WENATCHEE, Wash. — It was the innovative structure of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission that attracted Jim McFerson to it 20 years ago.

Most agricultural commodities are served by a single organization that encompasses research, education and promotions. But the commission, founded 50 years ago, was unique in that it was devoted solely to research.

“It was very innovative, and it was serving this tree fruit industry which is among the most innovative in the world,” says McFerson, 68, now at a transition point in his career.

He isn’t sure he will retire, as he would like to remain active in tree fruit or specialty crop research. But he also hears the call of grandchildren and gardening.

His contract as director of the Washington State University Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee, ends Aug. 25. He became director of the center four years ago after managing the research commission for 16 years.

He has provided strong direction and helped strengthen the bridge between industry and researchers, said André Denis Wright, dean of the WSU College of Agriculture, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences.

Kate Evans, horticulture professor and fruit tree breeder at the center, will become its interim director.

But it was at the commission that he left his biggest mark.

The commission awards about $4 million in research grants annually from grower assessments, according to its website. The commission is governed by a board of industry members.

Agricultural roots

McFerson was born in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, also the hometown of Tom Vilsack, who became mayor, governor and USDA secretary in the Obama administration.

McFerson was raised in Fort Atkinson, Wis. His father was a fertilizer salesman and later executive. He gained an interest in agriculture from his parents’ garden and summers spent on the family farm in northeast Missouri.

But it was Fred Bliss, a horticultural professor and plant breeder at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who was a major influence on McFerson. He remains a mentor and friend.

After completing his doctorate in plant breeding and genetics in 1982, McFerson became a vegetable breeder for seed companies in California and then New Jersey. He was a research geneticist at the USDA Agricultural Research Service at Cornell University in Geneva, N.Y., before joining the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission in 1999, succeeding Georg Ing as its manager.

“I’ve always found specialty crops very interesting because of their diversity, importance in local agriculture and their healthy benefits,” McFerson said.

Road map

Crop load management was the emphasis when McFerson joined the commission in 1999. McFerson hired Tory Schmidt, still a horticultural associate at the commission, and together they explored and developed using lime sulfur and fish oil as a natural bloom thinner, sprayed on blossoms to control crop load.

They also researched sunburn protection, reflective ground cover to aid in fruit color and maturity, plant growth regulators and post-bloom thinners.

Those were “rewarding and active phases working with Tory and cooperative industry people enabling me to have better insights of problems facing our producers and possible technological approaches,” McFerson said.

The late 1990s and early 2000s were tough years in the industry, with growers going out of business because of poor returns on Red and Golden Delicious apples, which had fallen out of favor among many consumers.

“As an industry we ask ourselves how can we innovate our way out of this. Working with an amazing group of growers, we developed our tree fruit technology road map,” McFerson said.

The growers included Charlie de Lachapelle, Dave Allan, Jim Doornink, Denny Hayden, Tom Butler, Brent Milne and Rob Lynch. Francis Pierce, a WSU professor, also helped.

After many industry listening sessions and workshops, what became a national tree fruit technology road map was created focusing on genomics, genetics and breeding with DNA sequencing to develop new cultivars and an emphasis on engineering solutions for greater orchard and packing house mechanization and automation.

The advent of platform harvest assists, mechanical pruning and now robotic apple harvesting grew out of that focus, as have new apple varieties such as Cosmic Crisp.

Ultimately, the road map was expanded into other specialty crops — grapes, berries and vegetables.

McFerson became a national leader in pushing for regular federal funding of specialty crop research, which was included in farm bills beginning in 2008.

“It took five years to get traction and five years to get implementation. Now we have the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program and Organic Research and Extension Initiative,” he said. “Those are additionally competitively funded federal programs that are directed toward our crops.”

At the commission, McFerson also worked on the industry’s $32 million donation over eight years for endowments to sustain WSU tree fruit research. It was particularly relevant in an era when WSU and other universities were forced to cut funding for agricultural research.

Jay Brunner, his predecessor at the research and extension center director, and Dan Bernardo, then dean of the WSU College of Agriculture, Human and Natural Resource Sciences, and Ben McLuen, WSU director of development, also were instrumental.

Industry future

In his four years as director of the research and extension center, McFerson has overseen expansion of facilities, filling new endowed chairs to reach 12 program leaders and a doubling to tripling of graduate students and post-doctorate personnel.

“The line of the arch of my career started on crop load management, which was a critically important issue, and moved on to large issues to find technical innovations throughout our industry that led to the technological road map and a crowning achievement that was the legislation leading to the (Specialty Crop Block Grant Program and Organic Research and Extension Initiative),” he said.

The result was a more collaborative and unified approach to problems across commodities, and specialty crops are better served, he said.

“I think it’s the most exciting time ever to be involved in tree fruit research and extension,” he said, adding that innovations in genetics and production systems and post-harvest handling and pest management are “tremendously exciting.”

The innovations “will provide producers with technologies they need and consumers with absolutely superior products we need to stay competitive in the market place,” he said.

But many challenges remain, McFerson said.

“The red flags I see are the same ones industry sees,” he said. “We can’t afford to sell below production costs. We need to innovate where it makes sense. We have to deliver products consumers are willing to purchase and provide producers with a reasonable rate of return. The producers are the ones taking the big risk. There is no single solution, whether it is research, marketing or producing a new cultivar.”

Central Washington field reporter

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