Jim McFerson

Jim McFerson

Dr. Jim McFerson, manager of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission for the past 14 years, has applied for the position of director of Washington State University’s Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee.

If appointed, he would succeed Dr. Jay Brunner, who will retire in August this year. So far, he is the only candidate.

McFerson, 64, said Ron Mittelhammer, dean of WSU’s College of Agriculture, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences, invited him to apply for the position.

On Monday, McFerson met with WSU staff and faculty at the Wenatchee center and discussed his background and  his decision to apply.

He said the question he’s most frequently been asked so far is, “Why?”

“I feel my personal and professional experience in agriculture, leadership, innovation, and momentum have prepared me to assume this responsibility,” he said.

McFerson has a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, a master’s degree in horticulture from Texas A & M University, and a doctorate in plant breeding and genetics from UW, Madison.

He has worked as a vegetable breeder for a private company and was head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Plant Genetic Resources Unit in Geneva, New York, before moving to Washington in 1999. (Read Good Fruit Grower’s 2013 profile of McFerson.)

McFerson said Brunner is largely responsible for the Wenatchee center’s current success, but there is still work to be done.

“I think this is an awesome place,” he told the faculty and staff. “There are so many good things happening here; just imagine what you could do in the future. I think the trajectory is fantastic.”

He spoke of building stronger relationships with WSU administration, with USDA Agricultural Research Service scientists, and with the industry, as well as the need to improve the facilities and equipment at the center and provide better office space for scientists.

He said the land-grant mission of education, research, and extension is important to him.

“I’ve been involved in all of that. I have this opportunity to come in, in the twilight stage of my career, and spend some time working on fulfilling the land-grant mission,” he added, describing WSU as the best land-grant university in the country.

If appointed, McFerson hopes to transition gradually into the directorship, initially spending 70 to 80 percent of his time at WSU and the rest of the time in his current position, managing the Research Commission.

“I would see myself, within a couple of years, moving away from work with the commission so it’s 100 percent commitment to the issues of this center,” he said.

During the discussion, Dr. John Fellman, WSU postharvest physiologist based in Pullman, asked how McFerson could resolve having a foot in both camps and suggested it would not look good to be in a position of giving money out to the researchers he is minding.

Of the $4 million that the commission awards annually for tree fruit research, WSU faculty receive the lion’s share—typically about $1.5  to $2.0 million.

McFerson said he did not believe it was a conflict of interest for him to do both jobs.

“I don’t think we have two camps,” he said. “I don’t think that kind of war language applies. I think we have common goals and have worked together very efficiently and effectively over time. I am entirely comfortable spending time here as well as transitioning away from the position at the research commission.”

Dean Mittelhammer will receive feedback from faculty and staff and make a recommendation to WSU’s upper administration.

Brunner said it is “a little out of the ordinary” for the university to consider a single candidate. “It came up because the administration thought we should at least look at this possibility and Jim has some interest. The industry seems supportive,” he said. “But it’s not a done deal.”

Should WSU decide not to appoint McFerson, the university will form a search committee, develop a notice of vacancy, and look for other candidates.

Brunner has worked as an entomologist at the Wenatchee center for 33 years and has been director of the center for the past 13. He retired from the entomology position at the end of last year and is working half time as director until August. The entomology position created by his retirement will not be filled immediately, he said. WSU will issue a notice of vacancy either late this year or early in 2016.  The gap is designed to address concerns about state funding for the university