Work began this spring on developing what is intended to be a world-class, state-of-the-art research orchard in Washington State.
Last fall, Washington State University purchased an orchard about 12 miles east of Wenatchee that will eventually replace the current research orchard surrounding its Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center, which is in an urban part of Wenatchee. The existing orchard has been purchased by the Wenatchee School District as a potential school site, but can still be used by WSU until the field research is transferred to the new orchard, probably within two or three years. The research center, with its offices, laboratories, and greenhouse, will remain where it is.
The new orchard site, on the Quincy highway, has 150 acres of plantable land. About 60 acres of orchard were removed and 40 acres replanted this spring.
The Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission has committed up to $500,000 to redevelop the orchard, and the Northwest Nursery Improvement Institute coordinated donations from nurseries of 30,000 cherry, apple, and pear trees for planting this spring. More acreage will be replanted next year.
"There’ll be a higher turnover rate than there’s ever been in research orchards," said Dr. Jim McFerson, manager of the Research Commission. "We’re not going to be doing research in orchards of the past. This is not a museum. The intent is to provide researchers with a platform to conduct research that’s relevant to the modern tree fruit industry and other perennial crops."
Dr. Jay Brunner, director of the Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center, said that WSU is putting together working groups to decide what are the most important concepts to be studied at the orchard, whether those be soils, new varieties, crop protection, training systems, or alternative crops.
Future research will include organic systems. The orchard has about 70 acres of bearing organic trees, but the university is leasing out the organic blocks for the time being so it can focus on developing the new sections.
However, the intent is not to make money from the sale of the fruit to support the orchard, McFerson stressed. "The first priority is to do high-value, cutting-edge research."
Brunner said the new plantings would be designed so they have multiple uses, as far as possible. For example, there might be interdisciplinary projects, or multiple projects using the same site for different studies. "In some cases, research doesn’t lend itself to that," he acknowledged, "but as much as possible, we’re trying to maximize the use of the area for the benefit of the most research."
The new apple trees are on Malling 9 and M.9-clone rootstocks planted on a 3 feet by 10 feet spacing and include the varieties most prevalent in the commercial industry, such as Fuji, Gala, Granny Smith, Honeycrisp, and Golden Delicious.
There are plans to conduct pear research, also. "We feel that the pear industry has certainly not reached its potential," McFerson said. "I’m more excited about pears than anything else. Preconditioning has opened people’s eyes to the market that’s out there."
However, many pear growers are still trying to produce crops in outdated orchards with huge trees, he noted. "Crop protection would be much better in high-density orchards with smaller trees." Cherry production is expanding rapidly in Washington State, and McFerson said there are plenty of researchable questions relating to cherries. Dr. Matt Whiting, stone fruit horticulturist with WSU in Prosser, will have the opportunity to conduct trials at the new orchard.
Brunner said the university is partnering with a commercial company to test an electrified deer fence around the site. Eventually, it will be looking for donations of modern equipment, such as tractors, sprayers, and other types of automated devices designed to optimize labor.
The university also plans to use the orchard for extension and demonstration opportunities in collaboration with U.S. Department of Agriculture and industry scientists. It is hoped that the orchard will provide educational experiences for students and visiting scientists, as well as outreach for the industry.
McFerson said it’s a demonstration of the industry’s confidence in WSU that the commission partnered with the university to make this the best research orchard in the world.
"We believe this research orchard and the research farm with other crops will be a go-to place in the world for research, extension, and education."
The region is an excellent place to grow tree fruits and wine grapes, he noted, and the university has creative and energetic researchers working in teams to address issues relevant to the industry. In addition, the industry is willing to support its research and extension infrastructure through the commission.
"It’s about a partnership that simply has to happen among industry, state and federal research agencies, and scientists," he said.
"It’s wonderful to see a dream realized."