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Fruitful research: Stefano Musacchi helps apple, pear growers

Posted by | September 7, 2016
WSU Endowed Chair Stefano Musacchi demonstrates proper pear pruning technique. His research helps develop new tree fruit training and management methods.
WSU Endowed Chair Stefano Musacchi demonstrates proper pear pruning technique. His research helps develop new tree fruit training and management methods.

It’s an important year for Washington apples, and for Washington State University tree fruit researcher Stefano Musacchi.

More than a million trees of Cosmic Crisp, WSU’s newest apple, will hit nurseries in 2017. To help growers get the most out of Cosmic Crisp, Musacchi, the WSU Endowed Chair for Tree Fruit Physiology and Management, is exploring new training systems and management techniques.

From Italy to Washington

For Musacchi, good science leads to healthier fruit trees and better apples and pears.

A native of Italy, Musacchi came to Washington State University in 2013 from the University of Bologna, where he researched numerous fruit crops including apple, pear, quince, peach, apricot and cherry.

Today, the Wenatchee-based researcher’s main focus is working with Northwest growers to improve production of apples and pears.

“If you’d asked me when I was a kid what I wanted to do, I’d have said it’s what I’m doing now,” said Musacchi, who grew up near Ferrara in the Emilia Romagna region, one of Italy’s most fertile fruit-growing areas. His father was a farm and nursery director who bred some of Europe’s most important strawberry varieties.

“I grew up with research all around me,” said Musacchi. “I’ve worked all my life to become what I am.”

New ideas for a new apple

Apple growers have always depended on grafting to grow preferred varieties. Trees are produced in nurseries by grafting or budding fruit-bearing cuttings, called scions, onto rooted bases called rootstocks.

Rootstocks are important, says Musacchi, because they can affect tree vigor and fruit quality.

Musacchi is researching the fruit-bearing qualities of Cosmic Crisp, and how this new variety performs in different training systems—for example, a single trunk versus a double, or bi-axis tree.

Musacchi is also working to replace the industry’s main pollinator, the Manchurian crabapple.

“The Manchurian crabapple is the most important pollinator for commercial varieties,” Musacchi said. “But it’s sensitive to fungal diseases,” such as Sphaeropsis, which rots fruit after harvest.

To help, he is evaluating more than 40 different genotypes for disease resistance and biological traits. Several are very promising.

pear-3A ripe pear, every time

For the pear industry, Musacchi is working to improve fruit sorting technology.

Orchardists have long known that pears growing on the outside of the canopy, in sunlight, ripen faster than pears in shade. Since pears are picked and stored simultaneously, some ripen earlier than others.

“That’s why, when you buy pears, you may find some that are completely green,” said Musacchi.

It’s expensive and time-consuming for packers to sort and re-sort fruit. But Musacchi is using an infrared scanner called a DA-meter that reads the level of ripeness in pears at harvest and sorts them automatically.

“If we grade on the basis of ripening before we store pears, we can avoid the repacking issue and provide a better product to the consumers,” he said.

For consumers and packers, this technology could mean ripe pears, every time.

The next generation of Tree fruit crops grow at WSU's Sunrise Research Orchard near Quincy.
The next generation of Tree fruit crops grow at WSU’s Sunrise Research Orchard near Quincy.

Upcoming field days

To share his findings, Musacchi takes part in field days at WSU and grower-cooperator orchards throughout the state’s apple production areas. Tianna Dupont, a new Extension tree fruit specialist based in Wenatchee, is organizing the next set of field days, Sept. 14 at Prosser, and Sept. 22 at Quincy and Rock Island.

“We want to bring people to see results,” Musacchi said. “We want them to see how the trees grow, how they bloom, how the fruit sets, and the quality of the fruit.”

• Learn more about WSU tree fruit research at http://www.tfrec.wsu.edu/.

Contact: Stefano Musacchi, Endowed Chair for Tree Fruit Physiology and Management, WSU Department of Horticulture,  (509) 663-8181 ext. 236, stefano.musacchi@wsu.edu