I suppose I can’t hide forever. I’ve worked in the Washington tree fruit industry for nearly ten years, managed the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission for a good share of that, and conducted a lot of research of my own, yet I have never written a column about research (or anything else) for the Good Fruit Grower, our industry’s premier publication. It’s probably about time, and this issue, focusing on technology, is particularly appropriate, since technology, and the science behind it, are where I have been working these ten years.
Many in the Pacific Northwest tree fruit industry seem skeptical about research and technology, questioning their relevance to the profitability of our producers, processors, and handlers. I have often heard that research (and researchers) are too slow, rarely provide clear answers, always spend too much grower money, and inevitably conclude that "more research is needed."
Yet, I also hear from a lot of industry folks who believe more research, in fact, IS needed. Not just more research, either, but more extension, so results and information are brought to commercial application before we all retire. Not surprisingly, I enthusiastically agree: More Research + More Extension = More Competitive Tree Fruit Industry.
At the same time, I think it is critical that we add a strategic focus to research activities. Sure, we need more research, but we also need better research. That premise underlies the approach of the National Tree Fruit Technology Roadmap, an initiative that arose during the dark days of 1999 and 2000. You must remember that: Chinese apples were about to obliterate commercial U.S. production, every issue of Good Fruit Grower came with a dire forecast and black bunting, and Red Delicious composed more than 60 percent of our apple acreage.
At that time, the last thing many thought about was research; most were trying to survive. Times were tough, returns were low, and many did not survive. However, those that did are not just enjoying our current prosperity, but recapitalizing and confidently investing in our collective future as a globally competitive producer and provider of the highest quality fruit and fruit products.
Looking around now, in 2008, I see an energetic, revivified Pacific Northwest tree fruit industry transforming itself from a grow-it, pack-it, ship-it mentality to an approach that places the consumer first. We are reinventing ourselves to provide the kind of quality product and service that leads to increased sales, increased consumption, and increased profitability. Thus, in retrospect, perhaps those dark days were just what we needed—a big kick in the pants. Whatever the source of the motivation, consider where we are in 2008, and consider how technology has enabled the transformation.
Demand has increased dramatically: organics, customized packaging, fresh-sliced fruit. Everyone is growing more cherries, and many have added other fruit, like blueberries, raspberries, and grapes, to their portfolio. Vastly expanded information technology capacity now undergirds supply chain management, marketing, and quality assurance.
High throughput defect- and quality-sorting systems in packing operations are providing more precise inventory control. SmartFresh, the new postharvest chemical we hate to pay for, adds consistency and value to our apples. Pear conditioning is offering the consumer a new, delightful product. Cherries are grown bigger, sweeter, and tastier than ever and are available across a longer harvest window. Returns have never been better, and per capita consumption of all our fruits is up.
In the orchard, a similar paradigm shift is under way for apples, cherries, pears, and stone fruit. Superior genetics, not just me-too sports, in both rootstocks and scions, are being planted in high-density, intensively managed systems that enhance labor productivity and safety. Plant propagation is increasingly accomplished with innovative horticultural techniques. Precocious, consistent fruit production is enabled by progressive crop-load management, modern irrigation, and plant growth regulator programs controlling vegetative and reproductive growth.
We have not solved many physiological stresses. Sunburn, superficial skin disorders, and internal maladies still impair yield and packout, but new tools are mitigating their impact. Pests and diseases also remain a challenge, but new tools are available. Integrated pest management and predictive models are replacing calendar spraying and nuclear weapons. In apple, mating disruption, novel chemistries, and integrated programs are speeding our transition away from organophosphates. An Internet-based Decision Aid System is revolutionizing management decisions. New sprayers and orchard platforms are significantly increasing the efficacy and efficiency of many operations.
A transformation is under way. I believe this transformation has been enabled by a combination of excellent management and the introduction of innovative practices and technologies. I also believe this paradigm shift would not have been possible without previous research relevant to our industry. That research would not have been possible without the dedication of the scientists and institutions we sometimes take for granted.
In 2000, the Roadmap proclaimed that investment in research would enable the tree fruit industry to more efficiently produce and deliver fruit of the highest quality to the consumer. We argued we needed to reduce production costs of the highest quality fruit (the kind that makes the most money) by 30 percent, by 2010. I believe we have made significant progress in that direction, by transforming our industry with all the technologies I briefly highlighted. The consumer apparently appreciates that effort. Obviously, it was not simply technology that can claim credit for the current state of the industry, but I think it deserves some recognition. I also think the scientists and extension educators responsible for these technologies deserve most of the recognition. It has been my pleasure and delight to work on behalf of the Research Commission and our industry in partnership with these people at Washington State University, Oregon State University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. Together, we are all striving to make our industry and local economies more profitable and more sustainable.
Unfortunately, challenges will never disappear. It really is a global marketplace in which our costs are relatively high. The produce section has never been more competitive. We remain an industry overly reliant on hand labor, from the orchard to the packing house. Regulatory pressures related to water, land, and air quality are only increasing. It is critically important to seek policy and regulatory improvements that can help address these challenges. Nonetheless, I also believe we must concomitantly increase our investment in the research and extension activities that will develop and apply innovative technological solutions to production and handling challenges.
Yes, more research is needed. And better research, too. I won’t wait ten years for the next column to talk about it.