The Northwest cherry industry has asked Washington State University to make changes to its sweet cherry breeding program so it is more responsive to growers’ needs.
The Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission and the Oregon Sweet Cherry Commission have provided more than a million dollars from grower assessments to support WSU’s cherry breeding efforts over the past decade, as well as almost half a million dollars for research in genomics and genetics relating to cherry breeding.
When WSU submitted its annual funding request last fall, the commissions asked the university to make significant changes to the program to address management problems and improve its chances of success.
Dave Allan, a member of the breeding program’s industry advisory committee, said the Northwest cherry industry had big hopes that the program would produce new early- and late-maturing large, firm, mildew-resistant varieties.
Specifically, there’s a need for an alternative to the early cherry variety Chelan, which is not as large or firm as the industry would like.
“But it’s just been difficult,” Allan said. “There’s been a number of technical problems. We’re in the process of re-evaluating the program and trying to understand how to go forward. The industry has spent a lot of money on this and the industry has a lot of expectations.”
Jeff Cleveringa, head of research and development for Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers in Wenatchee and also a member of the advisory committee, said the industry still supports the breeding program, but is frustrated at how it’s been run.
The committee provided a breakdown showing exactly where it wanted the program to focus its efforts.
It specified that 30 percent of the effort should be on early-season red cherries, 10 percent on early blush cherries, 30 percent on late-maturing red cherries, 10 percent on late blush cherries, 10 percent on varieties suited to mechanical harvesting without stems, and just 10 percent on mid-season red cherries.
“The industry gave some pretty clear guidelines about where they want to see the efforts of the breeding program,” Cleveringa said. “What we’re getting is a huge amount in the middle of the season, and we’re not seeing anything on the edges.”
Dr. Jim Moyer, director of WSU’s Agricultural Research Center, confirmed in an email to Good Fruit Grower that the commissions had made recommendations for improving the program. “We are still working through the details with them,” he said. He did not comment on specific concerns raised about the program.
WSU’s cherry breeding program began in 1949. The popular blush Rainier variety, which came from a cross of Bing and Van made in 1952 by breeder Dr. Harold Fogle, was the university’s first cherry release. Fogle also developed the Chinook cherry.
Every variety the university has released since then came from crosses made by Dr. Tom Toyama, breeder at WSU from 1963 to 1985.
After Toyama retired, the breeding effort languished for a couple of decades until Jim Olmstead, then a graduate student, became interested in mildew-resistant material that Toyama had left and used it in crosses with Bing, Van, and Rainier.
In 2004, Dr. Matt Whiting, cherry horticulturist with WSU in Prosser, and Dr. Amy Iezzoni, cherry breeder at Michigan State University, did a pilot project to look at the feasibility of resurrecting the cherry breeding program at Prosser.
The following year, the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission and the Oregon Sweet Cherry Commision provided three years of funding to relaunch the program. They have been funding it ever since.
After earning his doctorate at Michigan State University, Olmstead moved back to Prosser as a postdoctoral researcher and continued to evaluate the crosses he made and put them out in small trials in commercial orchards. He later left WSU to be the blueberry breeder at the University of Florida.
In 2008, WSU hired Dr. Nnadozie Oraguzie, formerly a scientist with Hort Research in New Zealand, as cherry breeder. Iezzoni has continued to work as a consultant with the program.
Tom Auvil, research horticulturist with the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, said most of the selections currently being evaluated are from crosses that Olmstead made in collaboration with Iezzoni between 2002 and 2007.
However, many of the mildew-resistant selections have been eliminated because of inferior fruit quality. Although growers consider mildew resistance critical for late-maturing varieties, eating quality must be superior to that of cherries already in the market because consumers don’t care about disease resistance, he said.
Norm Gutzwiler, a cherry grower in the late district of Wenatchee Heights, near Wenatchee, said he’s been hoping for a new sweet dark cherry variety that would mature after Sweetheart and have some resistance to mildew and cracking, as well as good size, flavor, and firmness.
He’s been testing several selections that might be mildew resistant, but they all seem to mature earlier than Sweetheart, closer to Lapins or Skeena, he said.
“When we started, the idea was to extend the season so we would end up with a better cherry than Chelan that was earlier than Chelan and a cherry that was better than Sweetheart and later than Sweetheart.”
Gutzwiler said he’s not sure if WSU didn’t understand what the industry wanted or just hasn’t been able to come up with the right crosses. The hope was that selections could be fast-tracked so that varieties could be developed more quickly.
“It’s a little bit disheartening to know we haven’t been able to advance and see something we could put out on that late end,” he said. “We really need to continue our breeding program and work harder towards our goals of both early and late varieties.”
Dr. Jim McFerson, manager of the Research Commission, said the advisory committee and the industry in general have had concerns about the management and horticultural aspects of the program.
Last November, WSU submitted its most recent proposal and annual funding request for $180,000 to cover the cost of the breeding work and trials in Washington and Oregon. McFerson said the two commissions voted not to fund the proposal as submitted but agreed to provide up to $150,000 contingent upon WSU making significant program revisions.
McFerson said the two commissions still support the program and are committed to funding it, but want to see changes in how it operates to ensure that progress is made, that valuable germ-plasm is not lost, that communication about the selections is improved, and that the overall management is revised.
There’s a sense in the industry that opportunities have been lost, he added. “Yes, there’s been progress, but it hasn’t been of the quality and pace we expected. When we look at the apple breeding program under Kate Evans’ leadership, we have confidence that’s a program that’s taking the industry where we want to go and we have the best breeding program possible to meet the needs of our growers.”
“We all agree that having a world-class cherry breeding program is essential,” he stressed. “It’s not about the program but about program management.” •