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WSU Researchers Win $15 Million in USDA Specialty Crop Research Grants

(Correction, Dec. 1, 2009 – A project focused on sensor-based precision management of specialty crops ultimately was not funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative as originally reported in September. The Washington State University College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences has, however, been awarded nearly $14 million in SCRI grants, which in turn will leverage another $14 million in matching funds from WSU, industry and private sources.)

PULLMAN, Wash. – Washington State University research teams have been awarded more than $15 million in U.S. Department of Agriculture grants aimed at specialty crops such as tree fruit, wine grapes and potatoes. They will receive nearly a third of the $47.3 million awarded nationally, which places them among the top recipients in the country. USDA finalized the grant awards today.

“This is a proud day for Washington State University,” said WSU President Elson S. Floyd. “These awards reflect the caliber of cutting-edge science being conducted by our faculty members as well as the unparalleled support we enjoy from the specialty crops industry.”

Dan Bernardo, dean of the WSU College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences, agreed.

“This kind of unprecedented success is a point of pride for WSU and the entire state,” he said. “It is a direct result of our world-class quality research as well as the hand-in-glove partnership we have with the specialty crops industry in Washington. We also need to thank the state’s congressional delegation for their help and support in supporting the Specialty Crop Research Initiative in the last Farm Bill.”

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray said the funds will make a difference for Washington growers.

“Washington state farmers are among the best in the nation at producing specialty crops like apples, cherries, and pears,” Murray said. “These USDA grants will give Washington State University researchers the resources they need to keep our state on the cutting edge of agricultural research, and help our farmers continue to grow the healthy, delicious crops that feed our families and support our communities.”

Congressman Doc Hastings said the partnership between WSU and the specialty crops industry has always been strong.

“Washington State University does an outstanding job finding ways to improve the quality and quantity of specialty crops grown in Central Washington,” Hastings said. “Having supported the efforts of the researchers and scientists at the facilities in Prosser and the Tri-Cities for many years, I can tell you that their research is world class and that the results of their studies have significantly improved the specialty crops grown throughout Central Washington. The selection of Washington State University for these grants prove that they are among the best qualified throughout the nation to perform this type of important research.”

Ralph Cavalieri, director of the WSU Agricultural Research Center, noted that many of the grant applications were successful because of progress made by researchers with $1.5 million in state dollars awarded in 2007-08 in the “Emerging Research Issues” component of the Unified Agriculture Initiative. “Those funds allowed our scientists to lay the foundation of high-quality exploratory work necessary to leverage federal dollars,” he said. “The state’s investment has paid a terrific dividend.”

USDA started its Specialty Crop Research Initiative in 2008 to target research funding to “specialty crops,” which include fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, and horticulture and nursery crops. Designated research funds have not previously been available for these crops, unlike the long-established programs for commodity crops such as wheat, corn and soybeans.

Last year, WSU received $3.3 million, or about 12 percent of the total awarded. This year, WSU scientists — working in interdisciplinary teams — will receive $15.3 million, either through direct grants or as subcontractors on projects led by other institutions. The research teams will study a wide variety of topics, from the most basic science at the cellular level to applied best practices which solve problems growers face in the orchard and field.

Specifically, the grants will fund the following WSU projects:

  • $3.8 million to a team led by plant physiologist Matthew Whiting for “A Total Systems Approach to Developing a Sustainable, Stem-free Sweet Cherry Production, Processing and Marketing System.” Collaborators include cherry breeder Nnadozie Oraguzie; biological systems engineer Qin Zhang; Fran Pierce, director of WSU’s Center for Precision Agricultural Systems; plant physiologist and genomicist Amit Dhingra; and food scientist Carolyn Ross.
  • $3.1 million to a team led by entomologist Doug Walsh for “Agronomic and Biochemical Impacts of Biotic and Abiotic Stress on Pacific Northwest Flavor Crops.” Specifically, the project is aimed at improving production efficiency, productivity and profitability by studying the interactions between insect and mite pest, weed and disease management methodologies and water shortage (simulating impacts of drought and or climate change) on hop and mint crop quantity and quality as well as the subsequent economic and sociological impacts on the producers, their families, and the community. Collaborators include weed scientist Robert Parker; AgWeatherNet director Gary Grove; biological systems engineer Troy Peters; food scientists Kerry Ringer and Carolyn Ross; economists Karina Gallardo and Tom Marsh; sociologist Jane Sherman; and vegetable specialist Tim Waters.
  • $2.1 million to a team led by horticultural geneticist Cameron Peace for “RosBREED: Enabling Marker-assisted Breeding in Rosaceae.” Specifically, this project will correlate quality traits in fruits, like apples, pears and berries, which consumers want, with DNA-based genetic markers in order to improve fruit breeding speed and accuracy. Collaborators include horticultural bioinformatician Dorrie Main; apple breeder Kate Evans; cherry breeder Nnadozie Oraguzie; economists Vickie McCracken, Mykel Taylor and Karina Gallardo; and rural sociologist Ray Jussaume.
  • $2 million to a team led by plant pathologist Debra Inglis to develop “Biodegradable Mulches for Specialty Crops Produced under Protective Cover.” Collaborators include horticulturists Carol Miles and Tom Walters; fabric scientist Karen Leonas; economist Ana Espinola-Arredondo; and Extension educators Curtis Beaus and Andrew Corbin.
  • $2 million to a team led by bioinformatician Dorrie Main for “Tree Fruit GDR: Translating Genomics into Advances in Horticulture.” Specifically, the project will provide an integrated knowledgebase of genomics, genetics, breeding and cultivar evaluation data. This Web-enabled database will facilitate the discovery of genes underlying important agricultural traits, the development of markers for genomics-assisted-breeding, and enhance critical decision-making by apple, cherry, peach, strawberry and citrus breeders and growers. Collaborators include genomicist Cameron Peace; apple breeder Kate Evans; and cherry breeder Nnadozie Oraguzie.
  • $1.5 million to a team led by Fran Pierce, director of WSU’s Center for Precision Agricultural Systems, for “Precision Management of Specialty Crops through Sensor-based Decision Making.” Collaborators include biological systems engineers Qin Zhang and Troy Peters, and soil scientist Joan Davenport.
  • $531,000 to a team led by plant pathologist Naidu Rayapati for “An Invasive Mealybug Pest and Emerging Viral Disease: A Dangerous Mix for West Coast Vineyards.” Entomologist Doug Walsh is collaborating on the project.
  • $50,000 to a team led by biological systems engineer Marvin Pitts for “Placing Fruit Canopy Management Automation Technology in the Field.” Collaborators include horticulturists Carter Clary and Tom Walters, and cherry physiologist Matt Whiting.
  • $50,000 to a team led by WSU Extension educator Gwen Hoheisel for “Development of a Smart Targeted Spray Application Technology Roadmap for Specialty Crops.” Collaborators include entomologist Jay Brunner, and biological systems engineers Qin Zhang and Marvin Pitts.


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