Growers to donate $5M for WSU research efforts

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 6, 2013 

Washington's cherry and stone fruit growers have decided to give $5 million to Washington State University to support expanded research and enhance WSU research orchards in Prosser and Wenatchee.

Officials announced Tuesday that growers had approved a special assessment similar to the one they rejected in 2011.

Apple and pear growers already approved a special assessment in 2011 that will bring $27 million to WSU.

The assessments from cherry and stone fruit growers will be used to expand WSU's capacity and will not be used to replace funding the university has cut, said Jim McFerson, Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission manager.

The $4 per ton from cherry growers and $1 per ton from stone fruit growers will create an endowment, and the interest then will be used by WSU, allowing the investment to continue in perpetuity, McFerson told the Herald.

Growers will pay the assessment for about eight years or until $5 million is collected, starting with the 2013 crop.

The special assessment was approved by 338 of the 565 ballots cast by cherry growers, or 59 percent, and 32 of the 47 ballots cast by stone fruit growers, or 68 percent, according to a news release. Washington State Department of Agriculture officials certified the election results.

WSU will create new endowed research chairs and use the investment from growers to support operating money for the researchers, McFerson said. It might support five or six chairs, he said.

"We are not funding positions, we are funding programs," he said.

This will help WSU continue to attract world-class scientists, McFerson said. WSU will provide the salary and benefits for the positions, and because they are endowed, will be obligated to create and fund the positions.

"It's gratifying to have the cherry and stone fruit growers support the referendum, which will enable us to recruit and retain the best scientists in the world," he said.

The funding also will be used to improve how information and technology are shared with members of the industry and ensure growers have access to the best possible scientific-based knowledge, McFerson said.

There also will be support for research orchard infrastructure at WSU's Irrigated Agriculture Research & Extension Center in Prosser and WSU Wenatchee, McFersonsaid.

Research and innovation are at the heart of the success that Washington's tree fruit industry has seen, Jake Gutzwiler, a cherry grower and quality control manager for Stemilt Growers, said in a news release. Stemilt Growers of Wenatchee has growers in the Tri-City area.

"We compete in a global market, and this investment ensures we will continue to be leaders in innovation while maintaining economic prosperity for Washington growers," he said.

Washington apple and cherry growers harvested record breaking crops last year, exceeding previous crop sizes while maintaining high quality, according to industry officials.

The state tree fruit industry brings more than $7 billion to the economy, with more than one-third coming from exports.

Dan Bernardo, WSU's dean of the College of Agriculture, Human and Natural Resource Sciences and director of WSU Extension, said in a news release that the investment illustrates how progressive the tree fruit industry is in the state.

Of the $32 million from tree fruit growers from the new and existing assessments, $12 million each will support endowed chairs and improving the transfer of information and technology to growers and shippers and $8 million will support the research orchards, according to the release.

This helps WSU toward its $1 billion fundraising goal started in 2010. Thus far, more than $758 million has been committed from various organizations, businesses and individuals.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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