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On Solid Ground – February 2015

Posted by lesa.mcpeak | February 23, 2015

February 2015


Nature appeal: Palouse conservation buffers please the eye, protect the landscape

Strips of wooded buffers intermingle with wheat fields in Washington’s Palouse landscape. (Photo courtesy
Strips of wooded buffers intermingle with wheat fields in Washington’s Palouse landscape. (Photo courtesy

Researchers know that adding natural buffers to the farm landscape can stop soil from vanishing.

Now, a scientist at Washington State University has found that more buffers can also please the eye.

Linda Klein, a recent doctoral graduate from WSU’s School of the Environment, worked with six other researchers at the university, plus one at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Moscow Forestry Sciences Laboratory, to explore the role that buffers—strips or clumps of shrubs, trees and natural vegetation—play in the landscape and in people’s visual preferences.

Klein chose four sites along the Palouse Scenic Byway, then used soil erosion modeling to measure how buffers stabilize stream banks, trap pollution and slow erosion. To gauge visual appeal, she used image simulation technology and mailed survey booklets to 1,200 rural and urban residents of Whitman County. Respondents were asked to rate landscape images, starting with a baseline of mostly monoculture grain fields, then gradually altered to show more and more buffers—first on stream banks, then adding hill slope drainages, and finally adding steep slope vegetation.

Klein found people preferred at least two buffers in the landscape. However, she found no statistically significant difference between their preference for landscapes with both stream and hill slope buffers—the second highest amount of natural vegetation—and those with a third type of buffer added to steep slopes. One implication of Klein’s findings is that visually appealing agricultural land may also be ecologically better. “By looking at a landscape and seeing these buffers, you could imply the landscape is healthier,” Klein said. She now plans to go deeper into the data, teasing out connections between demographics and scenic preference.

Read the full article about Klein’s study here.

—Seth Truscott

A tree fruit website that would make Willy Wonka proud

Washington State University’s new tree fruit website, launching in March 2015, will be instrumental in communicating information to growers.
Washington State University’s new tree fruit website, launching in March 2015, will be instrumental in communicating information to growers.

“What is that?” I asked, referring to the large, noisy mechanical machine into which the Rainier cherries were being whisked.

“Oh, that’s a camera,” my escort explained. Thousands of pictures were being taken every minute, multiple photos of each small fruit, to assess the qualities of millions of cherries headed to customers that afternoon. The truly “smart” feature of this camera allowed automated routing of each cherry to one of roughly a dozen conveyor belts, each carrying a different size or grade of cherry.

My perception of the tree fruit industry was rocked by my Willy-Wonka-like tour. The endless fields of fruit trees I saw on my way to Stemilt led me to imagine a romantic, old-world industry, but behind closed doors was a sophisticated, ultramodern operation.

Delivering the answers

My trip to Wenatchee, where I toured facilities and talked with growers about industry needs, was part of a discovery mission for a new, comprehensive website to support growing, distributing and consuming “world famous” cherries, apples, pears, and other types of stone fruit in Washington. The CAHNRS Communications web development team is working with WSU Extension leader and globally recognized horticulturist Desmond Layne to construct a new, comprehensive tree fruit website—the “world’s best” tree fruit website, as Dr. Layne characterized it.

What I didn’t know was that the camera that left me speechless was established technology, and there were new technologies, some mechanical and others biological, on the horizon. The Washington State Tree Fruit Commission had pledged $32 million to bolster WSU’s tree fruit research program. In addition to increasing research, part of those funds were to be used for technology transfer, and our tree fruit website was going to be instrumental in communicating information to growers.

With such amazing technologies proliferated throughout the industry, it’s fair to question the significance of a website to that industry. But as we learned, WSU researchers and extension specialists—and even third party websites—had mountains of important data to share with growers, and it was spread across the Internet like the apple orchards throughout central Washington. Furthermore, Dr. Layne had a reputation for making useful and compelling videos for growers and consumers alike, and this new website made for the ideal stage to present his work.

My visit to Stemilt was months ago, and now we are pleased to announce that this March WSU will launch, the world’s best, most comprehensive website for tree fruit growers. Not only does the website catalog the thousands of online tree fruit resources and showcase videos by WSU scientists and researchers, it guides both the inexperienced and seasoned grower to produce world-famous fruit. The website features a robust search engine, topic-based articles, and is optimized for use on a mobile phone. In my mind, it still isn’t as cool as the cherry camera, or Willy Wonka’s chocolate river, but it is a great leap forward to supporting an industry that provides delicious and nutritious food for millions of people throughout the world.

