As a tree fruit grower in Washington state, you are involved in a risky business. Some years the dice roll your way, some they don’t. Managing your risk isn’t getting any easier, and every year seems to bring a new set of challenges, some biological, some regulatory, some market-based, and some related to that great uncertainty, the weather.
It is fair to say the expansion and viability of the Washington tree fruit industry owes a significant debt to technological innovations created by researchers and validated for commercial impact by extension professionals. Those innovations include long-term storage, crop protection and IPM, weed control, irrigation practices, new genetics and efficient production systems, crop load management….the list goes on.
However, you Washington tree fruit growers are unique nationally and internationally in one way of dealing with risk. Since 1969, growers have supported the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission by paying an annual production-based assessment—investing your own dollars in finding research and extension solutions to the most important problems you face in crop production and handling.
The Research Commission is the legacy of industry leaders like Grady Auvil, George Ing, and Tom Mathison, who were instrumental in its founding in 1969. Since then, the WTFRC has supported the development and delivery of science-based knowledge to improve the profitability and sustainability of its producers. Other commodity organizations pay necessary attention to maintaining and expanding market access, dealing with government regulations and customer demands, providing educational and advocacy functions, and so on, but none focus as intently as the WTFRC on research and extension.
A nine-member board and around 100 crop committee members define research priorities and strive to invest your dollars wisely. While not all investments pay off and research is inherently risky, WTRFC’s work has helped the Washington tree fruit industry expand its presence nationally and internationally by developing and delivering solutions in that range of industry challenges I highlighted earlier: long-term storage, crop protection and IPM, weed control, irrigation practices, new genetics and efficient production systems, and crop load management.
Recently, the Research Commission took another step intended to maintain this legacy and build towards a stronger future for our industry. It presented a referendum to the growers for a Special Project Assessment to dramatically and permanently expand the resources available to Washington State University for tree fruit research and extension activities at its centers in Prosser and Wenatchee. Revenues from the assessment would be used to create endowments whose annual interest income would be used to create endowed research chairs, transform information and technology transfer activities, and sustainably support dedicated research orchards.
Washington State University, our state’s land grant university, has long been the principal provider of research and extension activities to the tree fruit industry and is now consistently ranked among the top ag universities in the nation. The Research Commission concluded that adding to WSU’s capability made sense and would create a new legacy to continue WSU’s trajectory of technological innovation and engagement with the state’s tree fruit industry.
In August 2012, the Special Project Assessment referendum was passed by the apple and pear growers of Washington, but failed to garner enough votes from cherry and stone fruit growers. As a result, apple and pear growers, but not cherry and stone fruit growers, will be assessed an additional $1 per ton of production, in addition to their current WTFRC assessment. This assessment will run for a time not to exceed eight years or until a total of $27 million is achieved, and then it will disappear. This $27 million gift to the WSU Capital Campaign for Tree Fruit is the largest single investment in WSU’s history.
Apples and pears
In accordance with referendum results, the Special Project Assessment activities will be solely focused on apple and pear. In fact, activities have already begun. With regular input from the Endowment Advisory Committee, comprising seven industry representatives, WSU is recruiting world-class scientists to fill priority positions.
Our new tree fruit extension team leader, Des Layne, will be moving from Clemson University to WSU Wenatchee in February 2013. His position will be partially funded by endowment dollars; additional funding contributed by WSU permits him to work across all crops, including cherry and stone fruit.
A second endowed chair at Wenatchee, funded solely through the endowment, will focus solely on apple and pear horticulture. The university expects to fill that position by August 2013. Over the next seven years, up to five more endowed chairs will be recruited, and an equal amount invested for positions in technology and information transfer.
While these investments in people and resources will certainly continue the trajectory of Washington apple and pear growers, cherry and stone fruit will not directly benefit from any expansion of activities based on revenues from the special project assessment.
Of course, the ongoing research supported by current grower assessments will continue. The Research Commission annually collects around $450,000 and the Oregon Sweet Cherry Commission around $200,000. Both organizations collaborate closely to fund solid research on problems of the most importance to our industries.
Cherry and stone fruits
Nonetheless, the Research Commission has returned to ask Washington’s cherry and stone fruit growers to reconsider the same referendum they failed to pass a year ago. The Washington State Fruit Commission unanimously advocated this course of action early this year.
Since then, the Research Commission has worked with the Washington State Department of Agriculture to comply with regulatory requirements, including holding two public hearings, on November 14 in Yakima and November 15 in Wenatchee. Cherry and stone fruit growers can still provide their input directly to the Research Commission or WSDA at any time. Such input will be considered by the WSDA and the Director of Agriculture before approving a vote on the referendum. In mid-December, all cherry and stone fruit growers will be mailed ballots, which must be returned by mid-January 2013.
The referendum will be substantively the same as the one offered in 2011, except it will only address cherry and stone fruit, and the assessment would commence a year later, on the 2013 crop. It will be time limited to eight years, or until $5 million (the proportionate amount that was expected from cherry and stone fruit under the 2011 measure) is reached, whichever happens first, and then it will disappear. Cherry growers would be assessed a per-ton amount equivalent to their current assessment of $4 per ton. Similarly, stone fruit growers would be assessed $1 per ton.
The issue of $4 per ton on cherries versus $1 per ton on the other crops understandably concerns many because cherries are volatile and returns can be wildly different across and within seasons. However, a typical cherry block in Washington could produce around five ton per acre and thus be assessed $20 per acre. A typical apple block produces around 20 tons per acre (approximately 45 bins per acre) and would be assessed $20 per acre. Over the long run, cherry growers would be assessed annually at about the same rate as apple growers, and somewhat more than pear growers. Stone fruit growers are a much smaller part of the industry and at an assessment of $1 per acre, contribute significantly less than the other tree fruit crops.
Another concern has been the adequacy of the cherry and stone fruit grower list used by the WSDA to mail ballots. Over the past year, the Fruit Commission has thoroughly reviewed and revised its list, which should make it easier for cherry and stone fruit growers to determine if they are receiving ballots correctly for each business entity that is assessed.
Separate votes for each commodity
Finally, it is important to note that the referenda for cherries and stone fruit are separate votes. Each grower will receive ballots based on the number of entities they are farming for each commodity. That is, if you have a cherry block and a stone fruit block, you would get a separate ballot for each. Returning all ballots mailed to you will ensure your voice is heard as the industry makes this decision.
The two referenda will pass or fail based on a simple majority of growers voting. You can’t do much about the weather, but you can vote!