The top tree fruit industry in the nation requires and deserves one of the nation’s elite research and education programs. When I arrived at Washington State University six years ago, I indicated that tree fruit programs would receive a disproportionate share of investment, and that is exactly what has happened. Despite severe budget challenges, WSU has continued to advance its tree fruit initiative.
Over the past five years, we have:
- Doubled annual expenditures on tree fruit research
- Created and filled eight new faculty positions and
- Invested in several outstanding new facilities
Achieving legitimate world-class prominence requires four critical elements:
1) Outstanding faculty
2) State-of-the-art facilities
3) Robust funding and
4) Fruitful industry partnerships
I often refer to these as the four Fs.
Outstanding research and education programs begin and end with outstanding faculty. Over the past five years, we have continued to add to an already excellent group of faculty with programs dedicated to tree fruit. These hirings have focused on strategic priorities and thrust WSU into the forefront in several critical research areas.
Horticultural genomics. The hiring of Dr. Cameron Peace, Dr. Amit Dhingra, and Dr. Dorrie Main in 2006, immediately established WSU as a global leader in tree fruit genomics. This cadre of faculty provides an important link between WSU’s world-renowned strength in basic plant sciences to genetic solutions for tree fruit producers.
Tree fruit breeding. Recent investments in tree fruit breeding will assure that Washington producers have access to genetics bred for the state’s unique growing conditions and fruit quality to compete in today’s competitive global market. Dr. Kate Evans (apples) and Dr. Nnadozie Oraguzie (cherries) are making outstanding progress, and the “fruits of their labor” will be seen in the form of new variety releases in the years to come.
Automation and mechanization. Labor cost and availability represents one of the grand challenges facing the industry today and into the future. WSU was successful in bringing one of the top automation engineers in the nation, Dr. Qin Zhang, to lead its Center for Precision Agriculture and Automation Systems. Zhang, along with the recently hired Dr. Manoj Karkee, have assembled a team of scientists working on automation solutions for tree fruit producers.
Agro-meteorology and decision aids. WSU maintains the largest agricultural weather network in the United States with over 135 stations largely distributed in tree fruit production areas. We recruited Dr. Gerritt Hoogenboom to manage the AgWeatherNet and, most importantly, to use this weather data to develop decision aids for the state’s producers. This work complements the highly successful Decision Aid System (DAS) developed by Dr. Vince Jones and his colleagues at the WSU Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee.
Located in Wenatchee, Dr. Karina Gallardo has had an immediate impact on bringing economic analysis into our tree fruit program.
It is worth noting that eight of the nine new hires mentioned above are new positions, not replacements. It is also noteworthy that most are experienced, midcareer faculty who have brought prominent and robust research programs and experience to the Northwest. Also, most of these faculty are located in Prosser and Wenatchee to assure their programs bring state-of-the-art research to the orchards of Washington State.
Adding new facilities and modernizing existing facilities represent continual challenges to advancing our research initiatives. A prominent addition to our infrastructure was the purchase of the Sunrise Orchard near Wenatchee in 2007. This 150-acre research facility assures that our research is being conducted in orchard systems with contemporary architecture and genetics that emulate the most advanced orchards of the state.
Funding for tree fruit research and education has increased dramatically over the past six years. We estimate that total funding allocated to tree fruit research and education at WSU has grown from a little over $6 million in 2005 to over $12 million today. Some of this increase reflects the investments noted above, but the vast majority comes from the success of our faculty in procuring extramural funding. Of particular note is WSU’s success in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Specialty Crops Research Initiative, a new competitive pool of funds totaling over $40 million per year that first became available in 2007. WSU has been the most successful university in the nation in competing for these funds.
The final, and not to be overlooked, element of the four Fs, is fruitful industry partnerships. WSU has a close, constructive partnership with the state’s tree fruit industry. Obviously, an important component of this relationship is financial support for research projects. However, equally important is our close collaboration in setting priorities and developing research and education programs. It is easy to partner with an industry that already has developed a vision that clearly articulates how research and education fits into its future. We look forward to building on this solid foundation of success.
Dr. Bernardo is dean of the College of Agriculture, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences and director of WSU Extension.