Opinion: Washington Tree Fruit Industry Investing In Research

Opinion: Washington Tree Fruit Industry Investing In Research

Desmond LayneIn 1969, the state legislature in Washington passed the Tree Fruit Research Act. The purpose of the act was to establish the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, “which shall promote and carry on research and administer specific industry service programs, including but not limited to sanitation programs, which will or may benefit the planting, production, harvesting, handling, processing, or shipment of tree fruit of this state, which shall collect assessments on tree fruit in this state, and which shall coordinate its research efforts with those of other state, federal, or private agencies doing similar research.”


For 45 years, Washington tree fruit growers have been collectively investing in research and Extension. In FY 2013, nearly $4 million in funding was devoted to addressing problems facing the tree fruit industry.

The major partner to the Washington tree fruit industry continues to be Washington State University (WSU). Throughout the years WSU has focused on research and Extension that addresses challenges facing the industry. This partnership reached an historical landmark in 2011 when the tree fruit industry and WSU jointly launched an effort to permanently expand research and Extension capacity at WSU.

As part of “The Campaign for Washington State University,” tree fruit growers in the state of Washington voted in 2011 and again in 2013 to pass two special project assessments that, over eight years, will generate a $32 million endowment. This is the largest gift in the history of the university. WSU President Elson Floyd said, “A gift of this magnitude is truly transformational. We sincerely thank the industry for making such a dramatic investment, and for finding a way to make it happen that fits the industry’s culture and values. In partnership, WSU and growers will work to ensure the industry continues to be a leader in the global market.”

Getting The Ball Rolling

The first special project assessment was passed by Washington apple and pear growers. The assessment rate is $1 per ton on both apples and pears. The assessment will extend over a time period not to exceed eight years, or when $27 million is raised, whichever comes first. Grower assessments began with the 2012 crop year. The second special project assessment was passed by Washington cherry and other stone fruit (apricot, nectarine, peach, plum) growers. The assessment rate is $4 per ton on sweet cherries and $1 per ton on other stone fruits. The assessment will last over a time period not to exceed eight years, or when $5 million is raised, whichever comes first. Grower assessments began with the 2013 crop year.

The $32 million industry investment in WSU will provide perpetual funding for three targeted areas. First is the establishment of endowed chairs. WSU will cover the salary and benefits for these faculty positions while the endowment will provide support for each targeted research program. I was the first chair hired as the Tree Fruit Extension Program Leader. The second hired was Dr. Stefano Musacchi, formerly of the University of Bologna, as the chair of Tree Fruit Physiology and Management.

Second, the endowment will be used to advance world-class information and technology transfer (ITT). ITT endowment funds will be leveraged with other sources such as state formula funds, national and state competitive grants, and industry grants and gifts, to establish new industry outreach positions that will complement the statewide and regional tree fruit Extension specialists already at WSU. Further, through close interaction with industry, the ITT effort will assist in determining what specific research to do and how to deliver the results in a form that the industry can use to make decisions and improve their operations.

Third, the endowment will be used to support research orchard operations, facilities, equipment, etc. This gift will help to provide stable funding to maintain the living laboratories where new knowledge and technology is developed through research at the WSU tree fruit research farms in Wenatchee and Prosser.

Support From Within

Another goal of the Campaign for Tree Fruit is to raise an additional $10 million through in-kind gifts and cash donations from allied industries and friends. In contrast to the $32 million noted above, this is not a grower assessment. Allied industries include orchard and packinghouse equipment manufacturers, agricultural chemical companies, irrigation equipment suppliers, packaging companies, nurseries, and financial institutions. The allied industries and friends campaign goal is targeted with $4.5 million toward developing research orchards, $2.5 million toward establishing improved fruit handling and storage facilities, and $3 million to support graduate research assistantships. To date, $1 million has been raised toward this goal.

A critical element to the sustaining power and long-term, mutual success of this landmark public-private partnership is regular and open communication and shared management. An industry advisory committee, called the Endowment Advisory Committee (EAC), comprising seven industry appointees, works closely with the Dean of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences to ensure the investment is maximized for the benefit of Washington tree fruit growers. Each endowment will be governed by a specific gift use agreement, which the EAC will develop jointly with WSU. In addition, the EAC will participate in annual program reviews and members will sit on selection committees recruiting new WSU hires.

National Implications

There is no doubt that Washington tree fruit and allied industries are investing in their future. As both the research and technology enterprise is expanded over the next eight years and through partnership with faculty already at WSU, regionally adapted discoveries and innovations will help keep Washington growers profitable and sustainable. With this news, you might be saying to yourself, “Hey, that’s great for Washington tree fruit growers, but how does that help me?” In simple terms, there is a multiplier effect. New scientific discoveries, resulting technologies, and applications to solve tree fruit industry problems will eventually transcend the geographic boundaries of the state of Washington — especially in the current information age that we live in with the Internet. Further, given the enhanced emphasis of specialty crops in the 2014 Farm Bill, new and expanded multistate, multidisciplinary research and Extension teams will be developed to address national industry-relevant problems. The bottom line is that with more brain power, more financial resources, enhanced facilities, and strengthened existing or new partnerships, the tree fruit industry nationally will be poised to make significant advances and enhance our global competitiveness.

Land grant universities across the U.S. continue to face fiscal challenges. Many, including WSU, have chosen to raise tuition fees and increase student enrollment. However, these funds are typically not linked to direct support for agricultural research and Extension. With diminished support at the national and especially the state level to support traditional agricultural research and Extension activities, many institutions are cutting back, merging, or eliminating programs and positions.
The model that has been developed between the Washington tree fruit industry and WSU is one that has helped to overcome public funding trends. However, it has required the industry to invest in its own future. A similar effort in Michigan, led by Phil Korson (executive director, Michigan Cherry Committee) and others is gaining traction. Perhaps it is time to begin a conversation with growers and allied industry in your region/state, along with university and government officials, to explore the power of partnering in your neck of the woods.