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Agreement will bolster tree-fruit industry

By Stewart MacInnis

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 30 - May 1, 1997

Officials from five universities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have signed an agreement to combine their efforts to strengthen research and Extension for the $200 million Mid-Atlantic tree-fruit industry.

After nearly a decade of budget cuts that slashed university research and Extension support to the tree-fruit industry almost by half, land-grant universities in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey joined the USDA's research station in Bardane, W.Va., to establish a more coordinated program.

"This is a case of something good rising from the ashes of ruin," said Andy Swiger, dean of Virginia Tech's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. "Just a few years ago we were scratching our heads independently wondering how we were going to serve our tree-fruit industries. Now, we are working closer together to forge a solution that should strengthen all of us."

The officials signed a partnership agreement formalizing the relationship. In addition to Virginia Tech and the USDA Appalachian Fruit Research Laboratory, the agreement was signed by representatives from the University of Maryland, Penn State, Rutgers University, and West Virginia University.

Under the agreement, researchers and Extension personnel will continue to work under the auspices of their respective organizations. Now, however, their efforts will be coordinated by a regional steering committee of representatives from each of the organizations. They will work to implement a regional strategic plan developed jointly by the partner institutions and tree-fruit industry representatives.

The result, Swiger said, is an effort that is still smaller than 10 years ago, but which has been made more effective than the recent arrangement by enhancing the coordinated efforts of the individual organizations.

The agreement was inspired by the common fruit-cultivation zone of the Cumberland-Shenandoah Valley region. That is an area stretching from Western Virginia through portions of West Virginia and Maryland into the heartland of Pennsylvania. Land-grant universities in those states and the USDA maintain five major research and Extension centers within a 40-mile radius of the center of that region.

Rutgers University in New Jersey was added to the planning effort in the later planning phase because of the similarity of the cultivation zone and the university's interest in participating.

"Before 1988, we had, in effect, separate and very competent research programs, though with many examples of cooperation among the partners," Swiger said. "Then in 1989 many of us began to experience severe budgetary pressures. By 1995 we had five separate and downsized research and Extension programs."

In 1988, the universities had a combined workforce in the tree-fruit program of the equivalent of 59 scientists, specialists, agents and technicians. By 1995, that number was 46, a drop of more than 22 percent. During the same time, funding for the effort had been cut by as much as 48 percent in some states, according to Gerald L. "Skip" Jubb, associate director of the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station based at Virginia Tech.

Complementing the partnership agreement is a regional strategic plan that calls for increasing the combined staffing level to about 58 equivalent positions, almost the level prior to the cuts. But funding to reach this staffing level will be a challenge to obtain, Jubb said.

"Eventually, this will be a significant improvement over our current efforts," Jubb said, "but it still falls short of the support the industry should be getting. If we met the need, we would be adding more than 30 positions. But we have to face the political and budgetary realities of the times and do the best we can do."

The regional strategic plan calls for some specialization among the universities to capitalize on strengths they currently have. The specialized positions will have region-wide responsibilities. Each institution will strive to continue separate efforts in core disciplines because of the great impact local conditions have on certain aspects of fruit growing.

One of the key positions in the regional strategic plan is the creation of a regional specialist in integrated pest management. That scientist will work to integrate various pest-management practices with an eye toward improving the productivity and sustainability of fruit growing in the region.

The plan acknowledges the importance of Extension efforts to pass information generated by researchers onto producers. Instead of relying on traditional county agents to master the complex issues of tree-fruit production, the plan calls for the establishment of nine area agents with multi-county responsibilities throughout the region. Their primary responsibility is to the tree-fruit program.

A regional tree-fruit Extension coordinator will be designated to coordinate the Extension activities throughout the region. No decision has been made concerning in which state the coordinator will be based.

Among the programs to be established to support the regional program are:

* A regional computer system to tie together all the parts of the program. The system is expected to make collaboration across state lines easier.

* Centralizing nematode soil analyses at a single facility, allowing the purchase of more sophisticated equipment than is possible for separate facilities in each state.

* A regional tree census data base including information on planting density, age, variety, and rootstock. The data base is to be used to monitor the economic health of the region's commercial tree-fruit industry.

* Expand a post-harvest storage facility at Penn State's Biglerville Fruit Laboratory to serve researchers throughout the region. The facility would allow researchers to study the effects of different orchard-management strategies on fruit quality after storage.

* Move toward establishing a "common-market" undergraduate program in tree-fruit production. This program will help train the next generation of fruit growers in the region.