Recently, I completed over 20 visits to some of the larger and most sophisticated tree-fruit operations in Washington State to touch base with them about WSU tree-fruit programs and some capacity-building initiatives we are planning for the future. These firms likely account for about 80 percent of the state’s total tree-fruit production. My findings from these visits to members of the state’s agricultural-industry “crown jewel” were encouraging about the future of this industry and WSU’s role in that future.
Everyone knows about Washington State’s world-renowned tree fruit industry. After all, the apple is probably the most recognized symbol of our state. To put a little perspective on this industry, consider the following facts:
- Washington State leads the nation in the production of apples and cherries.
- The total farm-gate value of the state’s three major tree-fruit commodities often exceeds $2 billion annually.
- The tree fruit industry contributes over $6 billion to the state’s economy.
Some have characterized this industry as one that could easily go the way of many other labor-intensive specialty crop industries that have relinquished market share to low-cost foreign producers. Nothing could be further from the truth. This segment of the industry has undergone a period of significant reinvestment and is clearly positioned to compete with all comers (domestic or abroad) for years to come.
These larger integrated tree-fruit production and packing firms have made significant on-the-ground investments in new orchards, replacing 20-30 year-old orchards with state-of-the-art trellised systems featuring the most contemporary plant genetics available. Each of these orchards is set up to take advantage of emerging technologies in automation and mechanization. In the packing houses, investments have been made in the most sophisticated sorting and packaging technologies available. The management capability at all levels of these organizations is impressive, and they are positioned to capture a hefty return on their investment.
With every firm visited, we had in-depth conversations about the future of the industry and WSU’s role in this future. Here are a few observations concerning these managers’ perspectives on WSU and our importance to their future success:
First, to a person, these managers understand that a key to their success (past, present, and future) is to stay ahead of the competition in the adoption of research-based technologies. But not only do they know that research is important, many have an intimate knowledge of current WSU initiatives and the value WSU research has contributed to their operations in the past. These managers are well versed in the significant investment that WSU has made in specialty-crop research and are knowledgeable of the many outstanding new faculty that have come to WSU over the past several years.
Second, much of the rationale for their favorable impressions is due to the outstanding relationship that has developed between the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission (WTFRC) and WSU. Tree fruit producers invest significant funds in research and education, and they entrust this work to the WTFRC. Many view WSU and WTFRC as a seamless operation working to advance research on their behalf.
It’s interesting to talk to these managers about the adoption of new technologies and practices. Clearly, this is not a “one size fits all” industry. These firms differ significantly in terms of their orchard architecture and associated management practices. This is a highly competitive industry, and one means by which these firms compete is through the adoption of new technologies. These companies are constantly assessing new technologies and determining whether these innovations will fit into their operations. The specific means by which new technologies are integrated into specific operations differs significantly, reflecting the uniqueness of each of these highly complex businesses.
Finally, it was gratifying to hear the stir that the new WSU apple variety releases are making in the industry. Variety selection is a critical decision that affects long-term profitability (it costs in excess of $20,000 to plant an acre of a new orchard). Many firms are taking advantage of the opportunity to establish trials of WA2 in their orchards. They are clearly excited about the possibilities associated with varieties that are developed specifically for the growing conditions of our state.
We are proud of our partnership with the tree fruit industry and the recent improvements that we have achieved in faculty, facilities, and funding. Clearly, both the industry and WSU is positioned for great things in the years to come.