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New WSU cherry breeder sets sights on wider market window, new varieties

Per McCord with tools in the WSU cherry orchard.
Per McCord, new stone fruit breeder at Washington State University, works at the Roza research orchard near Prosser.

Somewhere among the thousands of young trees at Washington State University’s Roza research orchard near Prosser, Wash., are future cherry varieties promising wider harvests, disease resistance, and more firm, flavorful fruit.

Per McCord is here to find them.

As new cherry breeder at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser, McCord will use the latest technology to speed breeding of new varieties for Washington’s half-billion-dollar cherry industry.

Washington is the number one producer of cherries in the U.S., and it was here at WSU that the Rainier blush cherry was developed seven decades ago. Growers are eager for new cherry varieties, and McCord, who was hired April 1 to head up WSU’s stone fruit breeding efforts, has as his first priority selection of lines that promise disease resistance, high fruit quality, and most of all, a wider window of ripeness.

“People love cherries, but they’re only available for a short time of year,” McCord said. “Increasing that harvest window, particularly the late season, will really boost sales for our farmers and satisfy cherry consumers. It means we’re going to need new varieties, and that’s my number one goal.”

New technology speeds up breeding

As the university’s stone fruit breeder, McCord’s role also covers peaches, apricots and plums.  But his top crop, by far, is cherries, and McCord is meeting with Washington cherry growers this summer to better understand their needs and priorities.

McCord comes to Prosser from Canal Point, Florida, home of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s sugarcane variety development program. In Florida, McCord bred better cane for that state’s billion-dollar industry, but also researched ways to improve the breeding process itself through the discovery and development of genetic markers: Pieces of DNA that tell scientists if a plant will carry a given trait.

“We know these DNA markers work,” he said. “Now, I’m going to plug them into the cherry program for smarter crosses, better varieties, and ultimately thriving orchards, happy customers and successful farmers. That’s how we’re going to make real progress.”

McCord sees similarities between cane and cherries, notably their annual breeding cycle and labor-intensive cultivation. Understanding those challenges should help him more quickly establish an effective cherry breeding program.

At WSU, McCord is excited to be able to work with the genetic markers developed by WSU faculty, such those developed through the USDA-funded RosBREED project.

“Just by snipping a leaf and running it through a special test, we’ll be able to tell if a young cherry tree has a trait we’re looking for” McCord said. “DNA markers, along with improved propagation techniques, have the potential to significantly reduce the amount of time to develop and deploy new cherry varieties.”

Breeding for the full package

McCord looks forward to crossing new genetic material, developing selections that will one day become future varieties. In the near term, he’ll be testing the thousands of young trees already in the breeding pipeline to meet a variety of goals.

“If we can get fresh-picked cherries earlier and later in the season, from growers to consumers, everyone will be happy,” he said. “If we can improve size, flavor, and other important characteristics, we’ll have greater consumer interest.”

There’s also a lot that goes into cherries that the consumer doesn’t see, such as resistance to cracking, and the ability to survive cold snaps and bear fruit at a younger age.

Working with other WSU scientists, McCord aims to breed resistance to diseases, notably cherry powdery mildew, which covers cherries in a white, unappetizing fungus and is a major problem for Northwest growers.

“Trying to get all of these things at once: That’s the challenge of breeding,” says McCord. “I want to give growers a new variety with a wider harvest window, good fruit size, sweetness and flavor, and healthy growing characteristics: In other words, the total package.”

  • Contact: Per McCord, Associate Professor, Stone Fruit Breeding, 509-786-9254, phmccord@wsu.edu.