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by Dr. Mike Willett, left, and Sam Godwin

by Dr. Mike Willett, left, and Sam Godwin

Thirty-two million dollars for enhanced tree fruit research and extension.

In 2013, Washington fruit growers finalized a promise for that amount — the largest gift in Washington State University’s history — with the goal of WSU becoming the international leader in tree fruit research and extension.

The endowments are intended to support new research and extension positions and to enhance orchard and facility operations, all focused on the Prosser and Wenatchee Research and Extension Centers.

So, how’s that working out?

Endowment funds enabled the hiring of Dr. Stefano Musacchi, an internationally known pomologist originally from Italy, shown here before his inaugural talk as an endowed chair at Washington State University at the Sunrise Research Orchard in Wenatchee, Washington, in August 2013. <b>(TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)</b>

Endowment funds enabled the hiring of Dr. Stefano Musacchi, an internationally known pomologist originally from Italy, shown here before his inaugural talk as an endowed chair at Washington State University at the Sunrise Research Orchard in Wenatchee, Washington, in August 2013. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

The $32 million goal was based on a relatively conservative estimate of apple, cherry, pear and stone fruit production over an eight-year period — targets that have been routinely exceeded — so income is considerably ahead of schedule.

Through the end of December 2015, the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission has disbursed more than $13 million to the endowment with another estimated $1 million to $2 million disbursed in late January.

Endowment activities are under the stewardship of the seven-member WSU Tree Fruit Endowment Advisory Committee (EAC). Each member is appointed by a Washington tree fruit industry organization.

Priorities are set and funding decisions are made by this group in a close and positive partnership with the leadership of WSU’s College of Agriculture, Human and Natural Resource Sciences and Extension (CAHNRS) that includes Dr. Kim Kidwell, acting dean; Dr. Rich Koenig, extension director; and Dr. Jim Moyer, research director.

This group is supported by Drs. Gary Grove and Jim McFerson at WSU-Prosser and Wenatchee, respectively.

To date, endowment funds have enabled the hiring of Dr. Stefano Musacchi, an internationally known pomologist originally from Italy, and Dr. Desmond Layne, Tree Fruit Extension Leader, both stationed at the WSU Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center (TFREC) in Wenatchee.

In December 2015, interviews were conducted to fill an endowed chair in tree fruit soil and rhizosphere ecology (to be primarily housed at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center (IAREC) in Prosser) and an extension information and technology transfer specialist with a focus on postharvest handling, storage and food safety.

As of early January, negotiations were underway with candidates for both positions.

The only hiccup so far has been Dr. Layne’s decision to move to Pullman and accept a joint teaching/extension position in the Department of Horticulture.

To partially fill the void left by his move, Karen Lewis, long-time regional tree fruit extension specialist, has assumed some of his previous duties. In this role, Karen has moved quickly, pulling together the tree fruit extension team.

The extension team has already identified critical extension needs and provided that guidance directly to the EAC.

While funds are accumulating more quickly than expected, it is important to note that endowment hiring will likely lag the accumulation of endowment funding.

Since CAHNRS provides significant support for each endowed research and extension position, the pace of hiring will inevitably be governed by legislative allocations to WSU in each fiscal year.

However, to cap this year’s already exuberant hiring spurt, a notice of vacancy is being finalized to begin a search for an endowed research chair in postharvest systems.

The goal of the search is to identify and hire a world-class scientist to contribute to the existing postharvest work of industry, WSU and USDA’s Agricultural Research Service scientists.

Additionally, an initial transfer of endowment resources will be provided to TFREC and IAREC to upgrade and support orchard infrastructure and critical equipment needs at each location.

Priorities for future research and technology transfer positions have been tentatively identified, but the endowment advisory committee intends to remain nimble, responding to emerging industry needs, such as food safety or pest management needs, and partnering with CAHNRS to ensure that WSU’s internal hiring decisions mesh with the committee’s priorities.

Stay tuned. And, most importantly, if additional information is needed, feel free to contact Mike Willett, Sam Godwin or any member of the endowment advisory committee.

Dr. Mike Willett is the manager of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission. Sam Godwin, an orchardist in the Tonasket area, is chairman of the WSU Tree Fruit Endowment Advisory Committee. •

Advisory committee
Endowment activities are under the stewardship of the seven-member WSU Tree Fruit Endowment Advisory Committee (EAC) currently composed of Tom Butler, Washington Fruit and Produce Co.; Sean Gilbert, Gilbert Orchards; Bob Gix, Blue Star Growers; Sam Godwin, Chelan Fresh; Alan Groff, Foreman Fruit Co.; Jake Gutzwiler, Stemilt Growers; and Jason Matson, Matson Fruit Co.