—Joshua Paulsen

Video: Fruit testing at the WSU Apple Breeding Program

Researchers at WSU’s Fruit Quality Evaluation Laboratory test apples for deliciousness. Take a virtual tour here
Researchers at WSU’s Fruit Quality Evaluation Laboratory test apples for deliciousness.

In a new video, Dr. Kate Evans and her apple breeding team lead a tour of the Fruit Quality Evaluation Laboratory at the WSU Tree Fruit Research & Extension Center in Wenatchee, Washington.

Watch and learn how researchers test fruit qualities (maturity, firmness, crispness, acidity, soluble solids concentration, juiciness, sweetness, fruitiness) and use genetic markers to screen seedling materials for specific traits.

The apple breeding program is dedicated to creating new, high quality cultivars that have excellent qualities for eating, storing and growing.

Watch the video here.


Discovering the STEM in your apple: Genetic mapping helps orchards, environment

Scientists at WSU are unraveling the DNA codes of several tree fruit species. A map of apple and peach genomes emerges in this illustration by Gerald Steffen, WSU.
A map of apple and peach genomes emerges in this illustration by Gerald Steffen, WSU.

Never before has such a vast amount of genetic information been available to tree fruit breeders. Today, Washington State University researchers know enough about the natural diversity within a species’ genetic code to enrich centuries-old tree fruit breeding techniques. Here in the Northwest, this means increasing tree fruit yields while leaving a smaller environmental footprint. For consumers, it means better tasting apples, cherries, peaches and other tree fruit.

At the heart of these improvements is genomics, the study and mapping of genetic material, or DNA. In 2010, WSU scientists unraveled the genetic code of apples and in 2013 the code of pears and cherries, in hopes of one day breeding better fruit. With this genomic wealth, “we can make more efficient decisions about which plant parents to combine to get the traits we’re after,” said WSU apple breeder Kate Evans. It greatly increases the odds that the desired traits will show up in the offspring seedlings, she said.

Read more about the science behind the apples we eat here.

—Sylvia Kantor

WSU re-establishes updated major in forestry

WSU School of the Environment file photo

“We already are advising students interested in pursuing this degree,” said Keith Blatner, professor of forest economics and program leader for forestry in the School of the Environment. “We have revamped and refreshed the curriculum to give our students a strong foundation in science with an emphasis on forest ecosystems. Our graduates will be field ready with a strong background in forest measurements and sampling.”Washington State University will offer new, updated major in forestry this fall. The recently established WSU School of the Environment will provide the program to students at the Pullman campus.

The Washington Legislature instructed that the forestry major be re-established as part of WSU’s 2013-2015 biennial budget. The major was phased out in 2011 as part of institutional budget reductions.

Learn more about the program at

—Kathy Barnard

Federal grants available for new farmer, rancher programs

If you’re thinking about starting an agriculture-based business, talk to a university extension educator, tribal leader or nonprofit director about collaborating on a training program for like-minded entrepreneurs. The group effort could be eligible for up to $750,000 in grant funds over the next three years.

With the average age of U.S. farmers on the rise and an 8 percent projected decrease in the number of farmers and ranchers between 2008 and 2018, the National Institute of Agriculture sees a growing need to encourage and support the next generation of producers.

The Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program, part of the Agriculture Act of 2014, will provide $20 million annually through 2018. Applications for 2015 are due by Friday, March 13. Grants are aimed at state, tribal, local, and regional networks of community organizations, higher education institutions, nonprofits and individuals.

To learn more, visit

WSU conference brings Women in Agriculture together to network, learn

WSU Extension will offer the fourth annual Women in Agriculture Conference, Saturday, Feb. 21. The one-day gathering, broadcast to 28 locations in four states, helps women farmers learn, network and be inspired.

This year’s theme is “Making Sense of Marketing.” The keynote farmer, Emily Asmus of Welcome Table Farm in Walla Walla, will talk about how to keep a farm’s brand fresh to build customer interest and loyalty. Instructor Erica Mills of Claxon Marketing in Seattle will discuss how to create a marketing action plan.

Learn about the conference at Or, read more here.

On Solid Ground
On Solid Ground features news and information about ways WSU researchers, students, and alumni support Washington agriculture and natural resources. Subscribe here.

Green Times
If you are interested in WSU research and education about organic agriculture and sustainable food systems, check out Green Times. Subscribe here.

Voice of the Vine
Each issue of Voice of the Vine brings you stories about viticulture and enology and WSU researchers, students, and alumni working in Washington’s world-class wine industry. Subscribe here.