The apple industry is constantly changing, and these changes can make the business of growing and selling apples even more challenging-increased pressures from international competitors, further restrictions on crop protection chemicals, and more demanding standards from consumers are just a few of the hurdles that continue to challenge the industry. To help embrace this change, the industry is focusing on research to move the industry forward.
USApple supports a research initiative known as the National Tree Fruit Technology Roadmap, and this innovative program is growing. The Roadmap is designed to leverage the similarities between many of the tree fruit crops to create a unified front that can set broad research priorities to benefit the entire tree fruit industry. The goal of the program is to decrease production costs while improving fruit quality.
The Roadmap partnership has already been successful in several areas. USDA¹s Agricultural Research Service recently held a Tree Fruit Genetics and Genomics Workshop in cooperation with Roadmap supporters, including USApple, to foster a better understanding of the areas where more knowledge is needed. In addition, Roadmap supporters were successful in securing a $4 million federal competitive grant from USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service to research rosaceae crop genetics and genomics.
The rosaceae plant family contains a number of commercial crops in the United States, including almonds, apples, apricots, blackberries, peaches, pears, plums, sweet cherries, tart cherries, strawberries, raspberries, roses, and other ornamentals. By focusing on issues that impact many or all of these crops, there is a stronger base of support for the program. As a result of the federal grant, research is currently under way on many areas, including fireblight control, identifying apple genes and their functions, and biological functions of other fruits that may be applicable to apples.
Several areas of research are vital for future success of the rosaceae industries, including apples. One top priority is improving fruit quality and shelf life. There are two key factors pushing the need for developments in this area:
- Producers must meet increasingly more rigorous quality standards for their crops as the consumer is demanding better taste, brighter colors, firmer texture, and bigger sizes. Meeting these demands can make the difference between a profit or loss season; and,
- Low-cost, imported products are either threatening to arrive in our stores, or are already there. To successfully compete with these imports will require top-quality produce as consumers make their selections based on quality. This area of research applies to processed products as well as fresh. Addressing these challenges requires an expansion of knowledge in rosaceous crop genetics and genomics, and then using these advancements to improve products.
Another area of promising research is to adjust chemical pesticide use. Economic pressures, stricter environmental regulations, and chemical resistance in pests are combining to force growers and researchers to identify new control tactics. Utilizing information about the genetics of related crops can be a cost-effective tactic to manage environmental and human health risks while safeguarding fruit yield and quality.
Of course, labor costs are always an issue, with labor accounting for about half of the cost of apple production. In the past few years, energy costs have also become a key expense for this industry. To maintain global competitiveness in the face of increasing challenges from low-cost foreign producers looking to export to the U.S. market, the U.S. industry must improve production efficiency.
Reaching this goal will take a combined effort in creating improved varieties with characteristics suitable for mechanization and the implementation of new technologies and production practices.
Ushering in these new production practices and solutions is another key focus for the Roadmap. The program is pushing for improvements in automation, diagnostics, and precision agriculture. Some advancements that would have a positive impact on the apple industry include automation of pesticide applications, pruning, mowing, harvesting, and grading. On-line Brix measurement, watercore testing, and grading are some of the improvements that could be possible in the packing house.
While the technical issues being researched require the specialized knowledge of researchers and key scientists, the process will not be able to move forward without the support of growers across the country. Driving the Roadmap to the next level will require political support best achieved when lawmakers hear directly from their constituents exactly how much these programs will impact their business.
Asking for support
The 2007 fiscal year appropriations cycle is now under way, and USApple is asking Congress to support several research projects. In addition to the Roadmap priorities, there are also several programs more directly related to apples that require additional funding. USApple is putting forth requests for almost $12 million for research on codling moth control, rootstock breeding and soil replant disease research, fruit quality research, and automation, sensors, and precision agriculture research.
Beyond the next appropriations cycle, it is also vital that these research priorities are included in the upcoming Farm Bill. Discussions over the content of the 2007 Farm Bill are already under way, and USApple is participating in a 2007 Farm Bill Research Working Group and coordinating with other allied produce organizations. This group supports research funding for specialty crops to help them remain a growing and competitive player in the global market.
The Roadmap will also seek to continue expanding representation from different specialty crops in the partnership. By including more groups, the strength of our voice and level of support grows.
For more information about the Roadmap, contact Jim Cranney, USApple vice president, at (703) 442-8850 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org