As new director of the Clean Plant Center Northwest, Scott Harper will help growers stop devastating crop viruses before they gain a foothold.
“The front line of the battle against viruses is clean material,” said Harper, hired January 3, 2017, to run the Center, located at Washington State University’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser.
A virologist and former scientist and regulator at New Zealand’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and the University of Florida’s Citrus Research and Education Center, he was hired following an international search that drew heavily on industry input.
As director, his top priority is to grow the Northwest’s supply of virus-free fruit trees, vines and hops.
“I’ve seen what happens when viruses and other pathogens aren’t controlled and get too far ahead,” Harper said. “Once viruses are in, it’s very difficult to slow them down.”
Founded in 1961, the Clean Plant Center Northwest safeguards more than 1,800 fruit tree, grapevine and hop selections from viruses in insect-proof greenhouses. Last year, Center staff distributed more than 13,700 grapevine cuttings, 6,500 fruit tree buds, 1,800 hop cuttings, and dozens of grape and hop plants to nurseries and growers across the country.
“Starting with clean material is key to rebuilding any crop,” said Harper. “Only then can you control viruses, by stopping the insects that transmit them and breeding tolerant cultivars. Those methods don’t work if diseases are already present.”
Pathogens like Little Cherry Virus and Western X-disease phytoplasma hold the potential to devastate Northwest crops.
“Little Cherry Virus is one of the most problematic and poorly understood organisms,” he said. “It ruins fruit quality and quantity, and it’s spreading.”
In response, Harper plans to expand the Center’s diagnostic service, build its research arm and develop a clean plant database for growers.
“I want to build the program into one of the best in the country,” he said.
This winter, Harper will attend grower meetings throughout the state. Spring is when virus testing ramps up, and he encourages producers to share their plant health concerns with the Center.
A partner with industry
Harper would not have joined the Center without the involvement of Northwest tree fruit, grape and hop industries, said Scot Hulbert, chair of the Department of Plant Pathology at WSU.
“Our goal was to find a strong scientist and effective manager who would partner with stakeholders to come up with solutions,” said Kate Woods, vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Council and search committee member. “Dr. Harper meets all of these qualifications, and with the Center’s role in providing quarantine services for imported plants, his regulatory experience is a valued bonus.”
“The Center serves many different stakeholders,” added Rick Hamman, search committee member and viticulture manager for Hogue Ranches. “It requires strong coordination and management to be successful. Scott has good ideas, and is willing to collaborate for success.”
“The Washington wine grape industry’s access to clean plants is one of the single most important contributors to successful growth,” said Vicky Scharlau, executive director of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers. “We welcome Scott’s expertise, and look forward to working with him to build a strong and sustainable program that serve the needs of quickly expanding acreage.”
“As we move into an era of uncertain federal support, we look forward to exploring new approaches to funding to maintain a strong and effective clean stock program,” said Ann George, executive director of the Washington Hop Commission. “We appreciate Scott’s thoughtful approach and problem-solving attitude as we look for options to create long-term stability.”
“This is a big job,” said Hulbert. “It’s really important to growers, and that makes it important to WSU.”