$1.5M for specialty crop research to improve fruits, vegetables, farming

By Seth Truscott, College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences

usda looPULLMAN, Wash. – Seven research teams at Washington State University will enhance the competitiveness of Pacific Northwest crops by fighting devastating diseases and advancing sustainable agriculture, thanks to more than $1.5 million in Specialty Crop Block Grant funds from the Washington state and the U.S. Departments of Agriculture.

To support Washington’s $3 billion apple and pear industry, its $734 million potato industry, and other important crops like fresh strawberries, cut peonies and cider apples, WSU crop scientists, engineers, plant pathologists, economists and other specialists will join forces.

mugshots of Block Grant winners
WSU researchers leading new Specialty Crop Block Grants: Clockwise from top left, Pius Ndegwa, Richard Knowles, Sindhuja Sankaran, Gary Chastagner, Pat Moore, Achour Amiri, Carol Miles.

Fertilizer, manure, pellets and blending

Specialty crop farmers commonly use manure to fertilize their soils. But manure can be bulky, costly to transport, and might bring pathogens, weed seeds and a poor balance of nutrients for some crops.

Pius Ndegwa, associate professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, and WSU researchers will investigate the economic, agronomic and food safety benefits of concentrating manure and compost. Pelleting and blending manure with other products, such as canola or fish meals, could concentrate nutrients, kill pathogens and weed seeds and make transport easier.

Stopping potato storage losses

Washington is a major potato producer, yet storage losses after harvest can ruin up to 6 percent of the annual crop.

Researchers Sindhuja Sankaran and Lav Khot, both in the WSU Department of Biological Systems Engineering, partnering with Brenda Schroeder of the University of Idaho Department of Entomology, Plant Pathology and Nematology, will research new ion mobile spectrometry and nanofiber chemical sensor technologies to detect storage diseases like pythium and soft rot at early stages. Growers will be able to better manage bulk storage and reduce losses through early processing. The technology could also be adapted for other specialty crops, like onions.

Better potatoes

Growers need data to drive good farm decisions. To enhance the quality and yield of potatoes, the Department of Horticulture’s Rick Knowles, professor, and Mark Paved, associate professor, will evaluate the effectiveness of crop enhancement products for potatoes.

The team will also develop new plant growth-regulating techniques, giving growers better control over tuber set, size distribution and shape. This new technology can maximize profits for various potato markets like seed and frozen French fries.

“Our research will lead to more profitable production, increased efficiency and less waste,” said Knowles.

Fighting gray mold in tree fruit

Apples and pears are a $3 billion annual crop in Washington, but every year, a portion of that crop is lost to rots caused by gray mold, said Achour Amiri, plant pathology assistant professor and researcher at the WSU Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee.

“We aim to better understand the impact of environmental conditions, from bloom to harvest, on gray mold development in storage,” he said.

Collaborating with WSU geneticist Tobin Peever, Amiri’s team will grow knowledge about the genetic structure of the fungus in the Pacific Northwest. His goal is to develop predictive tools to help growers and packers make better decisions to fight gray mold in tree fruit.

Efficient cider production

Washington is among the top five cider-producing states. To sustain industry growth, we need a reliable supply of affordable cider fruit.

Carol Miles, horticulture professor at the WSU Mount Vernon Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center, and Suzette Galinato, researcher at the WSU IMPACT Center in the School of Economic Sciences, will develop methods to determine harvest maturity in cider apples. They will also test the effectiveness of mechanized pruning and mechanical harvest equipment to reduce labor needs while increasing harvest efficiency.

Thriving strawberries

Fresh-market strawberries continue to grow in value and demand. Washington farmers are poised to thrive in this market, but must first tackle the obstacles associated with shifting from frozen to fresh.

“We want to make sure that strawberry markets continue to thrive in our region, and that means we need more fresh production,” Wendy Hoashi-Erhardt said. “Our research aims to support farmers expanding their fresh production, so that those wonderful berries are available for longer seasons, in greater quantity, and in more markets.”

Department of Horticulture researchers Patrick Moore, Wendy Hoashi-Erhardt, Lisa Devetter and Karina Gallardo will lower market barriers through advanced plant breeding, horticultural practices, grower outreach and plant propagation research for nursery expansion.

Fighting diseases in cut peonies

Gary Chastagner, plant pathologist and WSU Extension specialist with the Department of Plant Pathology, will help peonies growers fight the fungal disease Botrytis. Along with collaborators at North Carolina State University and the University of Alaska, he will determine when infection occurs, develop control measures, and find optimal storage temperatures to reduce the disease and maximize the vase life of cut peonies.

Chastagner plans to share his results with growers at meetings, through trade publications and in a new fact sheet on peony handling and storage.

Grant awards summary by the numbers

  • Pius Ndegwa, Concentrating and Blending of Manure Nutrients to Enhance Sustainable Production Practices, $249,973
  • Sindhuja Sankaran, Novel Sensing for Potato Harvest Quality and Loss Management in Bulk Storage Environment, $249,951
  • Richard Knowles, Evaluation of Crop Enhancement Products and Innovative Technologies to Enhance Yield and Quality of Potato, $248,700
  • Achour Amiri, Understanding Pre- and Postharvest Parameters to Enhance Gray Mold Management in Pome Fruit, $230,155
  • Carol Miles, Cost Effective Technologies for Cider Apple Orchard Mechanization and Fruit Quality Evaluation, $177,808
  • Patrick Moore, A Thriving Fresh Market Strawberry Industry through Breeding, Horticulture Systems, Grower Resources and Nursery Expansion, $110,401
  • Gary Chastagner, Optimizing Postharvest Botrytis Control and Handling of Cut Peonies, $80,968


Media Contact:

  • Seth Truscott, public relations/communications coordinator, WSU College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences, 509-335-8164, struscott@wsu.edu