Tree fruit growers give $27M to WSU

PROSSER -- A $27 million endowment to Washington State University by tree fruit growers will be a "game-changer" for the industry.

That is how Jim Doornink, chairman of Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, described the research and education that a new assessment on apple and pear growers is expected to bring.

The $27 million is the largest gift made to WSU in its history, officials said. Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, donated $26 million to WSU's School for Global Animal Health.

Representatives from the state Tree Fruit Research Commission and WSU met Tuesday at the WSU Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser for the announcement.

WSU President Elson Floyd said the university wants to create more scholarships and develop more world-class research involving tree fruit.

Agriculture is the leading industry in the state, he said. The tree fruit industry is worth about $2 billion a year, and the industry has a state economic impact of more than $6 billion each year.

"Washington growers support research and extension because they know it's important to invest in the future of the industry," Dan Newhouse, director of the state Department of Agriculture, said in a news release. "We grow the best quality tree fruit in the world, but we need to be ready to respond to a changing marketplace, unknown pests and diseases, and other uncertainties we can't anticipate."

Doornink said WSU has been one of the tree fruit commission's primary partners in research since the state commodity commission was created in 1969.

Apple and pear growers approved a $1 per ton assessment, which doubles their contribution to the research commission, Doornink said. But the majority of cherry and stone fruit growers did not approve the assessment.

He expects cherry and stone fruit growers will change their minds after they see some of the benefits. Those groups could take another vote, Doornink said.

Dan Bernardo, WSU's dean of the College of Agriculture, Human and Natural Resource Sciences and director of WSU Extension, said the endowment will help WSU get closer to its goal of becoming one of the top three tree fruit research institutions in the world.

Columbia Basin orchardist Bruce Allen, who entered the industry in 1973, long has been a champion of WSU's system that allows growers to monitor pest and disease issues daily.

Interest from the endowment will pay for research, Doornink said. He expects pear and apple growers will contribute about $3.3 million each year. The assessment will last for eight crop years or until the $27 million is received, whichever is shorter.

The endowment will help pay for six endowed chairs, and WSU plans to recruit world-class faculty, Bernardo said.

"The research business is about people," he said. "It's about having the very best talent in the world."

That class of scientists will increase WSU's ability to compete for grants, he said.

The gift also will pay for five technical transfer positions. That staff takes the research and information from WSU faculty and presents it to growers in a form they can use, Bernardo said.

It will provide operating money for the orchards at the Prosser center and the WSU Tree Fruit Research & Extension Center in Wenatchee, Bernardo said.

The faculty and technical transfer positions will work out of both research centers, Bernardo said. About 42 graduate students now work at the Prosser center.

Faculty at the research centers also teach undergraduate classes at WSU in Pullman and WSU Tri-Cities via video conferencing, Bernardo said.

Those new positions will be filled in the next seven years, Bernardo said. A committee with representatives from the industry groups will help WSU decide when to fill chairs and create priorities.

The investment by tree fruit growers will not be used to replace money lost through state budget cuts. Floyd said it is not sustainable to substitute private philanthropy for state money.

Bernardo said WSU hopes to add another $10 million to the endowment through donations from others involved in the tree fruit industry.