Mar 4, 2021Industry-backed professor works to improve tree fruit productivity, stress defense
Helping Washington’s tree fruit industry solve production challenges from heat and other environmental stresses, Washington State University physiologist Lee Kalcsits will lead expanded research as WSU’s new Endowed Chair for Tree Fruit Environmental Physiology and Management.
For the past seven years, Kalcsits has explored the complex physiology of tree fruit, working to turn discovery to practical benefit for Northwest orchards. His work gained support and recognition this February, when he was named the Washington State University (WSU) tree fruit program’s newest endowed professor.
Sponsored by a $2 million endowment from the Washington tree fruit industry, Kalcsits will work closely with growers to address significant environmental challenges to fruit production.
“Washington State produces extremely high yields of high quality fruit, but there’s a thin line between optimum quality and heavy losses,” Kalcsits said. “My research will help the Washington tree fruit industry achieve that balance.”
As endowed chair, Kalcsits will expand his efforts to study the interactions between fruit tree genetics, the environment, and growing practices. His role helps reveal the physiological mechanisms that can improve tree fruit productivity and help orchards tolerate environmental stresses such as drought and heat waves.
Kalcsits will work with WSU Extension to share research-based strategies that mitigate environmental stresses and orchard challenges. Based at Wenatchee, he will also help plan future upgrades to the WSU Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center and Sunrise Research Orchard.
“Lee’s work is fundamental to a stronger, more productive future for Washington state’s most important fruit crops,” said André-Denis Wright, dean of the WSU College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences. “His ongoing collaboration with growers has spurred better practices and profitability. I thank the industry for its continued support of this fruitful partnership and our newest Endowed Chair.”
Family orchard origins
Holding a doctorate in tree physiology from the University of British Columbia, Kalcsits grew up on a small u-pick orchard in Saskatchewan, Canada, growing small fruit in some of the coldest winter conditions in the world.
“My interest in environmental physiology was piqued early, as my family sought different fruit cultivars and crops that would simply survive the winter,” he said.
Throughout his research career, Kalcsits explored physiological mechanisms surrounding cold hardiness, nutrient-use efficiencies, heat, and water stress.
At WSU, his lab identified the role of irrigation in reducing bitter pit in Honeycrisp apple. Those results spurred industry-wide efforts to better manage water delivery to that variety, boosting orchard pack-out and profitability.
Fruit sunburn remains one of the largest contributors to fruit losses in Washington, Kalcsits said. Apple, pear, and cherry growers experience losses from high heat, especially as orchards convert to high-density systems. Summer temperatures are forecast to increase, and earlier fruit maturity will continue to increase the risks of sunburn and other heat-related disorders.
“In the short term, understanding the biology underlying fruit sunburn development will contribute to the development of more effective mitigation practices,” Kalcsits said. “Long-term, I plan to work alongside other tree fruit researchers and the industry to support the development and production of scion and rootstock cultivars that succeed in Washington’s hot, semi-arid environment.”
Learn more about how WSU Tree Fruit Research and Extension supports Washington agriculture at treefruit.wsu.edu.
Photo at top: Lee Kalcsits will assist Washington tree fruit growers in addressing sunburn, scald, cold, and other environmental challenges as a new endowed professor. Above, he discusses netting to mitigate sunburn at a field day in Quincy, Wash. Photo: Sara Serra/WSU