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When WSU established its Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee almost 60 years ago, it was in a fruit- growing area. Urban encroachment has forced the center to relocate its research orchards. Jay Brunner is shown at the original orchard a

When WSU established its Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee almost 60 years ago, it was in a fruit- growing area. Urban encroachment has forced the center to relocate its research orchards. Jay Brunner is shown at the original orchard a

After a decade-long search, Washington State University’s Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center has found a new site for its research orchards.

The center and its existing 40 acres of research orchard are located in a residential area along Western Avenue, on the western edge of Wenatchee. When the center was established in 1937, it was surrounded by orchards. Now, it’s feeling the squeeze from urban encroachment.

While the center’s offices and labs will stay where they are, new research orchards will be established at an orchard that WSU is purchasing about 12 miles south of East Wenatchee just off the Quincy highway.

Dr. Don Elfving launched the search for a new site ten years ago when he was superintendent of the center. Current director Dr. Jay Brunner has continued the quest, with input from the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission and industry representatives.

The new research orchard had to be between 150 and 300 acres, and at a price within the standard range for agricultural land. It had to be within a short traveling distance for scientists, and it had to be in a horticultural growing area, so the research results would be representative of commercial orchards, yet isolated from commercial orchards because some of the experiments result in high pest populations.

The search eventually led to Sunrise Orchard, a 150-acre orchard managed by Stemilt Management, Inc. The site includes 100 acres of unplanted land where buildings for storing equipment or a dry lab could be constructed. The sale was scheduled to close on November 1.
Brunner said the move is an opportunity, and not just a move away from urbanization. The center needed more acreage because current research in pest management requires larger-scale experiments, rather than single-tree studies that sufficed when scientists were testing traditional pesticides.

In addition, the center’s apple breeding program, established in 1994, requires an increasing amount of land for evaluating selections. Some of the breeding program’s plantings are at Columbia View, a 45-acre research orchard nine miles north of Wenatchee that WSU shares with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Replanting

A significant portion of the trees at the Sunrise Orchard has already been removed and chipped in anticipation of replanting as soon as possible. Eventually, the whole orchard will be renewed, Brunner said. The Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission has earmarked $500,000 to help fund the development of the orchard.

WSU is requesting $250,000 a year for operating costs in its Initiative for Food and Agriculture, which will go to the state legislature next session.

Dr. Dan Bernardo, dean of the College of Agriculture, Human and Natural Resource Sciences, said the university wants to develop a state-of-the-art research orchard that is not dependent on revenues from the fruit to cover operating costs. “We want to make sure that while there might be revenue streams from the sale of the fruit from the orchard, that’s not dictating the type and quality of research that’s going on.”

A team of representatives from WSU, the Research Commission, and state industry people is developing a plan for the orchard. Dr. Jim McFerson, manager of the Research Commission, said the research that the industry needs, in order to remain competitive, requires long-term studies with multidisciplinary research teams. The new orchard will allow WSU, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and industry scientists to collaborate with an eye towards demonstration plots and extension activities. “It’s a partnership effort,” he said.

Segregating experiments

Brunner said the additional space will mean that pest control experiments won’t have to be conducted adjacent to horticultural or apple breeding trials. “The larger area allows us to segregate certain types of activities that aren’t compatible. It will allow us to work in larger blocks and modern orchards so that our results are reflective of what most of the industry’s doing.”

It also will allow scientists to do research in organic production without needing to go through the transition to organic. Sunrise has 80 acres of certified organic Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Granny Smith trees.

Brunner hopes to establish an interdisciplinary team to study organic systems. While scientists will still research specific tools for organic production, he sees a need to study the whole system, including weed control, soil ecology, and interaction of soil nutrition and fruit quality.
The new orchard site will not be used exclusively by the Tree Fruit Research Center, Brunner said. For example, Dr. Matt Whiting, who is based at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser, might want to test new cherry varieties in Wenatchee as well as in Prosser. Experiments on specialty crops other than tree fruits might be included.

“We want to do a better job of integrating activities between the research and extension centers,” Brunner said. “We’re thinking of this site not solely as a tree fruit site—although that will always be the predominant focus—but we’re also thinking about blueberries, currants, and raspberries as alternative crops in this area, and, of course, grapes.”

McFerson said the commission is gratified that WSU has recognized the critical function that its outlying centers play and that the university is committed to supporting them by upgrading their facilities.

“We can’t work in antiquated orchards with irrelevant rootstocks, scions, or training systems.” He added that the Wenatchee School District has purchased the existing 40 acres of orchard at the center, plus 30 acres of adjoining hillside land that WSU owns, as a potential school site. WSU still has the 45 acres of orchard at Columbia View.