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State of Success: National Washington Day

Guest Author
Seth Truscott, Washington State University

To celebrate National Washington Day on May 10, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is highlighting the innovative NIFA-funded research conducted by Washington State University (WSU).  

Historical Background

The WSU College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS) traces its origins to our Land-grant University's founding. Only five months after attaining statehood, the Washington State Legislature established the Washington State Agricultural College, Experiment Station and School of Sciences on March 28, 1890. Instruction began in 1892, with courses offered in agriculture, horticulture, domestic science and other practical fields. For six generations, minds in CAHNRS have engaged in discovery that improves the food we grow, the clothing we wear and the industries and resources we depend upon. 

WSU post-doctoral fellow Abhilash Chandel explains to an AgAID Institute team, including CAHNRS' Lav Khot, second from left, how a drone’s sensing technology collects multispectral and thermal imagery data from a “smart farm” in Yakima County.
WSU post-doctoral fellow Abhilash Chandel explains to an AgAID Institute team, including CAHNRS' Lav Khot, second from left, how a drone’s sensing technology collects multispectral and thermal imagery data from a “smart farm” in Yakima County. 

Successes and Innovations 

For more than a century, CAHNRS has supported agricultural production in Washington, now worth more than $10 billion annually.  

Among historic innovations, WSU-based wheat breeder Orville Vogel developed semi-dwarf wheat varieties in the early 1960s that shattered previous yield records and contributed germplasm to the “Green Revolution.” The Rainier cherry, still the premium, yellow-fleshed variety in Washington, was developed at WSU's Prosser research center by USDA scientist Howard Fogle and released in 1960. WSU importation of Wagyu cattle in 1993 from Japan as part of an international trade proposal has fueled the inclusion of this breed to improve meat quality worldwide, resulting in a Wagyu beef market of over $2.2 billion in 2021. 

Because of Washington state’s unique and diverse farming environments, as well as the wide range of crops grown, CAHNRS utilizes support from NIFA and agricultural industry partners to breed new grain and fruit crop varieties that are specifically adapted to our growing regions. Wheat varieties are developed to yield well in specific growing regions, resist local diseases to minimize pesticide use, and fit the food-use qualities of the Pacific-rim countries where they are exported for noodles, tortillas, cakes and other products.  

The WSU-bred Cosmic Crisp® apple is already one of the top 10 U.S. varieties by volume and sales after entering the market just five years ago. This new variety is the result of a 30-year effort to develop juicier, better-storing, higher-quality apples for growers and consumers. The Teton Russet potato variety, co-developed between WSU, USDA, the University of Idaho and Oregon State University, was recently added to the list used for McDonald's World-Famous Fries. Fundamental research to advance these programs for WSU breeders and others around the world is led by CAHNRS faculty. This includes the development of genomic databases that enable use of DNA sequences to identify plants more rapidly with the best combinations of important traits, encompassing species in the rosacea family (such as apples, cherries, strawberries and raspberries), vaccinium (blueberries) and legumes (peas, lentils and chickpeas). DNA sequencing technology is also being developed and used to enhance progress in other crops such as wheat as well as livestock, such as beef and dairy cattle.  

Lav Khot, WSU AgWeatherNet director, stands next to one of the network's nearly 400 solar-powered weather stations located across Washington state (WSU Photo)
Lav Khot, WSU AgWeatherNet director, stands next to one of the network's nearly 400 solar-powered weather stations located across Washington state (WSU Photo) 

NIFA-funded Research 

NIFA's support allows CAHNRS to bring new ideas to light that improve our food supply, protect our environment and natural resources, and keep Washington agriculture competitive. More than 73% of CAHNRS extramural funding is from federal sources, the most important of which is USDA-NIFA. This support enables an incredible range of practical discovery and education.  

NIFA's Specialty Crop Research Initiative program underpins diverse studies, from the impact of smoke exposure on wine grapes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in dairy and beef cattle; to protecting cereal, fruit and vegetable crops and livestock from new strains of pests and pathogens; to solving the pollution and recycling problems of using plastics in fruit and vegetable production.  

Pacific Northwest agricultural producers navigate complex and uncertain climate and economic environments. NIFA underwrites work by WSU economists serving farmers and ranchers through the Western Extension Risk Management Education Center, which helps producers manage the evolving risks, such as drought, market, wildfire, regulatory and labor challenges, that they face across the diverse western region. Farm management education programs funded and administered by the Western Center are critical to the farm safety net that supports producer economic viability. NIFA’s Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network support has also expanded farmer suicide prevention work done by Washington State University Extension to reach 13 western states and four U.S. territories. 

