Variety Development – Cougars Edition

November 11, 2020 in Crops

Variety Development – Cougars Edition

Washington State University, Home of the Cosmic Crisp

With the exception of California, the state of Washington has perhaps the most diverse agricultural economy in the United States. The Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) notes that more than 300 commodities–including emus–are commercially produced in the state. From a value perspective, however, apples are the state’s largest commodity and roughly double that of potatoes which occupy the number two spot. USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) reports that the value of Washington’s apple production in 2019 was nearly $2 billion. By volume, Washington produced 69 percent of the country’s 11 billion pounds of apples, or 7.6 billion pounds. The apple is such a significant agricultural commodity for the state that the annual football game between the Seattle’s University of Washington Huskies and Pullman’s Washington State University (WSU) Cougars is appropriately known as the Apple Cup. 

Courtesy of the Washington State Department of Agriculture

It should not be unexpected that given the apple’s significance to Washington’s identity and agricultural economy, apple breeding is a key feature of WSU’s research portfolio. In addition to Northwest Indian College, a 1994 institution, WSU is one of Washington’s two land-grant universities (LGU). Since today is the state’s 131st birthday, it will be the next stop on our ongoing tour of LGUs in the country. Not surprisingly, WSU’s plant breeding activities cover a significant range of commodities from the ubiquitous apple to the ancient grain called teff. Coincidentally, WSU’s teff breeding activities takes place in the lab of Dr. Michael Neff. 

Before we pivot to a general overview of WSU’s plant breeding efforts, we need to talk more about Washington’s apples, and specifically WA 38, better known as Cosmic Crisp. Back in May, we posted about the extraordinarily lengthy and costly variety development process for agricultural commodities in general and pointed readers to the incredible and recent success of the Cosmic Crisp, which was developed by WSU. The 22 years of work in collaboration with Washington’s apple industry culminated in the shipment of 450,000 40-pound boxes of the apple to grocery stores last fall. WSU estimates that more than 2 million boxes will start shipping to consumers as soon as this month for the 2020 season, exciting apple enthusiasts everywhere including here at Medius Ag! 

When a university has a program called The Bread Lab, you know they take their wheat breeding seriously, which would only make sense because of the $800 million wheat industry in the state. But The Bread Lab isn’t just about wheat. 

The Bread Lab is a combination think tank and baking laboratory where scientists, bakers, chefs, farmers, maltsters, brewers, distillers and millers experiment with improved flavor, nutrition and functionality of regional and obscure wheats, barley, other small grains and beans.

Dr. Stephen S. Jones, Director of The Bread Lab

According to its website, the goal of the Plant Breeding program at The Bread Lab is to add to the long-term environmental and economic health of farming in western Washington while producing a food crop that is safe and high in nutritional value. Former graduate student Colin Curwen-McAdams does a great job of explaining the purpose and activities of The Bread Lab in this informative video.

Like other states’ LGUs, WSU has multiple research and extension centers located throughout the state that enables the university to conduct agricultural research reflective of the unique growing regions within the state. In addition to The Bread Lab, WSU’s Mount Vernon Northwestern Research Center (NWREC) is also home to the university’s cider research program among other programs. (Fun fact: While fermented apple juice is cider, fermented pear juice is called “perry”.) While the NWREC conducts a broad array of agricultural research, the extent of breeding activities there are limited to those undertaken at The Bread Lab.

WSU’s Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center (TFREC) is located in the central Washington city of Wenatchee. The university jointly operates the TFREC with the USDA Agricultural Research Agency (ARS) and scientists from both WSU and ARS collaborate on tree fruit research projects. Apple breeding, including for the Cosmic Crisp, and pear breeding falls in the Pome Fruit Breeding Program that is stationed here and managed by Dr. Kate Evans. 

The WSU Small Fruit Breeding Program focuses on developing new raspberry and strawberry cultivars. It is housed in WSU’s Puyallup Research and Extension Center in western Washington. Its proximity to the state’s urban populations–including those in Seattle and Tacoma–make it an appropriate location for organic production research on its six acres of certified organic farmland. 

Two-thirds of Washington’s agricultural production comes from irrigated land like that found in the Columbia River Basin, making WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center (IAREC) in Prosser an indispensable piece of WSU’s agricultural research network. Dr. Per McCord leads the sweet cherry breeding effort at IAREC. The Prosser facility will soon be home to a significant public hops breeding program

Due in part to its location on some of the most productive agricultural land on the planet, there is significant collaboration and partnership between WSU researchers and those at USDA-ARS. As such this is hardly a comprehensive accounting of the university’s breeding programs, particularly the substantial small grains, pulse crop, and potato breeding activities conducted on their campuses and facilities located within the Columbia Basin. However, hopefully this provided enough of a glimpse into WSU’s breeding programs that you’ll leave more informed yet curious than when you arrived. And with that, here is a longer video on the story of Cosmic Crisp’s development for those who are interested. 

Courtesy of Northwest Profiles

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