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Washington’s Green Industry

Posted by Seth Truscott | April 19, 2007

At more than $326 million in 2005, the nursery and greenhouse industry is Washington’s eighth most valuable commodity in terms of production, according the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. But the economic impact of an industry is typically much greater than direct production. In the nursery and greenhouse industry, value is added in both sales and jobs by factoring in, for example, sales of lawn and garden equipment and the employment of workers in the landscape services and architecture sectors.

WSU Greenhouse Manager Chuck Cody and Student Examine PlantA study by Washington State University economist David Holland and doctoral student Sanjoy Bhattacharjee demonstrates that the economic impact of the “green industry” was an estimated $2.48 billion in sales (in 2002 dollars) and employed more than 43,000 people. Holland and Bhattacharjee consider this estimate conservative because it includes only those goods and services generated within the state. (The complete report is available on the WSU School of Economic Sciences’ Web site.)

“It’s a huge, diverse industry,” said Rita Hummel, WSU Puyallup associate professor of horticulture. “It’s like a spider web, and there are many strands in the web.”

WSU researchers and extension agents support that web in many ways.

Biological Chemistry Professor Rod Croteau in Greenhouse with Students
Biological Chemistry Professor Rod Croteau in Greenhouse with Students

One of the primary ways WSU helps the green industry thrive and grow is through education. Students study the science needed to understand both how plants grow and how plants and the environment interact; the technology to be able to produce a quality product, and business in order to be able to manage and market a successful green industry business. WSU is educating the next generation of green-industry leaders through degree programs in horticulture and crop and soil science, as well as through student-run organizations.

“The Horticulture Club teaches students to produce commercial-quality plants,” said James Holden, the club’s faculty advisor and greenhouse manager.

Master Gardeners is “a public service program that provides university training to volunteers for the purpose of enabling them to serve their communities through horticulture, gardening and pest management,” according to the WSU Master Gardener’s Web site.

Pesticide recertification programs insure that people handling pesticides have the most current safety information.

And then there’s disease research in the bulb and Christmas trees industries, where WSU’s Gary Chastagner and others are working to reduce grower input costs by minimizing the number of treatment applications required for control and to come up with effective and environmentally sound alternatives to pesticide use.

In particular, Chastagner and his colleagues are investigating Sudden Oak Death (SOD), a fungus-like pathogen identified in 2000 after killing thousands of trees in California and causing leaf blight on rhododendrons in Europe. SOD attacks many types of plants and trees common to the Pacific Northwest, including azaleas, big leaf maples, huckleberry, California bay laurel, camellia, myrtles, honeysuckle, Pacific madrone, Douglas fir, rhododendrons, and vibernum. The potentially devastating effects for Washington nursery and forestry industries promoted state officials recently to fund a $250,000 biocontainment facility at WSU Puyallup. The new isolation facility enables researchers to focus on the susceptibility of Washington plants to SOD and on disease controls specific to the state’s environment.

WSU undergraduate environmental horticulture majors
WSU undergraduate environmental horticulture majors in greenhouse

Once called ornamental horticulture, because it studied plants that were easy on the eyes, the study of how “ornamental” plants can sustain and improve human health and quality of life is now known as environmental horticulture.

Environmental plants are used to conserve energy, to improve the quality of the air, water, and soil, to form visual barriers, and more. New advances in biotechnology are increasing the variety and utility of environmental plants. Especially in Washington’s urban areas where open space is at a premium, low-stature trees with stress and pest resistance are needed to keep cities livable. One of the missions of WSU’s Environmental Horticulture Group is to develop new varieties that meet these and other demands.

WSU Extension Educator Tim Smith’s research on using recycled materials for planting containers is supporting the sustainability of the green industry. Recycled containers act as compost for the plant and help reduce the overall carbon footprint of the industry.

Professor Norm Lewis in greenhouse with graduate students
Professor Norm Lewis in greenhouse with graduate students

WSU Extension’s Kay Oakley and Craig MacConnell are investigating alternatives to the industry’s use of peat moss as a bedding material. “Peat moss is mined from ecologically sensitive wetland bogs,” they said. Peat bogs are an important carbon sink and mining them reduces the planet’s capacity to deal with greenhouse gasses. The industry has long relied on peat moss because it consistently holds water and air well. But their research is uncovering alternatives in the waste from dairy farms using a process called anerobic digestion.

Anerobic digestion (AD) turns dairy waste (colloquially known as cow poop) in methane, which can be fed into the energy grid and thus reduce dependence on petroleum. But AD also results in two additional and economically beneficial byproducts: a nutrient-rich liquid fertilizer and a fiber that has many of the properties of peat moss.

Home to one of the most productive plant-science faculties in the U.S., these are just a few of the many ways that scientists and educators in WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences and WSU Extension are benefiting a thriving industry.