Washington grows nearly all organic apple and pear fruit in the U.S., with an estimated annual farm gate value of $500 million. WSU plant pathologists, economists and horticulturalists are building a systems approach to address critical challenges by developing effective and timely preharvest organic sprays, assessing non-chemical methods to extend quality and reduce disorders, and evaluating the feasibility of safer coatings. 

Many dairy farms find it hard to cope with the onslaught of financial losses arising from low milk prices, high feed costs, consolidation, economies of scale and demand fluctuations. WSU economists help lead a NIFA-funded study of dairy policies, economies of scale, and the changing structure of the industry with the goal of developing models and insights to aid competitiveness and sustainability. 

With backing from NIFA, WSU has launched the AgAID Institute, a multi-institutional research center for development of artificial intelligence (AI) solutions to tackle some of agriculture’s biggest challenges related to labor, water, weather and climate change. AI is being used to optimize costly, carbon-intensive inputs to agricultural systems. This work is driven by data from an evolving set of plant and soil sensors and information from WSU’s AgWeatherNet, an extensive network of weather stations; it is being used to develop robotics and refine grower decision aid models. These models include insect phenology, disease development, frost hardiness based on plant developmental stage and other factors to help farmers optimize inputs such as pesticides and environmental controls.  

The institute’s Foundational Knowledge of Plant Products program aids research in plant oils at WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry, exploring valuable, plant-derived chemicals and ingredients used in foods, pharmaceuticals and other natural products. 

The AFRI Foundational Program supports current work in agricultural artificial intelligence, improved cattle genetics, the salmon genome, plant oils, improved sweet cherries, robotic fruit thinning, new uses for agricultural byproducts, climate change adaptation and more.  

New technologies have the potential to improve health and wellbeing for humans and livestock, but only if people trust and accept them. The AFRI Foundational Program supported School of Economic Sciences' studies on consumer acceptance of genome editing in domestic livestock. 

Supported by NIFA, WSU researchers are using genome editing technology to study how key muscle growth-related genes work in fish. The findings increase our understanding of trout and salmon muscle growth, which could help improve selection for increased fillet yield and quality in aquaculture.  

Led by WSU, the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance provides a wide range of research and analyses for a developing industry that converts forest and agriculture residuals into bio-jet fuel and other co-products. NIFA funding supports innovations in efficient conversion of both the lignin and cellulose components of plant cell walls into fuel and more valuable bioproducts. 

NIFA predoctoral fellowships allow CAHNRS students to gain valuable research experience before joining the workforce while building skills within food and agricultural sciences. NIFA support also expanded opportunities for students from Hispanic-serving Institutions to explore careers in agriculture research, through a new summer internship program at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center. 

Unique Agricultural Challenges 

Challenges to agriculture in Washington include rising costs of inputs; labor; erosion and other threats to soil health and fertility; evolving and adapting pests and diseases; increased herbicide resistance; uncertainties of weather extremes; climate change; the need for improved environmental sustainability; and economic pressures and stresses to growers' feasibility and mental health.  

WSU plant pathologists Kiwamu Tanaka and Cynthia Gleason are exploring novel defenses against pest and diseases that harm valuable crops (WSU Photo).
WSU plant pathologists Kiwamu Tanaka and Cynthia Gleason are exploring novel defenses against pest and diseases that harm valuable crops (WSU Photo). 

Future Research 

The key to economic and environmental sustainability in agriculture is to apply the optimal level of inputs, including fertilizer, water, pesticides, fuel and even labor, to every plant or animal to minimize expensive and sometimes environmentally problematic waste. Advances in AI-assisted decision-making tools and robotics are essential for our agricultural stakeholders. Genetic advances are also vital to continue increasing production with the same or fewer inputs. Agriculture and food production needs to be part of the solution to greenhouse gas production, instead of part of the problem, by designing and implementing systems that produce food with maximum efficiency and utilization of wastes as inputs such as fertilizer, feedstocks for fuel or valuable bioproducts that are currently derived from fossil fuels. 

From AI and labor-saving tools, animals that are more efficient, disease resistant and sustainable, to disease- and drought-resistant crop breeds, to education that help producers and companies become more resilient, our collaborations with NIFA help Washington producers and communities overcome these challenges. We thank NIFA for its invaluable support and partnership in realizing an incredible range of discovery and outreach through WSU and CAHNRS. 

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