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Issue #200, Hard Cider, Precision Ag

Posted by | March 28, 2012

On Solid Ground Publishes 200th Issue

This is On Solid Ground issue #200
This is On Solid Ground issue #200

You are reading the 200th issue of Washington State University’s agricultural science e-newsletter On Solid Ground. The biweekly, electronic newsletter has been published continuously since August 2006 and in that time has run more than 600 news stories.

“We started out with a select group of subscribers we wanted to communicate with on a regular basis,” said Dan Bernardo, dean of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences. “These were primarily legislators and stakeholders we wanted to tell our story to in a way that was different from the standard memo, white paper, or executive briefing.”

“It’s a basic principle of marketing: show, don’t tell,” said the e-newsletter’s founding editor, Kathy Barnard. “We knew we could effectively communicate the impact of WSU’s research and outreach by sharing the stories of our faculty, students and Extension educators.”

With a presence in every county in the state and reserch on well over 200 economically important locally grown crops, WSU has no lack of science-based impact stories. “We’ve written about everything from apples to Xerpha, a wheat variety released a couple years ago,” said Brian Clark, On Solid Ground’s current managing editor. “That’s not quite A to Z, but if you throw in the veritable zoo of pests and pathogens we’ve written about–everything from fungi to nematodes–then we have most definitely covered not only the map but the alphabet, too.”

The publication has repeatedly earned kudos from the agricultural sciences’ professional organization, ACE. Awards include excellence in science writing, design and effectiveness as a communications vehicle, and timeliness of the website where the newsletter is archived.

From a handful of subscribers less than six years ago, nearly a thousand people now subscribe to On Solid Ground. The e-publication has spawned several sister publications, including Voice of the Vine, a monthly focused on news from WSU’s program in viticulture and enology, and Green Times, which publishes monthly updates and news stories from WSU’s extensive activities in sustainable and organic agriculture research and extension

Visit the archive or subscribe to On Solid Ground at http://bit.ly/wsuosg.

Subscribe to and read back issues of Voice of the Vine at http://bit.ly/wsuwisci.

Check out and subscribe to Green Times by visiting http://bit.ly/greentimes.

WSU Research Helps Grow a Hard Cider Culture in Washington

Hard ciders from the Pacific Northwest have been favorably compared with classic ciders from England and France in trial evaluations. Photo: Brian Clark/WSU.
Hard ciders from the Pacific Northwest have been favorably compared with classic ciders from England and France in trial evaluations. Photo: Brian Clark/WSU.

Where can hard cider connoisseurs roam the countryside, traveling from estate to estate and sampling the artisan crafts of local producers? Western Washington will be the venue for such activity if Washington State University researchers have their way. Their goal is not just improvement of production and harvest techniques, but creation of a “hard cider culture,” with thriving producers and ardent consumers.

Carol Miles of the WSU Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center (NWREC) in Mount Vernon is leading a team that has identified two of the objectives necessary for establishing a Washington hard cider culture. First, researchers need to evaluate the characteristics of apples and their juice to determine their suitability for cider making in the Pacific Northwest. Second, researchers need to automate apple harvest in order to make cidering economically feasible.

The character of cider apples

All apples are not created equal. Some, like Gala and Honeycrisp, are scrumptious when eaten out of hand. These staples of the grocery basket, however, are not particularly suited for fermenting into hard cider.

Instead, cider making requires bittersweet apples, such as Dabinett and Chisel Jersey, and bittersharp varieties, such as Kingston Black and Brown Snout, to add desirable flavors and mouth feel. These varieties are used by traditional cideries in England and France, but are little known on this side of the Atlantic.

The starting point of this project is the hard cider apple orchard at the NWREC. Originally planted in the 1970s, it has expanded to around 60 varieties thanks to plantings by research scientist Gary Moulton.

Miles and her colleagues will analyze juice from 50 varieties of the research orchard’s apples. They will select four candidates to make cider for further testing, including a cider sensory evaluation panel to help producers better understand their products. Cideries can use this information to produce different styles of cider, as some consumers prefer a sweet cider while others tend towards more robust, astringent ciders. Sensory data also can help educate consumers about different cider varieties.

Mechanical harvest

This harvester has the potential to lower the cost of picking cider apples, making Washington's hard cider industry more competitive. Photo: Washington State University.
This harvester has the potential to lower the cost of picking cider apples, making Washington's hard cider industry more competitive. Photo: Washington State University.

