Research
October 12, 2017, Deschambault, Que – The Canadian government is prioritizing science and innovation and the competitiveness of the agriculture industry as a whole to create better business opportunities for producers and Canadians.

Funding was announced recently for two projects by the Centre de recherche en sciences animales de Deschambault (CRSAD), including a plan to increase the pollination efficiency of bees to achieve better yields in cranberry production.

Funding of $183,127 will enable the CRSAD to identify the best method of feeding bees with sucrose syrup and to test variations of that method to maximize the bees’ pollination efficiency in cranberry production. The outcomes of this project are designed to increase cranberry yields and decrease bee feeding costs.

“The CRSAD is very appreciative of the federal government’s strong support for its research activities,” said Jean-Paul Laforest, president of the CRSAD. “Canada holds an enviable position in the world for cranberry production, and bees are major allies of the industry. Our project will deliver positive outcomes for both cranberry production and the bees themselves.”

In 2016, the Quebec cranberry industry generated nearly $82 million in market receipts and over $30 million in exports.

 
October 12, 2017, Madison, WI – The colour red is splashed across gardens, forests and farms, attracting pollinators with bright hues, signaling ripe fruit and delighting vegetable and flower gardeners alike.

But if you put a ruby raspberry up against a crimson beet and look closely, you might just notice: they are different reds.

Millions of years ago, one family of plants – the beets and their near and distant cousins – hit upon a brand new red pigment and discarded the red used by the rest of the plant world. How this new red evolved, and why a plant that makes both kinds of red pigment has never been found, are questions that have long attracted researchers puzzling over plant evolution.

Writing recently in the journal New Phytologist, University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor of Botany Hiroshi Maeda and his colleagues describe an ancient loosening up of a key biochemical pathway that set the stage for the ancestors of beets to develop their characteristic red pigment. By evolving an efficient way to make the amino acid tyrosine, the raw material for the new red, this plant family freed up extra tyrosine for more uses. Later innovations turned the newly abundant tyrosine scarlet.

The new findings can aid beet breeding programs and provide tools and information for scientists studying how to turn tyrosine into its many useful derivatives, which include morphine and vitamin E.

“The core question we have been interested in is how metabolic pathways have evolved in different plants, and why plants can make so many different compounds,” says Maeda. “Beets were the perfect start for addressing the question.”

The vast majority of plants rely on a class of pigments called anthocyanins to turn their leaves and fruits purple and red. But the ancestors of beets developed the red and yellow betalains, and then turned off the redundant anthocyanins. Besides beets, the colour is found in Swiss chard, rhubarb, quinoa and cactuses, among thousands of species. Betalains are common food dyes and are bred for by beet breeders.

When Maeda lab graduate student and lead author of the new paper Samuel Lopez-Nieves isolated the enzymes in beets that produce tyrosine, he found two versions. One was inhibited by tyrosine – a natural way to regulate the amount of the amino acid, by shutting off production when there is a lot of it. But the second enzyme was much less sensitive to regulation by tyrosine, meaning it could keep making the amino acid without being slowed down. The upshot was that beets produced much more tyrosine than other plants, enough to play around with and turn into betalains.

Figuring that humans had bred this highly active tyrosine pathway while selecting for bright-red beets, Lopez-Nieves isolated the enzymes from wild beets.

“Even the wild ancestor of beets, sea beet, had this deregulated enzyme already. That was unexpected. So, our initial hypothesis was wrong,” says Lopez-Nieves.

So he turned to spinach, a more distant cousin that diverged from beets longer ago. Spinach also had two copies, one that was not inhibited by tyrosine, meaning the new tyrosine pathway must be older than the spinach-beet ancestor. The researchers needed to go back much further in evolutionary time to find when the ancestor of beets evolved a second, less inhibited enzyme.

Working with collaborators at the University of Michigan and the University of Cambridge, Maeda’s team analyzed the genomes of dozens of plant families, some that made betalains and others that diverged before the new pigments had evolved. They discovered that the tyrosine pathway innovation – with one enzyme free to make more of the amino acid – evolved long before betalains. Only later did other enzymes evolve that could turn the abundant tyrosine into the red betalains.

“Our initial hypothesis was the betalain pigment pathway evolved and then, during the breeding process, people tweaked the tyrosine pathway in order to further increase the pigment. But that was not the case,” says Maeda. “It actually happened way back before. And it provided an evolutionary stepping stone toward the evolution of this novel pigment pathway.”

The takeaway of this study, says Maeda, is that altering the production of raw materials like tyrosine opens up new avenues for producing the varied and useful compounds that make plants nature’s premier chemists.

For some unknown ancestor of beets and cactuses, this flexibility in raw materials allowed it to discover a new kind of red that the world had not seen before, one that is still splashed across the plant world today.
October 11, 2017, West Lafayette, IN – Apple growers want to get the most out of their high-value cultivars, and a Purdue University study shows they might want to focus on the types of apples they plant near those cash crops.

