Representing the grape industry, I sit on the Tier 2 Grape Board for the National Clean Plant Network (NCPN) and have since the inception of the Clean Plant Network in the early 2000s, when the industry made it clear we had to have a seat at the table to ensure our interests were communicated and our needs were met. A recent review of the center’s operations and recommendations for the future show how that seat remains vitally important to our industry today.

Vicky Scharlau is executive director of Washington Winegrowers. (Provided photo)
Vicky Scharlau

NCPN is a commodity-based organization. Two commodities — grapes and tree fruit — provided the initial impetus for organizing the network. Since then, citrus, berries and hops joined. Each commodity elects its own board members and prepares its own charter (this group is called the Tier 2).

The voting members are selected from academia, industry groups and state government. The primary responsibilities are to identify priorities and recommend the allocation of funds received from the Tier 1 Governing Board, made up of state and federal regulators. You can see evidence of our work if you visit the Clean Plant Center Northwest at the Washington State University Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser, which is home to grapes, tree fruit and hops for both betterment and protection nationally.

To ensure the Clean Plant Center Northwest is positioned to fulfill its mission, a panel of industry, university, and state and federal agency representatives met late last year to review the Clean Plant Center’s processes and performance. Over two days, the panel met with the Clean Plant Center director and lab manager to review protocols, facilities and workflow.

The center has seen a lot of change in the past decade, and even more so over the past few years, with leadership changes and as demands on services and resources have evolved.

Overall, the panel found the Clean Plant Center to be on a trajectory to better serve the needs of industry, both owing to current processes and planned implementation of advanced information technology infrastructure. As a result, the panel identified four areas that could affect the success of the CPCNW or even more broadly the whole National Clean Plant Network (listed below).

Of note, the panel commended director Scott Harper for his stewardship, recognizing the many challenges he faced when assuming the role and noting he has made immense strides in his short time at WSU. The panel found that “his alterations to facilities to improve workflow and reduce contamination as well as the implementation of trackable processes in the short-term are laudable.”

Long-term stability for the CPCNW will require increased and diversified funding from industries it serves — that includes the grape industry in the Northwest, the hop industry and the tree fruit industry.

The recent red blotch announcement at Foundation Plant Services (FPS), the National Clean Plant Network facility at the University of California, Davis, illustrates the need to support infrastructure. And it’s no secret that space is at a premium at Prosser, with the IAREC infrastructure aging, too. Inflation is eating away at the $1.2 million received from the federal program, and revenue from plant sales and proprietary material isn’t enough. Plus, clean plant facilities are being used by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service for quarantine work, and that displaces industry needs.

We also need to be cognizant that certification rules or quarantines (or changes to them) impact clean plant centers because cleaning up every virus is time-consuming and expensive. We must consider the benefit/cost ratio: the cost of management versus the economic harm from a virus.

Overall, while we have made huge strides in the past two decades, we still have much work to do building a sustainable clean plant center at Prosser. And that effort will include — must include — the grape, tree fruit and hop industries.

Now, on to the panel recommendations:

Recommendation 1: Enhance communication between CPCNW, regulatory agencies and stakeholders.

—Support a user interface for the laboratory information management system (LIMS) that allows stakeholders real-time access to the status of their submissions. (Local and national)

—Reinstate an active CPCNW advisory committee. (Local)

—Promote greater involvement among CPCNW, WSU leadership, regulatory agencies and stakeholders. (Local)

—Promote greater involvement between CPCNW and the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s virus certification program diagnostic laboratories. (Local)

Recommendation 2: Enhance efficacy and efficiency of operations at the CPCNW.

—Explore options for final disposal of plant material. (National)

—Adjust the staffing plan to attract and maintain a competent workforce. (Local)

—Standardize staff training and ongoing professional development. (Local)

Recommendation 3: Ensure the validity and accessibility of data generated at the CPCNW. The CPCNW is in the process of adopting a laboratory information management system (LIMS). When fully implemented, the LIMS will add capacity for chain of custody/audit tracking; storage of scanned documents; location/tracking of plants in the greenhouse; and the option to add a web access portal for customer viewing. Together, these capabilities are anticipated to rectify many of the issues.

—Develop and maintain an inventory of key laboratory equipment, as well as a system for sample traceability. (Local)

—Improve assay validity and data transfer. (Local)

—Continue to take steps to implement a quality management system. (Local)

—Aim to use primarily peer-reviewed diagnostic assays. (National)

Recommendation 4: Participate in national discussions that drive decision-making in the NCPN and clean plant requirements.

—Along with NCPN colleagues, discuss implications of pathogens that are required to be absent for release of clean plants but are of little concern to the industry. (National)

—Along with NCPN colleagues, review clean plant practices that could be eliminated without compromising the safety of the program. (National)

Again, while much of this is focused on the tree fruit portion of the Clean Plant Center Northwest, the infrastructure, validity, communication and efficiency/efficacy is vital to grapes and hops, too.

The Northwest grape industry created a stakeholder group to work side-by-side with WSU-Prosser on the center 20 years ago. That group, called the Northwest Foundation Block Advisory Group, is larger, more active, more vibrant and more necessary today than ever. FBAG pulls in grower and processor representatives from Idaho and Oregon in addition to Washington; all grape sectors grown in the Northwest; departments of agriculture and the universities. It’s an impressive list of over 100 interested industry members. That level of interest alone should indicate our care. We care a lot. •

—by Vicky Scharlau

Vicky Scharlau is the executive director of the Washington Winegrowers Association.