Robots harvesting fruit, scientists creating the perfect apple trees in petri dishes, and a fruit industry run by conglomerates were just some of the changes envisioned for the next half century by industry leaders, as the Wenatchee Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1987.

Because of increased competition from other countries, particularly Southern Hemisphere producers, Washington’s apple industry will have to survive on quality, said Dr. Desmond O’Rourke, director of Washington State University’s IMPACT Center.

Competitors are catching up, and Washington must open up a new quality gap by providing consistent internal quality and improving the taste of the apples, he said. “The real battleground is going to be the inside of the apple.

“There really is a role for bioengineering in the apple industry. We have to engineer quality into our products, and the only way to do that is to use the scientific expertise that is available.” But the industry does not have enough of the relevant scientists, he said, calling for more investment in research.

“I think science is absolutely critical to the competitiveness of Washington agriculture in the future. I know a big investment is needed, but those who 50 years ago set up the Tree Fruit Research Center were thinking ahead. If they had not made the investment they did, the Washington apple industry would not be the pride of the state’s agriculture.”

In marketing, the industry’s biggest challenges are people’s quest for novelty and variety in fruit, he reported.

“I see the world fruit market as shaping up as a battle between various types of fruit and not just our apples and their apples. And not everybody’s going to win,” he warned. “Traditional fruits are up against new fruits, because there is a limit to the amount of fruit a person can consume. Consumers are looking for variety.

“Holding our market share is going to be very difficult,” he said, pointing out that the predominance of Red and Golden Delicious apples in Washington puts the state in a particularly vulnerable position.

At the same time, Washington’s fruit production is increasing, he noted.

“In the 1990s, we can easily have 50 percent more apples than in 1980. In the mid-1990s, you will have somewhere around 112 million 42-pound boxes of apples, of which 84 million will be sold fresh, and 60 million of those will be Red Delicious. We have a very large marketing challenge ahead.”

His studies show that the industry is seriously underspending on its marketing efforts. The apple industry could afford to spend $5 million to export one million boxes, which is five times what it actually spends, he said. “If you allow those apples to stay in the domestic market, it depresses the domestic prices.”

Grady Auvil, who has been in the fruit industry for almost 50 years, also believes the future lies in stimulating the consumer’s appetite with more variety.

“Red and Golden Delicious apples lack some of the inherent qualities to stimulate the public to eat more apples,” he said, contending that new varieties could double apple consumption.

Public support for research will be more difficult to find in the future, he said, and he appealed to the fruit industry to put more funding in that direction.

However, former U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher Dr. Don Heinicke, now a grower at Orondo, feels the industry has to live with what it’s got, which is a predominance of Red Delicious. “We are not going to be able to jump right away into new varieties and new methods,” he said. He expects to see modifications, rather than great changes.

“We’re going to have to manage for quality,” he said. “So far, we’ve been in the driver’s seat. We have told people what quality is. Now, wholesalers, buyers, retailers, and consumers are deciding what that is. If they say they want a particular shape or color or even taste, we’re going to have to provide it.”

This will mean having good control over the trees so they are easy to manipulate and grow uniform fruit. “This is a great problem: getting your trees in balance and growing exactly what you want,” he said, predicting that trees in difficult sites might have to be taken out.

“We’re going to have to start delivering better fruit to the packing house,” he said, explaining that in his orchard he puts cull bags on the bins to try to get the pickers to remove some of the poorer fruit before it gets to the packing shed.

Concerning labor problems, Heinicke said the solution might be to use more labor, rather than less. A more labor-intensive system would provide more full-time jobs for longer periods and help to retain workers. “We have to make cost-effective jobs in the orchard to keep these people there,” he said.

Labor is going to be a real problem, Yakima Valley grower Chuck Peters believes. He expects to see significant, rapid changes because of increased production, static markets, and a possible decline in the U.S. population. “We’re going to have to increase per capita consumption or decrease production,” he said. “I think there are going to be a lot less players in this industry.”

The consolidation trend, which has already begun in warehouses, will continue, he predicted. “We have to expand our market base, and the only way to do that is through consolidated warehouses where they have strength in marketing and advertising.

“At this point, a lot of warehouses sell, but don’t market. They rely on the Washington Apple Commission. Down the road, the warehouses are going to have to do some marketing.”

Peters foresees the industry dominated by giants such as Dole, Del Monte, and the Campbell Soup Company, all of which are making inroads into the fresh fruit industry.

“We are going to see a branded commodity to take advantage of that marketplace. We can’t do it on an individual basis,” he said. “The person who doesn’t produce quality fruit in sufficient volumes can go broke quickly.”

The survivor in the long term will be the low-cost producer, he suggested. That will mean early production, high-density orchards, and downsizing of trees for greater efficiency, as well as new varieties and training systems.

High-tech farming might not be the answer, he said, calling for research to be more farsighted than in the past. “I would like to encourage our people to look 20 to 25 years out. What kind of system is it going to take for us to compete around the world?

“I think this industry has great adaptability to change. We’ve been able to be adaptable because we are profitable. The question is whether we can be profitable enough in the future to make the changes necessary.”

Dr. George Martin, a plant physiologist at the Research Center from 1962 to 1967, warned growers not to expect biotechnology to transform the industry overnight. The Red Delicious variety was born from a chance mutation in a cell of a standard Delicious apple tree, said Martin.

Plant breeding techniques were invented to take control of the process, rather than leaving it to chance. But to breed a desirable trait in an apple, for example, would take 100,000 trees, which would cover 50 acres and cost $100,000 a year to maintain. By the time the trees are in production, the cost would be half a million dollars.

Biotechnology has made such breeding programs possible in the confines of a petri dish, but it involves difficulties of identifying desirable genes, isolating and transferring them, and making sure they work. The use of bacteria in such techniques has moral, social, and legal implications, said Martin.

Though investment in biotechnology has been massive, and hopes have been raised, successes have been few so far, he said. Scientists are working against nature, and results could take decades.

Dr. Paul Larsen, superintendent at the center from 1968 to 1972, expects to see greater understanding and control of the biological process as well as changes in cultural practices over the next 50 years. “Will fruit be harvested by hands or robots?” he wondered.

Larsen expects the state’s apple production will exceed 100 million bushels well before the center celebrates its 100th anniversary.

Will most fruit be shipped fresh, or will Grady Auvil be producing exotic processed products such as “Gee Whiz Wine,” that will tickle the palates of wine lovers from here to Buenos Aires, Larsen asked.

Unity of purpose within the industry will determine where research and the industry find themselves in the next 50 years, he said. Industry leaders should decide that research and technology deserves as much input of energy and resources as promotion and advertising, he insisted.

Speakers had thrown out some interesting challenges for the future, commented Stan Hoyt, superintendent of the center. “Now, we have a chance to go out and do it.”