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New USDA Projects Funded to Support the Washington Tree Fruit Industry

Written by Faith Critzer, WSU Food Safety, December 2020

Members of the Tree Fruit Extension team have been working hard to secure federal funding for challenges facing the industry. They are part of national teams and represent $16.9 million in total federal support from the USDA Specialty Crop Research Initiative. The three projects will focus on precision crop load management, fire blight, and food safety, and are all geared towards identifying effective solutions that improve the resiliency of the tree fruit industry in the future. You can read more about each below.

Precision Crop Load Management for Apples

Project Director – Terrance Robinson, Cornell University

Other PIs – Stefano Musacchi and Karen Lewis, Washington State University; Tory Schmidt, Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission

Controlling the final fruit number on an apple tree is one of the most economically critical management practices in apple growing. Optimizing fruit numbers within a narrow, economically optimum range is currently imprecisely done by pruning, chemical thinning and remedial hand thinning which is very expensive. We have previously developed ideas and tactics to precisely control crop load by calculating the optimum fruit number per tree, manually counting buds, flowers and fruits and by using various computer models we have developed (carbon balance model, fruit growth rate model, and the pollen tube growth model) to help growers achieve the optimum number of fruits per tree; however, the process is tedious and time-consuming. This project will further develop precision crop load management tools consisting of computer models, machine vision, robotics, and decision support tools to allow apple growers to accurately calculate a target fruit number for each tree and then quickly count flower buds and later fruitlets using machine vision and geo-referenced maps to guide the severity of pruning and later guide bloom and post-bloom chemical thinning, and lastly to guide human workers when hand thinning to maximize crop value.

Comprehensive fire blight management systems for the United States.

Project Director –  George Sundin, Michigan State University

Other PIs – Tianna DuPont and Karina Gallardo, Washington State University

New Specialty Crop Research Initiative grant invests $5.1 mill to improve fire blight management with more than $600,000 directed to WA research and extension. A team of the leading fire blight research and extension scientists from across the nation will be working together to develop novel and effective management strategies. The goal is to develop a comprehensive strategy for effective fire blight management optimizing shoot and blossom blight management, understanding and managing the systemic phase of fire blight, developing a pre-breeding line of fire blight resistant varieties, providing economic analysis, and a nationally coordinated outreach program. The team will use innovative techniques, for example, they will use advanced transcriptomics to study the most effective use of defense elicitors. National coordination will multiply efforts, to more quickly find effective strategies. For example, products tested in multiple regions with diverse environmental conditions will provide in-depth information to dissect variable efficacy and model the most effective use and timings. Demonstration trials will provide answers to long-standing questions to grower questions from cutting blight to defense elicitors.

Cost-Effective Management of Food Safety Risks

Project Director – Michelle Danyluk, University of Florida

Other PIs – Faith Critzer and Troy Peters, Washington State University

This work will provide the fresh produce industry with tools to effectively manage food safety risks while making the most efficient use of available resources. We will identify the important factors (and their uncertainties) that drive risk and are candidates for interventions. Key sources of uncertainty will be addressed by empirical data collection and analysis. The immediate outcome of this research will be integrated, publicly available decision analysis tools to aid in pathogen control on produce that supports decision-making by all stakeholders. This will support increased transparency and collaboration among federal partners, industry, and consumer groups. We will model cost-effectiveness ratios of possible interventions, taking into account the preventable incidence of illness and economic costs of disease, as well as the costs and benefits to industry. Since different stakeholders consider different aspects of the costs and benefits of interventions, evaluations will be presented from different perspectives, including societal and industry perspectives and the results will be available at different levels of aggregation. The framework will provide opportunities to evaluate produce safety regulatory policies using the most recent scientific data. Critzer and Peters will contribute to work in preharvest water, postharvest handling, and outreach activities with others representing the tree fruit industry on the stakeholder advisory board. The project team is currently soliciting input which will help drive priorities from those in the produce and allied industries, you can participate at


This image is an infographic that shows each project title with the associated researchers.
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