Oregon grower John Carter has been involved in cherry industry trade groups and activities. But the one thing that stands out when talking to people about Carter is his passion for research, and, in particular, a Pacific Northwest cherry breeding program.
Pasco, Washington, tree fruit grower Denny Hayden and member of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, identified Carter as one of the key leaders, “front and center,” at annual cherry research reviews. The reviews are joint meetings of cherry growers and researchers from Washington, Oregon, and California held annually to share the latest research information, coordinate research projects, and avoid duplication.
Hayden gave two examples of Carter’s research leadership: the sweet cherry breeding program at Washington State University and the cherry rootstock program at Michigan State University. “The joint Washington/Oregon cherry breeding program at WSU might not have been possible without John, or it surely would have been more delayed in starting,” he said. “Carter’s been a real conduit between the Washington and Oregon cherry industries.”
In the 1990s, the Pacific Northwest cherry industry searched the world for new sweet cherry cultivars and rootstocks, visiting cherry breeding programs in eastern and western Europe; Australia; British Columbia, Canada; and California in hopes of identifying plant material to test in the Northwest. Breeding programs in Europe were under budget constraints, and British Columbia’s was beginning to restrict the release of new varieties.
Moreover, none of the plant material available was really suited for Northwest growing conditions, Carter explained, adding that it was obvious to him and fellow Oregonian growers that the Northwest industry needed its own breeding program.
Cherry breeding in the Northwest was not new. Washington State University supported a sweet cherry breeding program from 1949 to the 1980s until breeder Dr. Tom Toyama retired. The blush Rainier variety is one of the most successful of the dozen or so cultivars that have been released by WSU.
Carter was among several industry members appointed to an advisory committee of Oregon and Washington cherry growers to explore a joint breeding program. Oregon cherry growers were enthusiastic and willing to share in the funding of a restarted WSU program in Prosser. Washington growers were less so, and worried about cost containment, a problem with past breeding programs.
Carter became relentless in his advocacy of restarting a breeding program, and persistently shared his views with Washington cherry industry leaders. He admits, “I’ve been called a bulldog, at times.”
Lynn Long, Oregon State University Extension educator for Wasco County, recalls that after months and months of discussion between the two grower groups and little forward movement, Carter gave an impromptu talk at a joint meeting of the Washington and Oregon research committees. Long believes it was Carter’s persuasive speech that finally convinced Washington growers to support the concept.
The new breeding program, restarted in 2005 at WSU’s Prosser station, has attracted a team of top breeders, genetic and genomic scientists who are using molecular markers and high-tech methods to reduce the time and expense of traditional breeding programs. This past summer, growers tasted fruit that will go into advanced selection trials.
Carter was also involved in pushing forward the cherry rootstock program led by Dr. Amy Iezzoni at Michigan State University. Long said
Carter was instrumental in submitting paperwork for a North American patent and license for the Regina cherry variety from Germany, and worked to set up a mechanism to help fund the rootstock project through the Cherry Variety Research Cooperative, a subcommittee of the National Cherry Growers Industry Foundation. With Carter’s help, the cooperative became the exclusive licensee of the patented Regina variety. A portion of the Regina royalty fees go to support Iezzoni’s rootstock work.