News of cutbacks in tree fruit research cast a pall over what is likely the last of the annual gathering of peach, plum and nectarine growers at the University of California Kearney Ag Center

“I’m sorry we made this sound like a wake,” said Ted DeJong, a UC Davis researcher on tree crop physiology at the field day near Parlier, Calif.

DeJong offered no sugar-coating for what has happened to California’s public funding of UC research and said the tree fruit growers and packers are sure to feel the pinch now that grower-funded research and marketing programs through the California Tree Fruit Agreement (CTFA) are shutting down.

CTFA, based in Reedley, has funded decades of research. But a grower vote fell short of the tally needed to keep the federal peach and nectarine marketing orders alive. It will wind down its operations by September.

The board for the separate state marketing order for plums will meet in early fall to decide whether to suspend that operation, which is authorized to operate another three years.

At one of the orchards where DeJong talked of rootstock, he was blunt in his comments on what the demise of the tree fruit agreement means. He said the industry no longer has the clout to put pressure on what sort of research is done in the UC system.

DeJong said, for example, where a plant pathologist works “will depend on where the money is; if there is no money, there is not going to be any work. You guys have to sort this out; I’m not threatening you. It’s just a fact. The university looks at where the funding is. All we get now is a lab and an office and a license to hunt.”

From that point, he said, researchers are dependent on funds that can be generated for their work.

DeJong said he likely will have to remove trees from an orchard at Kearney because of the cost of $6,000 to $8,000 a year to maintain them. “If I don’t have the bulk of that money, we can’t keep (them),” he said.

Elsewhere, participants in the field day heard of curtailed research on temperature controls during movement of tree fruit to market and the expected demise of a newsletter on postharvest work that is two decades old. The research pinch is also being felt in a building where fungicide research has been a key to providing needed tools to fight problems that include powdery mildew and brown rot.

“We’ve shot ourselves in the foot,” said Bill Chandler, a Selma-Parlier grower who said he is “big time concerned” about the impact of the loss of research funding, particularly on smaller farming and packing operations. Not only has state funding dropped, but the end to CTFA assessments for research means that the industry has lost its ability to guide what research is done with what funds remain.

Chandler has worked with researchers in areas that include thinning, tree height and mechanization.

The recent meeting is the only one planned for tree fruit growers at Kearney this summer. Kevin Day, a UC farm adviser for Tulare County on tree fruit, said there are normally three such meetings, but it was decided to hold “just one longer meeting this year.”

Day said there are also no plans for a variety display and tasting this year. He said that is not related to funding, but is because a major nursery that normally participates decided not to do so “for proprietary reasons.”

Research talks

The tree fruit meeting included talks by these researchers:

Carlos Crisosto, a postharvest physiologist with Cooperative Extension, provided participants with a computer flash drive they can use to access the 20 years of Central Valley Postharvest Newsletter.  Others can access the same material at http://www2.uckac.edu/postharv/.

Crisosto said he was frustrated that work on keeping temperatures steady during shipping has been curtailed. “For decades, we have not been doing this right,” he said. “Now, we’re not working on this; we’re not finishing this.”

Jim Adaskaveg, a plant pathologist with UC Riverside, said he was sorry to hear CTFA “had to close out; we’re losing a piece of the puzzle; the picture is not complete.”

Adaskaveg described his work at Kearney in a building where research was conducted on fungicides. “In the past 10 years, at least 15 new fungicides have been introduced,” he said.

Adaskaveg said the center has been able to do work to get material registered through the IR4 process for specialty crops like tree fruit. “We’ve been able to get dollars allocated to help the industry solve its problems,” he said. Otherwise, it would likely not have the resources to get materials registered, considering tree fruit’s smaller acreage when compared to crops such as corn and wheat.

“It costs $150,000 to do the residue work” on a pesticide, he said.

UC researchers have worked extensively with chemical companies, Adaskaveg said. “You’re not bearing the burden alone.”

Adaskaveg said Kearney is “going through a transformation; the university is not supporting agriculture in the way it used to.”

Problems addressed by the industry and UC over the years include sour rot, which became more of an issue, Adaskaveg said, as the industry moved to more tree ripened and pre-conditioned fruit.

Mike McKenry, nematology specialist in Cooperative Extension, talked of replanting experiments for “buffer zones” around houses and schools where use of fumigants is banned or tightly controlled.

He said one technique involves the “starve and switch,” using systemic herbicides to kill root systems after a final harvest and then waiting a full year prior to replanting with a rootstock of a different parentage from the previous rootstock.

Some of the replacements are in the HBOK (Harrow Blood and Okinawa) series, which has shown some protection against root knot and root lesion and tolerance to rejection.

“A key in buffer zones is to not rush the replant,” McKenry said. “Treat with Roundup and wait a year.”

McKenry is also growing Butternut, a walnut, to study its use as “a trap crop” that brings nematodes to it and kills them.

Scott Johnson, Cooperative Extension pomologist, talked of his work with 30 other states, Canada and Mexico to test 15 different rootstocks in 17 peach growing areas throughout the U.S.

He is now on sabbatical leave, gathering information on rootstocks from Europe, Russia and elsewhere that may be more suitable for dwarfing, doing well in challenging soils and thwarting nematodes and disease.

Johnson said he will share information from his research in early December at the Kearney center.

Good news

DeJong, though outspoken about cutbacks in funding, also shared some good news during his talk about the HBOK series and dwarfing rootstock.

He is predicting that California’s tree fruit will size well “except for the early stuff,” thanks to a cooler, wet spring. “Crummy weather in the spring is the best you can have for good fruit size,” DeJong said. “We recall 2004 when there was a super hot spring, 80 degrees all of March during 30 days after bloom. There was terrible fruit size that year.”

DeJong said some of the HBOK series is being released under the term Controller, and that Controller 5 is particularly good as a backyard tree. But because its fruit is smaller, it’s not recommended for commercial planting.

His research has shown that growers can make up production on other lower sizing rootstocks by putting trees closer together. “They invest less in maintenance of trees and get closer to a pedestrian orchard,” he said.

With size controls, DeJong said, fruit tends to have higher sugar, and trees are more open.

Day showcased Owen T. plum trees that had been mechanically topped at 9 feet and then cut by hand to 8 feet.

Short trees managed correctly can produce as much as tall trees, he said, “because we thin off so much to get the larger sized fruit. “We don’t take anything near to the ultimate bearing potential.” He said. “We don’t need the huge structure.”

Day said fruit at the top of the tree consistently sizes better. “The top 3 feet is always the top 3 feet whether the tree is 8 or 14 feet tall.”

He said Nemaguard rootstock, a mainstay for the tree fruit industry, can be used to grow shorter trees by backing off the amount of nitrogen used.

Those who attended the field day included Joe Bezerra, executive director of the California State University Agricultural Research Initiative, and director of the California Agricultural Technology Institute at Fresno State University. He is also concerned about cutbacks in the CSU system.

Each system faces overall cutbacks from the state that could range between $500 million and $1 billion each, said Bezerra and Johnson. Both men talked of the need to try to form partnerships between industry players, government entities and educational institutions to meet the added challenge.

“There needs to be increased collaboration across system lines,” Bezerra said.