Volunteers from the Western Washington Fruit Research Foundation help with data collection in the peach variety trial at WSU’s Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon. They are picking and sorting peaches to help staff collect information on yield a
Fruit-growing enthusiasts in western Washington are raising funds to support the tree fruit research program at Washington State University’s Mount Vernon research center and maintain its display garden.
Kristan Johnson, president of the Western Washington Fruit Research Foundation, said the foundation has provided $250,000 in funding for the program since the foundation formed 16 years ago, but the amount of money it has been able to contribute has dropped in recent years as its membership has declined. A Tree Fruit Advisory Board, composed of representatives of the various sectors and organizations involved in the western Washington tree fruit industry, has been formed to try to marshal funds to support the fruit programs at the Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center.
Dr. Bob Norton, retired WSU horticulturist, launched a fruit-variety–testing program at the Mount Vernon center many years ago. About nine years ago, a seven-acre display garden was constructed at the station where fruit trees that were deemed the best for western Washington growing conditions could be moved after testing, rather than being bulldozed.
Johnson said WSU has collected fruit from all over the world for testing and at the last count had 59 different peach and nectarine varieties as well as a tremendous number of apples and pears. The Puget Gold apricot grows well there, disproving the notion that western Washington can’t produce apricots, he noted.
The display garden has about 250 fruit trees, as well as other fruits such as blueberries, gooseberries, and kiwis. It has a collection of 28 antique apples that he describes as "the best of the best of the Old West." The garden’s "welcome" sign is a 50- by 9-foot espalier, with a Honeycrisp tree forming each letter of the word.
Johnson said the foundation is looking for funding to maintain the display garden, which was established with an anonymous donation of $45,000. That initial money has lasted the nine years. "We’ve been able to install and maintain the garden for less than $5,000 a year, which is pretty amazing," Johnson said, noting that it was only possible because of thousands of hours of volunteer work.
The foundation hopes to raise $55,000 to maintain the garden into the future, and an anonymous donor has pledged to donate half the money if the other $27,500 can be raised by November.
The foundation, whose members are primarily hobbyists or backyard fruit growers, is also hoping that more outside funding can be found to support the center’s tree fruit research program. WSU horticulturist Gary Moulton is the sole paid staff member. All the operating funds, other than for the building, must come from grants.
The foundation and other organizations, including the Western Cascade Fruit Society and the Washington State Nursery and Landscape Association, used to provide a total of about $100,000 to support the program, but for various reasons, the amount has been diminishing, Johnson said. The foundation used to contribute about $20,000 a year when it had 400 members, but is now able to provide only about half that amount.
Moulton said the scope of the research program is limited by what he is able to do himself. With annual funding of $125,00 to $130,000, he could perhaps expand the program and hire an assistant.
Only about 15 commercial tree fruit growers remain in the region, though there are many hundreds of fruit-growing enthusiasts. The Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission collects an assessment for research on commercial fruit production, but Moulton said he has been unable to secure funding from the commission, because of the small size of the commercial apple industry there. As a result, he has depended on the Western Washington Fruit Research Foundation and other organizations to supply both funding and volunteers to do some of the work. He’s been impressed by the willingness of hobby gardeners and fruit growers to work to support the commercial fruit industry.
For example, with their assistance, he’s been able to test a number of alternative fruits that have potential as high-value commercial crops. "I have a tremendous amount of people who volunteer their time when I need it," he said. "They’ve had a great impact in being able to look at alternative fruit crops. There are not a lot of dollars out there to do that."
Johnson said there are other specific research issues that need to be addressed in western Washington.
"A lot of folks, for example on the East side, don’t even realize that we have an apple industry on the West side," he said. "One of the things that folks say is, ‘Why would anyone want to grow apples on the West side?’ That’s the classic question."
One of the reasons is that some apple varieties, such as Jonagold and Honeycrisp, perform better in the cooler coastal climate, Johnson said. And some russeted pear varieties, such as Taylor’s Gold, develop fantastic russet naturally where conditions are more humid. Asian pears also grow well there.
In addition, a buy-local movement is creating demand for foods produced in western Washington, and an upsurge in the number of cideries has stimulated interest in apple production.
Johnson said the tree fruit program is very diverse and covers growing and production issues as well as testing of new varieties and rootstocks.
One of the critical research issues now is finding a control for the disease anthracnose, which has recently been identified in the region. Johnson said a virulent strain of the disease has been affecting apple and pears and forcing growers to remove entire sections of their orchards. It does not respond to traditional control methods. The research foundation has put up funds on an emergency basis to begin a research project. Dr. Chang-Lin Xiao, plant pathologist at WSU’s Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee, has collected wood from affected trees and is looking at whether the disease is caused by a new strain of the fungus or a combination of strains. Moulton hopes that after Xiao identifies the source, a graduate student can be hired to develop controls.
Johnson noted that most diseases become much more apparent in western Washington than in fruit-growing regions with drier climates, which makes Mount Vernon the perfect testing ground for resistant varieties. "If they are mildew resistant here, they’re mildew resistant just about anywhere. That’s a real benefit," he said.
Johnson noted that the costs of research continue to increase, but said the foundation’s members feel it’s important to try to raise enough funds to support it. "It’s much harder to start a fruit research program than to keep it going, and I just hope that people realize the value."