Chuck Peters designed his new pear orchard with mechanization and new technologies in mind.

Chuck Peters designed his new pear orchard with mechanization and new technologies in mind.

It might be possible to develop apples with yet-to-be-identified health benefits, says orchardist Chuck Peters.

When Chuck Peters, a pear grower from Yakima, Washington, was asked in 1987 to predict what the fruit industry would be dealing with in the next half century, he accurately foresaw a number of trends.

He said labor issues would be a continuing concern. He foresaw industry consolidation resulting in fewer growers, though he did not expect to be among those who lost their orchards. He expected to see improved production efficiencies and fruit quality, and indeed the industry has become more efficient in all phases of production, storage, packaging, and is delivering a superior product to consumers.

But there were trends he predicted that did not come to pass. For example, he predicted more brand marketing, whereas there has been less with the demise of the Washington Apple Commission. And he expected domestic per capita apple consumption to increase, but in fact, it’s been declining because of competition from other fresh fruits year round and expanded exports.

So, what will this industry look like in the future? We asked Peters to look into his crystal ball once more.

He believes that the technology that will drive the industry into the future is already here and will be a key component of the industry’s competitiveness throughout this century.

“It began with those individuals and groups in the industry that had the foresight early in this decade to develop the strategic plan called the National Tree Fruit Technology Roadmap, which identified robotics and genetics as areas to improve production efficiencies in dramatic ways unforeseen just a few years ago,” he said. Washington State University, other universities, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and private industry have joined in this pursuit.

Computerization is allowing remote monitoring of weather and water. Computer models are predicting the timing for irrigation and sprays, and the number of uses will continue to expand, Peters believes.  Scanning and robotics technology have brought the industry to the cusp of mechanized fruit harvest.  New Zealand has an operational robotic kiwi fruit harvester, although it is not yet in commercial use.

“Dynamic changes will occur in the orchard at harvest in the next 25 years,” he predicts.

He hopes that WSU’s new emphasis in Rosaceae genetics will identify new approaches to expanding consumer demand by improving texture, flavor, appearance, storability, disease and pest tolerance, and production. It might also be possible to provide Washington apples that are higher in fiber, micronutrients, antioxidants, and yet-to-be-identified health benefits, he believes. This will increase demand and slow the erosion of markets to other fresh fruits and vegetables.

“Unfortunately, the requirements for capital and skilled personnel and market share will continue to consolidate the industry,” Peters says. “On the bright side, demand for skilled technicians and managers will increase.  Labor issues associated with the migrant labor base will begin to abate.

“I believe the production base will continue to slowly migrate to the Columbia Basin.  Large land units, adequate water, and lower power rates will move the industry in that direction.

“There are a host of other issues that will play out over the next several decades, including food safety/traceability and sustainability.  The most perplexing is the impact or nonimpact of global warming. If, in fact, we are experiencing global warming, it likely will occur over a long period of time but ultimately could restructure the industry.  Water is and will continue to be an issue in the basin tributaries of the Columbia River.  Demand for ‘public water’ will slowly erode production agriculture in these basins.”