Washington Tree Fruit Long-Term Agricultural Research and Education Site Launched

Author: Tianna DuPont, WSU Tree Fruit Extension Specialist.

The team involved in this project includes Willy Stockman, Lee Kalcsits, Chad Kreuger, Cameron Burt, Tracey Somera, Devin Rippner, and Jessica Waite.

A long-term investment

A tractor driving through the orchard spreading compost on the ground.

Prior to planting, compost was applied to some treatments.

Washington State University, in partnership with the Washington Soil Health Initiative, has launched a Long-Term Agroecological Research and Extension (LTARE) site focused on soil health in tree fruit. After months of building the team and creating a plan, trees were planted on April 25 in Rock Island, Washington, at the WSU Sunrise Research Farm, marking the beginning of what is planned to be a long, fruitful future of soil health research.

Maintaining and improving soil health is crucial to ensure the long-term productivity of agriculture and to protect the environment. It also contributes to the ongoing health of the rural economy and regional food security. To maintain our standing status as the top producer of apples, pears, and cherries, Washington growers are interested in addressing soil health challenges related to tree health, productivity, and fruit quality.

The key challenges include:

  1. Low yields
  2. Fruit quality problems such as bitter pit
  3. Replant disease nematodes and soilborne diseases
  4. Compaction
  5. Light/droughty soils.

Read more about the Washington tree fruit soil health challenges in the WaSHI Soil Health Roadmap

An investigative approach

Researchers and technicians planting trees.

Tree planting in the first tree fruit LTARE trial on April 25th, 2023.

The Washington Soil Health for Tree Fruit LTARE aims to develop and evaluate management systems that optimize fruit yield and quality through sustainable soil health management practices.

The project will work to:

  1. Establish best practices and standard operating procedures for optimal soil health
  2. Reduce variability in orchards with organic matter amendments or other soil health-building practices
  3. Reduce bitter pit and other disorders related to nutrient uptake and water/plant stress
  4. Establish soil health practices that conserve water and buffer environmental stress in the face of climate change
  5. Identify long-term sustainable approaches to managing soilborne disease and nematodes.

Three trials will be planted over the next three years, covering 2.5 acres each. The first trial, planted this year, will investigate practices to reduce variability, conserve water, and buffer environmental stress with organic matter applications. Treatments include a mulch treatment focused on water management, a high carbon treatment focused on building organic matter with compost and manure, and an integrated organic treatment compared to standard management.

The second trial that will be planted next year will focus on soil amendment-based strategies designed to mitigate apple replant disease.

Researchers and technicians holding shovels and smiling while planting trees.

Co-leader of the fruit LTARE enjoying seeing the trees finally being planted.

The third trial will focus on cherries and will include a similar set of treatments as in the first trial with apples. More information on the specific treatments can be found on the Wenatchee LTARE one-pager. Read the one-pager.

A unique opportunity

Regular research projects last one to five years and rarely can capture long-term changes in soil characteristics and those long-term effects on tree performance.

A place for collaboration

The planting is designed to host a collaboration of different researchers to look at many aspects of how soil health impacts production. We set things up to have a consistent long-term look but also to be flexible and able to host multiple questions that arise.

Building soil health takes long-term investment but can leverage deep rewards. We are excited to have the opportunity to work with an amazing team of researchers and growers to focus on questions that are important to our stakeholders and our communities.

This article was published by the Washington Soil Health Initiative. For more information, visit https://wasoilhealth.org. To have these posts delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe to the WaSHI newsletter. To find a soil science technical service provider, visit the Washington State University Extension website or the Washington State Conservation District website.