-evaluation laboratory and cold storage for experiments on fruit handling and simulated facilities for packing and processing of fruit.
In addition, the university needs to have progressive academic programs to produce well-trained graduates for the tree fruit industry, Bernardo said. It has developed a bachelor of science degree in agriculture and food systems with the goal of producing the types of leaders that the industry needs in the future. The first graduates will leave the program in about a year.
Bernardo said WSU has been developing its programs in collaboration with the tree fruit industry, which is one of the most progressive industries that WSU works with.
The tree fruit industry has also helped the university gain support from the state and federal legislatures for funding requests. Last year, WSU got the largest infusion of new money for ag research in some years, largely as a result of the efforts of industry stakeholders who got behind this unified agriculture initiative, he said.
The industry has also provided research grants, private gifts, and gifts in kind, such as materials for the development of the new research orchard near Wenatchee.
"Research is a long-term investment in the future of the industry, and no industry in this state has a better handle on this than the tree fruit industry," he said.
Asked what the university’s plans are in terms of extension efforts to disseminate the results of the research, Bernardo said WSU has a great team of county-based extension educators to deliver programs to the industry, but extension needs to change.
"I believe that extension needs to look quite different than it has in the past," he said.
As the industry becomes more complex with smaller numbers of people involved, the level of sophistication of the educational programs that are required will continue to increase.
"I also believe that technology is going to play a significant role in getting this information out there," he said.
Electronic delivery will allow producers to get the information they need on their schedule and from the faculty member who is actually conducting the research, he added. "Our aim is to continue to ramp up our outreach capabilities, but a lot more of that is going to be using nontraditional methods outside small workshops and meetings."
The Fruit School was presented by WSU Extension and the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission.