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WSU wins grant for specialty crop research

YAKIMA – The effects of pests, drought and disease on hop and mint plants – and how those stresses influence the taste of beer and gum – will be the subject of a Washington State University study announced Wednesday.

The $3.1 million grant is just a piece of the $15.3 million awarded to the university Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for specialty crop research. The award represents nearly a third of the total $47.3 million awarded nationally.

Last year, WSU received $3.3 million, or about 12 percent of the total awarded.

USDA has long provided research money for commodity crops, such as wheat, corn and soybeans. The department created its Specialty Crop Research Initiative in 2008 to improve research for fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits and horticulture and nursery crops.

The WSU grants include $3.8 million for stem-free sweet cherry research, $2.1 million for fruit breeding and $2 million for biodegradable mulches. Other research areas include crop management, pests, fruit canopy and spray application of pesticides and herbicides.

The grants are a result of the university’s world-class quality research, as well as its close partnership with the state’s specialty crops industry, College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences dean Dan Bernardo said.

Washington state is the leading producer of several specialty crops, including apples, grapes, red raspberries and sweet cherries.

Matthew Whiting, a WSU plant physiologist leading the cherry research, said the research will focus on mechanizing harvests to reduce the labor costs that dominate operating budgets of cherry growers.

“That’s sitting there like a sore thumb as the issue to address in terms of efficiency,” he said.

Seventy-nine percent of U.S. hops for beer come from the state, grown primarily in the Yakima Valley. Washington is also the top producer of both spearmint and peppermint oil, most of which is used for gum, toothpaste and other products.

Researchers will examine the impact that disease, pests, weeds and water availability have on the quality and quantity of mint oil, and in the hop acids that form the bitterness in beer, said Doug Walsh, the university’s integrated pest management coordinator.

Research team members include an irrigation scientist, entomologist, weed scientist, plant pathologist and a biochemist. A sensory scientist will run flavor profiles on the two products and lead taste tests of beer brewed from damaged and undamaged hops.

A sociologist will determine the sociological impacts of these stresses on farmers, farm workers and neighboring communities that rely on the agricultural production of these crops.

The state provided some matching dollars to qualify for the grants. Crop marketing groups and individual growers also contributed money.

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