Washington State University physiologist Lee Kalcsits has been named WSU’s endowed chair for tree fruit environmental physiology and management, according to a news release. 

Sponsored by a $2 million endowment from the Washington tree fruit industry, Kalcsits will expand his efforts to study the interactions between fruit tree genetics, the environment and growing practices. His research will help reveal the physiological mechanisms that can improve tree fruit productivity and help orchards tolerate environmental stresses such as drought and heat waves, according to the release.

Lee Kalcsits
Lee Kalcsits

“Lee’s work is fundamental to a stronger, more productive future for Washington state’s most important fruit crops,” said André-Denis Wright, dean of the WSU College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences.

Kalcsits was raised on a small U-pick orchard in Saskatchewan, Canada, growing small fruit in some of the coldest winter conditions in the world.

“My interest in environmental physiology was piqued early, as my family sought different fruit cultivars and crops that would simply survive the winter,” Kalcsits said.

He earned a doctorate in tree physiology from the University of British Columbia and throughout his research career has explored physiological mechanisms surrounding cold hardiness, nutrient-use efficiencies, heat and water stress.

At WSU, his lab identified the role of irrigation in reducing bitter pit in Honeycrisp. Those results spurred industry-wide efforts to better manage water delivery to that variety, boosting orchard packout and profitability, according to the release.

Fruit sunburn remains one of the largest contributors to fruit losses in Washington, Kalcsits said. With summer temperatures forecast to increase, earlier fruit maturity will continue to increase the risks of sunburn and other heat-related disorders for apple, pear and cherry growers.

“In the short term, understanding the biology underlying fruit sunburn development will contribute to the development of more effective mitigation practices,” Kalcsits said. “Long-term, I plan to work alongside other tree fruit researchers and the industry to support the development and production of scion and rootstock cultivars that succeed in Washington’s hot, semiarid environment.”

Based in Wenatchee, Kalcsits will also help plan future upgrades to the WSU Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center and Sunrise Research Orchard.

—by Jonelle Mejica