Since apple trees cannot self-pollinate, the pollen from other apple varieties is necessary for fruit to grow. Orchard owners often plant crab apple trees amongst high-value apples such as Honeycrisp, Gala and Fuji. Crab apples produce a lot of flowers and thus a lot of pollen for bees to spread around to the other trees.

“If you are growing some Honeycrisp, you want to plant something next to your Honeycrisp that bees will pick up and spread to your Honeycrisp and make good apples,” said Peter Hirst, a Purdue professor of horticulture and landscape architecture. “Growers will alternate plantings of different cultivars every few rows to promote cross-pollination, and they’ll sometimes put a crab apple tree in the middle of a row as well.”

Hirst and Khalil Jahed, a Purdue doctoral student, wondered if it mattered which type of apple pollinated high-value cultivars. To find out, they manually applied pollen from Red Delicious and Golden Delicious, and two types of crab apple – Ralph Shay and Malus floribunda – to Honeycrisp, Fuji and Gala. They put a net over the trees to keep the bees out, so they could control the pollen that was applied.

Their findings, published recently in the journal HortScience, showed that Honeycrisp pollinated with the Red Delicious variety doubled fruit set — the conversion of flowers into fruit — compared to Honeycrisp pollinated with the crab apple varieties.

In Honeycrisp, pollen tubes created by Red Delicious pollen reached on average 85 per cent of the distance to the ovary, compared to 40 per cent for pollen tubes from crab apple pollen. And fruit set with Red Delicious pollen was four times higher in the first year of the study, and eight times higher in the second, compared to crab apples.

“On Honeycrisp especially, the two crab apples we tried are not very effective at all. The pollen grows very slowly, and you end up with reduced fruit set as a consequence,” Hirst said.

The crab apples did better with Fuji and Gala but still didn’t match the effectiveness of Red Delicious pollen.

When pollen lands on the pistil of the flower, it must be recognized, and if it is compatible, the pollen will germinate and grow down the style to the ovary. Once fertilized, the ovule becomes a seed and the flower becomes a fruit.

Jahed collected flowers from pollinated trees each day for four days after pollination and measured pollen tube growth and fruit set. Overall, the Red Delicious was the best pollinizer, followed by Golden Delicious and then the crab apple varieties. Jahed said the experiment should lead apple growers to consider the design of their orchards to ensure that better pollinizers are planted near high-value crops.

“If they have a good pollinizer and a compatible pollinizer, the fruit quality and fruit set will be higher than with those that are not compatible,” Jahed said.

The research was part of Jahed’s master’s degree thesis, which he has completed. He and Hirst do not plan to continue studying the effectiveness of different pollinizers, but he hopes that others take up the research. They do plan to publish one final paper on pollination and fruit quality in 2018.
October 4, 2017 – Soils keep plants healthy by providing plants with water, helpful minerals, and microbes, among other benefits. But what if the soil also contains toxic elements?

In some growing areas, soils are naturally rich in elements, such as cadmium. Leafy vegetables grown in these soils can take up the cadmium and become harmful to humans. What to do? The solution goes back to the soil. Adrian Paul, a former researcher now working in the Sustainable Mineral Institute in Brisbane, Australia, is working to find which soil additives work best.

Cadmium appears in very low levels or in forms that prevent contamination in soils across the world. However, some soils naturally have more than others. It can result from the erosion of local rock formations. In some instances, it’s present due to human activity. Metal processing, fertilizer or fossil fuel combustion, for example, can leave cadmium behind.

Cadmium may decrease people’s kidney function and bone density. As a result, international guidelines set safety limits on cadmium found in food. Growers with otherwise fertile fields need to grow food within these safe levels. Their livelihood depends on it.

“Our research aims to protect producers and consumers by lowering the cadmium in vegetables. This gives producers the ability to grow safe, profitable crops,” Paul says. “Consumers need to be able to safely eat what the farmers grow.”

Paul worked with four additives: zinc and manganese salts, limestone, and biosolids [nutrient-rich organic materials from sewage processed at a treatment facility] compost.

Although each works in a slightly different manner, the soil amendments generally solve the cadmium problem in two ways. They can prevent the passage of cadmium from the soil to the plant by offering competing nutrients. They can also chemically alter the cadmium so it is unavailable.

The researchers found that a combination of compost, zinc, and limestone brought the levels of cadmium in spinach down to nontoxic levels. The next step in this work is to better determine the ideal combination of the soil amendments. Researchers also want to study vegetables besides spinach, and other elements.

“Farmlands provide for us all,” Paul says. ”Rehabilitating agricultural fields, by removing heavy metals like cadmium, means healthier soils and healthier food.”

Read more about this study in the Journal of Environmental Quality.
September 18, 2017, Brooks, Alta – Potato plants need a lot of nitrogen to produce tubers at optimum levels, but with more applied nitrogen comes an increased risk of nitrogen loss to the atmosphere.

