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WSU Program Takes a Bite Out of Apple Smugglers

PROSSER, Wash. — When U.S. Customs agents catch smugglers, they confiscate their contraband and charge them with crimes. But when Gaylord Mink set out to fight smuggling of “sticks” to propagate deciduous tree fruit, he took a different approach. He made it easier for them to legally import the plant material.

No one has data on the impact of Mink’s anti-smuggling campaign, but there’s no question the Washington State University plant pathologist’s program to provide the fruit industry with virus-free propagating material has contributed to the good health of the world’s orchards and saved orchardists many millions of dollars.

Mink retired Sept. 30, after 10 years as head of the National Research Support Project 5, formerly known as Inter Regional Project 2. It was started in 1955 at Washington State University’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center near Prosser, Wash., with Paul Freidland as the first plant pathologist in charge.

“It was successful almost immediately,” says Mink. Freidland and his associates developed technology that allowed the laboratory to produce virus-free stock. But the process was cumbersome for nurserymen and orchardists. It could take up to eight-10 years to put virus-free stock into commercial orchards.

Such a long wait tempted the industry to smuggle new propagating material to get foreign varieties into production quicker. If they weren’t caught in the act of smuggling the propagating material into the country, a loophole in U.S. laws allows orchardists to continue growing it.

Mink says the law literally aids and abets smugglers by making smuggled plant material legal as soon as it is growing in the United States. “The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is powerless to stop cultivation of smuggled material,” he says.

A recent example of the problem was the introduction of Braeburn apples to U.S. production via smuggling. The Braeburn originated in New Zealand. Imported fruit became a hot item in U.S. grocery stores, thus giving orchardists an incentive to smuggle propagating material into the United States.

Conclusive evidence of smuggling lies in the fact that 270 acres of Braeburn apples were harvested in Washington in 1991, the same year Mink’s program released the first certified virus-free propagating material. Braeburn propagating material also was being sold that year in nursery catalogues.

Mink decided the only effective way to take a bite out of smuggling was to dramatically shorten the time it takes to produce virus-free stock. That he has done with remarkable success, cutting the time from eight-10 years in the mid-1970s to a mere 15 months. “That’s almost as fast as they can get it if they smuggle something in,” says Mink. And he believes the time can be further shortened.

“If we can get through some of the proposals that are still pending and convince APHIS of our ability to handle the technology, we might reduce turnaround time to four or five months,” says Mink.

“We’re slowly taking away the incentive to smuggle in things, any incentive based around time they could be growing plants.”

NRSP 5 doesn’t just serve Northwest or United States growers. It is a world-wide program. And its influence is being felt world-wide. NRSP 5 has clients in 49 states and 57 foreign countries. Among the states, only Hawaii does not use the virus-free program, and that’s because it doesn’t grow deciduous tree fruit.

Almost all countries outside the tropics use the virus-free program. Clientele include scientists, regulatory agencies, industry and foreign governments. “We’ve been very successful, worldwide, developing virus- free fruit trees,” says Mink. So successful, in fact, that viruses no longer are considered a major economic threat to deciduous tree fruit production.

“Most of that is due to effectiveness of virus certification programs,” says Mink.

Unfortunately, as the threat of viral diseases has declined, so has public funding for dealing with viruses.

Mink says at the beginning of his career, in the late 1950s, 100-150 scientists were working on tree fruit virus research and regulation in the United States and Canada. Ten of them worked in Washington State. Mink says today there are only about 15 in the United States and Canada.

NRSP 5 is one of the few entities that has sustained a level funding in the past 20 years. Currently the total NRSP 5 budget is about $500,000 a year with about 50 percent of that coming from WSU, service fees and industry grants. Clientele pay $1,000 per tree they ask to have processed through the program.

As Mink slips into retirement he cautions that the industry can’t afford to let down its virus guard. “With all of the importing of varieties people are expanding the diversity of germ plasm used for fruit trees, especially in apples. They are going outside the traditional germ plasm to get disease resistance, improved horticultural characteristics and using new rootstocks. As they change from the old varieties to new ones, viruses that were no problem in old varieties can cause very serious problems in some of the new varieties.

“We’re seeing this in stone fruit and apples. Some new varieties are very, very sensitive. When people bring in new rootstocks and graft them with varieties that are infected with viruses, trees may die outright because the viruses kill these new rootstocks.

“We’ve found this situation now in some of the most popular new sweet cherry rootstocks that came from Germany. Some of these varieties die within a single year, or two years, when infected by viruses that are common in our orchards now.

“While viruses haven’t been a general problem throughout the industry for a couple of decades, none have disappeared. Not one of the viral pathogens that created major economic problems for U.S. or Canadian fruit growers in the past has ever been eradicated. They are still there and they are going to continue to cause problems whenever the genetic climate is right.”

Mink also notes, “As a result of rapidly changing consumer preferences in many countries, U.S. fruit growers, nurserymen, breeders and horticulturists are searching the world for new fruit cultivars and rootstocks suitable for U.S. interests. In the past, a majority of new introductions were smuggled into the country in the belief that legal introduction through normal plant quarantine channels is slow and cumbersome.”

NRSP 5 is changing both the reality and the perception as it continues to speed the process of providing virus-free propagating materials to the world’s nurseries and orchardists.

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Producing Virus-Free Propagating Material

PULLMAN, Wash. — How do Washington State University scientists produce virus-free propagating material for the world’s deciduous tree fruit industry?

After all, there’s no “magic bullet” to kill viruses.

The process is deceptively simple. Here’s how they do it. When someone asks the National Research Support Project 5 to produce virus free materials, they are asked to send eight-10 “sticks” of bud wood. International shipments are accompanied by an APHIS importation tag and permit. These are sent to the Port of Seattle where APHIS inspects, repackages and forwards it to the NRSP 5 lab at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center near Prosser.

Upon receipt, the package is opened and three procedures begin. Scientists propagate a “reference” tree by grafting buds onto root stock. The resulting tree, which will be grown for two years, is used as a check to ensure that other processes are properly done. Scientists then graft portions of the same sticks onto a series of virus indicator plants to determine which viruses are present.

The third procedure removes viruses from some buds by prolonged growth in heat chambers maintained at a constant 100 degrees Fahrenheit with 16 hours of artificial light each day. They are forced to grow so fast that viruses cannot translocate fast enough to infect new tissue. When the resulting buds are about the size of a match head, technicians remove the virus-free tissue and graft it onto virus-free rootstocks.

These tiny tips begin growing in about seven days in moist chamber conditions at 75-80 degrees Fahrenheit. As the new plants grow they are subjected to a series of screenings for all known viruses. If any are found to be infected, they are destroyed.

Virus-free material is permitted to go through a dormant period, then checked again. If viruses are not found, it is ready to be released.

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