Washington cherry and stone fruit growers have joined their counterparts growing apples and pears in paying for research and Extension activities in an unprecedented public/private partnership with Washington State University (WSU). The total price tag is a whopping $32 million.
“It’s by far the largest gift WSU has received from anyone for anything,” said an excited Jim McFerson from his office at the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission in Wenatchee of what is dubbed the “Campaign for Washington State University.”
McFerson was also relieved, as the referendum’s passage was far from a slam dunk. In fact, last summer when apple and pear growers agreed to assess themselves, cherry and stone fruit growers declined. This time around there was again plenty of apathy, which McFerson says is difficult to overcome. However, in a vote that was certified today, the assessment passed by a narrow margin.
On cherries, of the 1,494 ballots mailed, just 565 were returned with 338 or 59% voting yes, and 231 or 41% voting no. Of the 136 stone fruit ballots sent out, just 47 were returned with 32 voting yes, or 68%, and 15 voting no,32 %. The assessment will be $4 per ton for cherries and $1 per ton for soft fruits. It will raise a maximum of $5 million over the next eight years, and the pome fruit assessments raise a maximum of $27 million for a total of $32 million.
The low turnout didn’t dim McFerson’s enthusiasm, who when asked what the vote means said that cherry and soft fruit growers won’t be left behind when it comes to research and Extension. “It means we will be able as an industry to move forward in a cohesive, focused manner,” he said. “All the tree fruit industries in Washington will see enhanced research and tech transfer activities.”
In fact, just a quick review of what has happened regarding university research not only in Washington but around the nation demonstrates how vital the assessment will become. Huge investments by the public — without an attendant shot in the arm by the private sector — are a thing of the past. “This is a public/private partnership; this is the future,” said McFerson. “It’s our producers saying we’ve got a future, but we’ve got to make a commitment to research.”
The funds would establish endowments at WSU with the interest earnings used to create new research positions, expand technology transfer to producers, and support research orchards. An endowment advisory committee will make recommendations on specific uses for the money. For example, Stefano Musacchi, an internationally recognized leader in pomology, will join the WSU faculty in August as the endowed chair in tree fruit physiology/management. The chair is funded by the “Campaign for Washington State University.”
Another faculty position is being filled this month by Desmond Layne, formerly of Clemson University, who like McFerson is a columnist for American/Western Fruit Grower magazine and GrowingProduce.com.