The second part of the project is to reduce labor costs by refining mechanical harvesting of apples with repurposed raspberry harvesters. “Harvest is one of the primary costs of cider making,” said Miles.

To mechanize the harvest in the system Miles is testing, trees first must be grafted to strongly dwarfing rootstocks and trained in trellis rows so that trees grow in “walls” rather than branching out in all directions. The low fruiting wall makes it possible for a repurposed raspberry harvester to drive along the rows and knock apples out of the trees and onto a conveyor belt.

There are additional hurdles that must be overcome for mechanical harvesting to work efficiently on a commercial scale. For instance, researchers need to alter the way trees are trellised, so that they are supported but still allowed enough motion for fruit to be shaken from the branches. Since apples are much heavier and larger than raspberries, researchers also need to increase the force of the “beater bars” that knock fruit off the trees and change the configuration of the conveyor belt so the apples don’t jam the line.

The economics of hard cider

Cider offers the potential for apple growers to profitably utilize apples that can’t be sold as fresh fruit and thus gain another source of income. At the same time, cider apple growing requires fewer inputs, such as pest-control chemicals, since superficial blemishes don’t harm an apple’s cider quality.

Raspberry harvesters are busy in the summer, but sit idle in the fall during apple harvest, so raspberry growers can earn revenue by using their expensive harvesters to pick apples. Some Pacific Northwest hard cider producers import juice for their cider, so increased regional cider apple production would also keep money in the local economy.

“Long term, we want to create a critical mass of cider producers that will attract customers from around the region and country,” said David Bauermeister, executive director of the Northwest Agricultural Business Center and one of the collaborators on the project. “Washington producers have developed a really robust wine industry in the warmer parts of the state and are looking to create a cider industry in the cooler parts of the state.”

As cider apple grower and research collaborator Drew Zimmerman pointed out, hard cider is the fastest growing category in the alcohol beverage industry. With WSU’s scientific research and outreach, the state of Washington and the growers of its iconic apples will be well positioned to take advantage of this trend.

This research is supported by grants from the Washington State Department of Agriculture/NABC, the WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, the Washington State Wine Advisory Committee and the Northwest Cider Association.

–Bob Hoffman

For more information on WSU hard cider research, please visit http://bit.ly/wsuhardcider.

WSU Scientist Spearheads International Meeting of Precision Ag Scholars

An international group of scientists and practitioners met in Prosser, Wash. recently at the inaugural meeting of the Precision Agriculture International Network.
An international group of scientists and practitioners met in Prosser, Wash. recently at the inaugural meeting of the Precision Agriculture International Network.

Precision agriculture is the most recent name given to an old theory–applying technology to agricultural production. New uses of information technologies like remote sensing, soil sampling, and information management tools will help improve agricultural methods and optimize production. To learn about the latest developments in their field, precision agriculture scholars and practitioners from Japan, China, Korea, Belgium, Spain, Germany, and throughout the United States gathered at the Washington State University Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems (CPAAS) in Prosser earlier this month for the inaugural meeting of the Precision Agriculture International Network.

Spearheaded by Dr. Qin Zhang, CPAAS director, the two-day session included tours of area wineries and orchards using precision agricultural practices. Attendees participated in discussions about accomplishments in precision agriculture, obstacles, possible solutions, and next steps.

“The main purposes for creating a PA Centers Network are to identify the major challenges in precision agriculture, revisit the strategies for PA advancement, and seek practical ways to promote research and educational collaborations between member centers,” said Zhang, who is a professor of biological systems engineering at WSU

Zhang said there are many similarities in the challenges and benefits of precision agriculture around the globe. For example, “Farmers have collected billions of production-related data in hope of improving their efficiency. However, there is a bottleneck in automated data processing to help farmers extract useful information from their collected data that prevents them from optimizing the benefits of precision agriculture.”

The mission of CPAAS is “to develop world-preeminent and Washington-relevant research and educational programs in agricultural automation and precision farming. CPAAS is also working to provide a venue for high impact research outcomes for stakeholders, true trans-disciplinary collaboration for faculty, high quality educational and research experiences for students, and incubation of new ideas relevant in an entrepreneurial climate.” To that end, CPAAS partners with scientists and educators from WSU, around the nation, and worldwide to develop the principles, practices, and technologies of precision and automated agriculture.

–Kathy Barnard

For more information on precision agriculture research at WSU, please visit http://bit.ly/wsucpaas.