The recently planted WSU research orchard will allow study of planting designs for the future.

The recently planted WSU research orchard will allow study of planting designs for the future.

One of the new technologies Washington State University entomologist Dr. Jay Brunner expects and hopes to see in the next decade is automated sorting of fruit in the field. Apart from reducing a grower’s costs by keeping unmarketable fruit out of the warehouse, it could change pest management strategies.

Currently, the level of acceptable damage to fruit by insects is extremely low because of the high cost of sending culls to the warehouse, so pest management must be intensive.

“It costs a lot to have that zero tolerance,” said Brunner. “I think that field sorting will allow us to maybe tolerate a little bit more fruit damage, and if we had a little more leeway, we would have more possibilities for biocontrol and using softer pesticides.”

He thinks pheromone technology will advance and look different in ten years’ time. It will likely be the foundation of pest management in apples.

“I don’t see a lot of new things coming in the next decade,” he said. “In the last decade, we had a huge development of reduced-risk technologies, and they certainly are safer. But I don’t see, at least in insecticides, a lot of new things in the pipeline.”

He thinks major breakthroughs in codling moth management will come through modifying the genetics of the insect, which U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists are working on. For example, if it were possible to disrupt the moth’s sensory system so that a male could not detect the female’s pheromone, there would be no need to put pheromone in the orchard to try to prevent mating. The same mechanism could prevent moths from being able to detect the host plant.

Fruit genetics

Brunner, who is director of the Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee, expects to see great advances in the area of fruit genetics at WSU, which has hired some of the world’s experts in recent years. He sees the potential for them to develop new tree fruit crops, in addition to new varieties.

At the research center’s 50th anniversary, Dr. George Martin, a plant physiologist at the center during the 1960s, said that to breed a desirable trait in an apple would take 100,000 trees, which would cover 50 acres and cost $100,000 a year to maintain. And by the time the trees were in production, the cost would be half a million dollars.

While the idea that it would take 100,000 trees (selections) to produce a new variety was valid in 1987, with new genetic techniques, scientists can eliminate many seedlings without needing to plant them out in the orchard, thus reducing costs, Brunner observed. “However, the cost of sustaining breeding programs remains high, and the partnership between WSU and the fruit industry is continually dealing with this fact.”

Brunner said biotechnology and technology in general are beginning to pay off in many ways for the tree fruit industry and will continue to because of the excellent scientists that WSU has hired with the support of the industry. A significant portion of funds provided through the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission go to technology-related projects every year, whereas few resources were dedicated to those kinds of efforts in 1987.

“The fact that the specialty crop industry developed the Technology Road Map and that leaders in this industry nationally were able to get roughly $50 million per year in competitive research funding for specialty crops in the last farm bill is an outstanding accomplishment,” he said.

Tree fruit industry leaders continue to think ahead, he said. The industry, through the Research Commission, put $500,000 into the development of WSU’s new research orchard near Wenatchee. In addition, nurseries donated more than 30,000 trees, and the industry provided in-kind donations in the form of materials and labor.

It is a living laboratory that will focus research on modern planting designs and address questions that continually challenge the fruit industry, Brunner said.