Asia-Pacific partners get look at WSU research for Skagit Valley’s exported specialty crops

Lisa DeVetter hosts the APEC tour
Meeting members of APEC, Lisa DeVetter, WSU associate professor, shares work on soil-biodegradable plastic mulches, which could help specialty-crop growers improve sustainability.

Sharing research that helps Washington’s Skagit Valley specialty-crop producers supply the world, scientists at WSU’s Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center gave members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) an in-field look at current projects on soil-biodegradable plastic mulch, soil health, and disease defense.

Visiting Mount Vernon on Friday, Aug. 4, five APEC-member secretaries or undersecretaries of agriculture, ministry personnel from more than a dozen countries, and staff from USDA’s Foreign Agriculture Service, joined Wendy Powers, the Cashup Davis Family Endowed Dean of CAHNRS, and station director Carol Miles for tours and discussions, as part of the forum’s Pacific Northwest visit.

“This was a great honor and responsibility for our Center,” said Miles, who organized the event with assistance from NWREC staff. “It was an outstanding opportunity to showcase our work and stakeholders to the Asia-Pacific region, of which Washington is a key trading partner.”

With a significant portion of the world’s supply of specialty crops originating in the Skagit Valley, the tour focused on the region’s high-value production for Asian export. Participants visited berry producers Sakuma Brothers Farm as well as Sakata Seed America, which grows and processes vegetable seed crops, meeting owners and CEOs of both companies. Samuel Crowell, senior director for international programs and policy with the American Seed Trade Association, presented on barriers and opportunities for international seed trade.

Solutions for sustainability

Among featured research, Associate Professor Lisa DeVetter shared her team’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative-funded work on soil-biodegradable plastic mulches, which could help growers improve sustainability and reduce plastic waste and pollution. Her project looks at strawberries, but the research is applicable to a wide range of crops.

Finding viable solutions for agricultural plastic waste management is one of the important issues for the global community, DeVetter said. The APEC tour helped highlight the scope of the problem and the solutions being explored.

Underlining the importance of plastic mulch from the farmer perspective, she emphasized the need to find alternatives that work for commercial systems, rather than eliminating the product as a tool.

Chris Benedict soil tour
Chris Benedict, Regional Extension Specialist for Whatcom County, (holding microphone), talks about the Washington Soil Health Initiative with visiting members of APEC, during a tour Aug. 4, 2023. The initiative, which helps support better soil health across the state, will make a positive impact over the long term, he says.

“Many of our western Washington vegetable growers use plastic mulch, as do fruit and vegetable growers worldwide,” she said. “Creating solutions that reduce waste generation through alternatives like soil-biodegradable plastic mulches, or improve plastic mulch’s end-of-life outcomes, such as through recycling, impacts multiple specialty crops, including those that are grown for our local food supply as well as export.”

Chris Benedict, Regional Extension Specialist for Whatcom County, discussed the Washington Soil Health Initiative, which provides science-based technical assistance and support to boost soil health across Washington’s diverse regions and cropping systems. Part of this work includes Mount Vernon’s Long Term Agroecological Research and Extension (LTARE) project, a two-decade study of soil health best management practices.

“The impacts that the initiative and LTARE will have on Pacific Northwest crops will be made over time,” Benedict said. “My hope is that our APEC guests were exposed to new ideas and ways to address each of the issues that we discussed.”

Professor and Extension Plant Pathologist Lindsey du Toit joined Stephen Strand, general manager at Vikima USA, for a tour stop in a commercial hybrid spinach seed field. Professor du Toit studies the origins, spread, patterns, and management of diseases affecting important vegetable and seed crops, including spinach seed crops, at home and around the globe.

She talked with APEC members about Pacific Northwest seed production and how researchers support the industry, including work to manage Fusarium wilt, one of the major constraints on spinach seed production in the U.S.

“There’s a long history of very successful vegetable seed production in the western Washington, based not only on our unique climatic conditions,” du Toit said, “but also the extensive technical and research support WSU provides through the pathology, entomology, weed science, and soil science programs.

“It was highly beneficial for those on the tour to hear about the research and extension investment through WSU that supports the high value vegetable seed industry,” she added. “This technical support is one of the reasons companies bring contracts for vegetable seed production to this region.”

Dr. du Toit plans to continue offering spinach parent line screening and Fusarium wilt soil bioassays each winter, as the spinach seed industry has emphasized the importance of these tests to the viability of U.S. spinach seed production.

The tour also took in the center’s Volunteer Display Gardens, a 10-acre educational site incorporating the WSU Master Gardeners Discovery Garden, Washington Native Plant Society Garden, and the Western Washington Fruit Research Foundation Garden.

APEC links 21 Pacific Rim countries to promote free trade. Members were visiting Seattle to take part in the forum’s Third Senior Officials’ Meeting.