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Hort wrap: New science, products could boost fruit’s future

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Fruit industry workers gather around product and services booths at the 109th annual Washington State Horticultural Association meeting and trade show at the Wenatchee Convention Center Monday.

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WENATCHEE — The region’s fruit industry peered into the future this week with the presentation of new concepts and technologies aimed at growing better fruit with better profits.

The 109th Annual Meeting of the Washington State Horticultural Association & Northwest Hort Expo drew hundreds of fruit growers, packers and shippers to the Wenatchee Convention Center Monday through Wednesday. Also on hand were scientists and business people that keep the industry fueled with fresh ideas.

The gathering’s theme — “Is Your Orchard Ready? Preparing Your Operation for the Future” — gave presenters an opportunity to talk about “vision,” “progress,” “change” and “brave new worlds” in a wide range of topics. Expo vendors touted new developments in machinery, chemicals and orchard management systems.

The Hort Convention will return to Wenatchee in 2016, after a trial run next year in Tri-Cities and a trip to Yakima in 2015.

Loaded with research and development, this year’s convention offered aisles full of bold brainstorming. Here are a few samples:

Juicy, crispy and ready to plant

The WA 38 — a big, red beauty as sweet and crisp as any apple you’ve ever tasted — doesn’t have a fancy marketing name yet. But rest assured, say researchers with Washington State University’s Tree Fruit Research & Extension Center in Wenatchee, orchardists will be scrambling next year to plant it.

In fact, there’ll likely not be enough WA 38 saplings from commercial nurseries to meet demand, said WSU apple breeders Kate Evans and Bruce Barritt. So a lottery will take place next spring to fairly distribute the hot new variety.

Evans said about 300,000 saplings are under cultivation now, and about 50,000 to 100,000 will be offered in the lottery. The distribution plan isn’t firm yet, but it’s likely that winning growers will have a choice of a large lot of trees (15,000 to 20,000) or a smaller lot (about 5,000).

But is the WA 38 really new? Well, yes and no. Researchers have worked for more than 15 years to bring it to market, ever since some apple-breeding Einstein blended the Enterprise variety with the Honeycrisp. Advantages of the new variety: super juicy, nice and crispy, and it stores well (still yummy after months of cold storage).

Hey, said the apple breeders, don’t forget the other new apple variety that’s already available for orchardists to plant — the WA 2. Although smaller, it’s slightly crispier than the WA 38 and nearly as juicy and sweet (about on par with a Fuji). It doesn’t have its marketing name yet, either, but that’s bound to come soon.

Ag science on display

They look like science projects, but they have nothing to do with homemade volcanoes or growing crystals in a pie pan.

Those long rows of tri-fold display boards — called the Poster Session — at the entrance to the hort convention presented some of the latest, cutting-edge science of interest to growers and shippers from researchers around the U.S.(with lots of it developed right here in Wenatchee).

Growers love this stuff. They’re really interested in what’s coming down the line,” said one Poster Session visitor.

OK, some of these presentations zipped right over a layman’s head — “Phenotypic Diversity for Sugars and Acids in RosBreed Apple Germplasm” — but others seemed simple enough. “Shoulders and Backs during Harvest: Ergonomic Comparisons of Picking from Ladders and Platforms” sounds like an easy topic to pluck. We all have shoulders. We all have backs. Some of us have ladders.

This year, about 80 displays covered seven huge subject areas — genetics, production, post harvest, insects (good and bad), diseases, economics (good and bad), technology and assorted “other” studies — so the science-minded types could spend hours in the convention center’s sunny lobby pondering a “Phenotypic Evaluation of Obliquebanded Leaf-roller in Mining for Natural Resistance in Apples.”

Admit it … you love this stuff, too.

The good, the bad and the parasitic

One of the best ways to control bad bugs in orchards is with legions of good bugs. But that means creating a healthy insect neighborhood where these pretty little predators can thrive, said WSU entomologist Ute Chambers at a Hort Show display on biological pest controls for fruit.

And that calls for “soft” pesticides, she said, that don’t outright kill beneficial insects or disrupt their lifestyles — you know: make them sluggish or disoriented or (even worse) sterile.

We’re trying to teach people that orchards are already full of beneficial insects,” said Chambers. “They just need to be conserved” through careful orchard practices.

Take lacewings, for instance, which love to munch on aphids and thrips. Orchardists have always known a few lacewings populate most fruit operations, but scientists have found that many orchards have thousands upon thousands of the elegant and helpful insects.

And ladybird beetles — most folks call them ladybugs — like nothing better than a smorgasbord of spider mites. They’re so voracious, in fact, that ladybirds have been nicknamed “the mite destroyer” by insect scientists. They’re very effective (and roly-poly cute) predators, said Chambers.

Cider industry looking for a few good apples

Area residents know Snowdrift Cider Co., the popular East Wenatchee maker of hard ciders, produces a delicious seven-cider lineup. But, as it turns out, there’s a whole world of cider makers across the country who might possibly look to Wenatchee Valley orchardists for a fundamental cider ingredient — apples.

We believe the cider industry can be a serious potential outlet for this region’s fruit,” said Sherrye Wyatt, executive director of the Mount Vernon-based Northwest Cider Association, which this year made its first appearance at the Hort Show. “The growth of the cider-making industry is huge as more people go from being a home brewers to professional cider makers.”

Huge numbers of enthusiasts looking for alternatives to drinking beer, wine and cocktails are giving hard cider a try, said Wyatt. For proof, look to the “big boys” of breweries, such as Anheuser-Busch and Miller Coors, and some of the larger regional beer-makers (Redhook Ale in Seattle) that have introduced cider lines.

So exactly what do cider makers want from the state’s fruit industry? Well, said Wyatt, some would be interested in buying apples and pears and other fruit that’s already grown here. Others would probably like to discuss the possibility of planting here additional acreage of apple varieties that make great cider — say, Roxbury Russet or Winsesap.

Because the cider industry is still in its infancy, the Northwest Cider Association has multiple tasks, said Wyatt. Marketing, research, consumer education and legislative advocacy (OK, lobbying) are all on the group’s agenda, she said.

We’re trying to create a community of people who help and support each other,” she said. “We’re growing fast and think Wenatchee orchardists can be a part of it.”

Reach Mike Irwin at 509-665-1179 or . Read his blog Everyday Business. follow him on Twitter at @MikeIrwinWW.