Apple growers become patrons of science

by Lisa Jones

Washington's asparagus growers will pay WSU scientists $12,000 this year to figure out how to prevent asparagus spears from softening during canning. Pea and lentil growers will spend about $50,000 on researching soil conservation. And the tiny cranberry industry has contracted with university researchers to find ways to keep weeds from invading cranberry bogs.


But apple growers spend much more on research than any of Washington's other two dozen agricultural groups. Apples account for about 85 percent of the state's tree fruits, and will bring in a projected $1 billion this year - more than any other agricultural product.


The tree fruit industry's support for research mirrors its position on top of the agricultural heap. This year, orchardists will contribute $2 million to research - nearly half of it to Washington State University. This figure is proportionally higher than that given by the dairy and wheat growers, the second and third largest agricultural groups in the state, respectively. The dairy industry, which generates about $650 million annually, will contribute about $250,000 to research this year. The wheat industry, with revenues of about $500 million, will give scientists about $750,000.


Tree fruit growers are quadrupling support for research. In 1991, they gave less than $1 million; next year, they will distribute about $3.4 million.


Much of the growers' eagerness to support research because the number of pesticides for apples is shrinking.


"The growers I work with are all extremely concerned with environmental issues," says Peter Sanderson, a plant pathologist who works for the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission. "They really do think of themselves as stewards of the land. They don't like to be hounded by regulators, so most people want to keep their operations clean."


Finding alternatives to pesticides is not the only way that scientists help growers. They're developing ways to increase productivity, decrease fertilizer use and breed new strains of apples.


Doyle Fleming, who grows apples in Orondo, says Washington apples need to compete in foreign markets against fruit from Chile, South Africa and Europe. "Our industry's success is tied up with research, because we're not going to produce for less than these other countries," he says. "So we have to do it better or cheaper. As an industry it's pretty much agreed upon that research is our only hope."


* Lisa Jones


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