WENATCHEE — Karina Gallardo can drive by an orchard and see something that most of us don’t.
She sees labor and chemical costs, the price of trees and land, the soil preparation, the type of irrigation and trellises, the size of the trees — factors of production that can make or break a local orchardist.
The work she’s doing as North Central Washington’s first locally based agricultural economist is helping take some of the guesswork out of everything from crop yields and profitability to the feasibility of adopting cutting-edge mechanization in orchard work.
“I like the dynamics of my work,” Gallardo, 38, said recently from her small and orderly office at the Washington State University Tree Fruit Research Center.
A narrow strip of window to the left of her desk looks out at Burch Mountain, a peak that reminds her of her native Peru.
“What drives me the most,” she said, “is the constant learning and discovering of new things.”
In a hallway nearby, a large poster charts her progress gauging consumer tolerances for fruit size and appearance by price point — a story told through calculus and complex economic modeling.
Growers, bankers, insurance companies and ag agencies are using this information to help them make decisions. Do a prospective grower’s own estimates of crop yield and profitability match the benchmarks established in Gallardo’s models? Would that grower be worthy of a loan or a crop-insurance policy? Would this be a good time to replace a couple dozen acres of Red Delicious apples with Honey Crisp? How long will it take to make a profit after switching varieties?
“Her research provides these benchmark budgets, and growers can take these assumptions and apply them to their own orchards,” says Tom Auvil, research horticulturalist at the state’s Wenatchee-based Tree Fruit Research Commission.
That’s pretty important, he says, in an industry that has seen its production costs more than double to around $7,000 per acre over the last dozen years.
The economics of agriculture have molded her perspective and aspirations from childhood, when the city girl from urban Lima would spend vacations on her grandparents’ small potato-seed farm in the Central Andean highland community of Huasahuasi, a Quechua word the could be loosely translated to mean “home behind the mountain.”
“The mood in the family when the price was low — it was the only topic of conversation around the table,” she said. “It affected the whole town.”
As a teenager in Peru in the 1980s, she lived through periods of soaring inflation that could reduce a family’s buying power in the course of a single day.
She’d wonder why the small potato farmers didn’t do something to add value to their hard work by processing the potatoes and earn more for their effort.
That curiosity, combined with good grades at the English-intensive school she attended in Lima, led to good language skills, a university degree in food science engineering and a quality-control job at a Nestlé chocolate factory in Lima.
Only 23 at the time, she remembers how members of the production crews she supervised would refer to her as “la niña” — “little girl” — while they’d referred to her male counterparts using the professional courtesy of “engineer.”
She creatively earned her coworkers’ respect, but realized that she’d need more education to achieve her longer-term career goals.
That led to emigration to the U.S., a master’s degree in agricultural economics from Mississippi State University in 2004 and a doctorate from Oklahoma State University in 2007.
The job search landed her at WSU in Wenatchee in 2008, when ongoing challenges with labor, pest management and development of new fruit varieties all presented new opportunities for analysis.
Her work, like that of most university researchers, is wholly grant funded, so she’s always applying for new sources. A graduate student now helps with her research.
“I’m fascinated by the tree fruit industry,” she said. “It is a rich soil for applied economics.”