PROSSER, Wash. — Per McCord was a bit of an innovator in expanding use of DNA markers to breed new sugarcane varieties in Florida. Now he plans to do the same sort of thing in sweet cherries in Washington.

McCord joined the Washington State University Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser last April as an associate professor of horticulture and stone fruit breeder.

He quickly noticed the cherry industry was eager for his arrival. A key part of the job is breeding new cherry varieties, and the position had been vacant for two years.

Sweet cherries are a highly perishable crop. The Northwest crop is harvested in June, July and August and has been at 20 million, 20-pound boxes or more in seven of the last 10 years. Prices tend to tank in July at the highest sustained volume.

Growers commonly call it the “Gebbers glut” for the large production of Gebbers Farms in Brewster, Wash., the state’s largest cherry grower.

The solution, industry leaders say, is better early and late season varieties to spread out harvest.

“The industry wants earlier and better cherries than the Chelan variety and later and better cherries than Sweetheart,” says Norm Gutzwiler, a Wenatchee cherry grower and commissioner on the Washington State Fruit Commission. He’s also on the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission’s cherry research advisory committee.

The industry wants an early variety more rain resistant than Chelan and cherries of large size, good firmness and sugar content at both ends to “spread harvest so we don’t have a huge amount in three weeks in July not being sold at preferable margins for growers,” Gutzwiler said.

He said he thinks McCord understands that and will move in the right direction.

McCord said he has no problem working with the industry.

“I think you’ve got to be responsive to your stakeholders, especially if they are providing funding for some of your work,” McCord said. “You have to meet their expectations but at the same time you have a responsibility to all taxpayers and your own research interests but they are not mutually exclusive. It doesn’t put you in a corner,” he said.

A top goal, he said, is to develop new blush and mahogany cherry varieties to extend the front and back ends of the crop. He’s already done some targeted crosses and is working to improve a data base for breeding management. He wants to organize it to more easily see how a potential new variety is performing, look at how often the same parents are used and evaluate existing crosses.

There was a three- to four-year break in crosses being made and it takes years to develop new varieties, he said.

“Everyone understands it takes time, but we have to be moving forward,” Gutzwiler said.

“I don’t want to say it’s easy, but it’s possible to breed for large, firm fruit that tastes good,” McCord said. “A lot of it is genetics but it’s also how you grow it, the horticultural side.”

It’s generally best to breed for your environment, he said. In other words, breeding in the Pacific Northwest should be for varieties suited for the region.

He’s also interested in working on apricots.

McCord was one of eight children and when he was about 6 years old learned a love of plants from his grandmother.

“She always had a garden and lived close by. She made it seem like an exciting thing to work with plants,” he said. She died in October at 94.

He was drawn to genetics in high school and college.

“It breaks the biology down into parts that have a name and you can understand. And when you put it together it’s a wonderful creative process but underneath it are distinct fits,” he said. “There is a gene or group of genes driving what you see.”

His work at the USDA Agriculture Research Service sugarcane field station in Canal Point, Fla., was developing new disease resistant, higher yielding varieties.

“The life of a sugarcane variety is not all that long. It depends, but it can be 10 to 20 years and yields decline due to disease pressure,” McCord said. “It’s a high-value crop, but the margins are not as great as they are for tree fruit.”

His work with DNA markers in breeding sugarcane, alfalfa and potatoes gives him a broader perspective, he said, more ability to look at things from more angles.

“By using DNA markers to chose your parents, you have a higher proportion of offspring that will have the desired gene or trait. It increases the chances of getting what you are looking for,” McCord said. “Breeding is a numbers game and you are basically stacking the deck when you do that.”

He was looking to get back to the Northwest when he saw the job opening in Prosser.

“I liked working in sugarcane. I like to say it was a sweet job, but it was really far from our family and expensive to travel,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting a job opening back in Prosser, but when I saw it I saw it as an answer to prayer and went for it.”

Sugarcane. Sweet cherries. Sweet jobs.

Per McCord

Born: Portland, raised in Seaside, Ore.

Occupation: Associate professor of horticulture and stone fruit breeder at WSU Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center since April 1.

Family: A wife and five children.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in plant genetics and breeding, Brigham Young University, 2000. Master’s in 2005 and doctorate in 2009, both in horticulture, North Carolina State University.

Work History: Research geneticist with USDA ARS sugarcane field station in Canal Point, Fla., 2012-2018. Post-doctorate researcher USDA ARS in Prosser, alfalfa genetics, 2010 to 2012; potato breeding and genetics, 2009-2010.

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