Guillermo Hernandez Ramirez, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta, is studying the use and loss of that fertilizer in potato crops. He is testing various nitrogen fertilizer formulations and biostimulants to gauge their effect on potato productivity and nitrous oxide emissions. READ MORE

 

September 13, 2017, Kelowna, BC – An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but the mold on it could make you sick.

Rhiannon Wallace, a PhD candidate at University of British Columbia's Okanagan campus, has developed a way to stop, or at least control, blue mold – a pathogen that can rot an apple to its core. Wallace’s research has determined that bacteria, originally isolated from cold Saskatchewan soils, may be the answer to preventing mold growth and apple rot while the fruit is in storage or transport.

“The majority of postharvest fungal pathogens are opportunistic,” explains Wallace, who is working with UBC Biology Prof. Louise Nelson. “If a fruit is physically damaged, it is at an increased risk of rotting during storage. So a tiny blemish on the fruit from harvest or handling can turn into a conduit for attack by fungal pathogens and subsequently result in the development of mold.”

The fungal pathogen Penicillium expansum, also known as blue mold, destroys millions of stored apples each year. Post-harvest rot can result in yield losses of up to 20 per cent in developed countries such as Canada, while developing countries can lose up to 50 per cent of the crop, Wallace says.

The goal of her research is to reduce the amount of produce lost due to post-harvest blue mold. Traditionally, post-harvest rot has been controlled with chemical fungicides, but Wallace says these treatments have become less effective as the pathogen has developed resistance and there is consumer pushback to the chemicals. The research by Wallace and Nelson aims to provide a safer and more sustainable alternative to fungicides.

Wallace suggests the solution may lie in a particular bacterium specific to Saskatchewan soil. Pseudomonas fluorescens, due to its prairie roots, can survive in cold storage – a characteristic that is key to dealing with cold-stored produce like apples.

During tests conducted at the British Columbia Tree Fruits Cooperative storage facility in the Okanagan, Wallace determined that these bacteria can prevent blue mold from growing on McIntosh and Spartan apples while in storage. In addition, during these experiments, the bacteria provided control of blue mold on apples that was comparable to a commercially available biological control agent and a chemical fungicide.

“What is novel about our research is that we show the bacterial isolates we tested have an array of mechanisms to inhibit or kill Penicillium expansum (blue mold) on apples while fungicides generally act only by a single mode,” Wallace says. “These findings suggest that the development of resistance by blue mold against our soil bacteria is unlikely.”

She does note that while all three isolates of P. fluorescens tested provided control of blue mold, the level of control provided by each isolate varied with apple variety.

Wallace’s research, supported by the Canadian Horticulture Council and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, was recently published in the journal Postharvest Biology and Technology. Further support came from the BC Tree Fruits Cooperative and Agriculture Canada’s Summerland Research and Development Centre.
September 11, 2017, Geneva, NY – Breeding the next great grape is getting a boost thanks to new funding for a Cornell University-led project that uses genomic technology to create varieties that are more flavourful and sustainable.

The project – VitisGen2 – is a collaboration of 25 scientists from 11 institutions who are working in multidisciplinary teams to accelerate development of the next generation of grapes. Launched in 2011, the project was recently renewed with a $6.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Specialty Crop Research Initiative.

The work has the potential to save millions of dollars annually for the U.S. grape industry – in excess of $100 million in California alone, according to Bruce Reisch, professor of grapevine breeding and genetics in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), who co-leads the project with Lance Cadle-Davidson, plant pathologist with the USDA-ARS Grape Genetics Research Unit, both located at Cornell’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York.

VitisGen2’s multipronged model addresses the grape production continuum. An economics team examines the benefits of improving grape varieties. Geneticists identify molecular markers for important traits in grapes, from resistance to diseases like powdery mildew to boosting low-temperature tolerance and fruit quality. Grape-breeding scientists develop new grape varieties that incorporate these traits, and teams of outreach specialists help growers and consumers understand the advantages of newly introduced grape varieties.

The result is a new generation of high-quality grapes that can be grown at lower cost and adapt easily to a range of geographic regions and climates, all with less environmental impact.

“We all stand to benefit in areas ranging from the environment to economic sustainability to improving the profit and quality possibilities for the industry,” Reisch said.

Among the achievements in the project’s first five-year phase:
  • Deploying DNA sequencing technology to map the grape genome, a project led by Cadle-Davidson and Qi Sun of the Cornell Bioinformatics Facility.
  • Identifying 75 genetic markers associated with a range of important traits.
  • Pinpointing a gene that controls acidity in grapes. The discovery by the winemaking fruit quality team, led by Gavin Sacks, associate professor of food science in CALS, will help winemakers moderate excessive acid levels typically found in wild grape species, which are often used in crossbreeding for their resistance to disease.
  • Developing a process called Amplicon Sequencing, or AmpSeq, that allows researchers to rapidly analyze genetic variation in multiple genomic regions – anywhere from 2 to 500 DNA sequence markers – simultaneously.
The project has already shared its disease-resistant germplasm with breeding programs throughout the U.S., speeding the development of grape varieties with more flavour and that are more environmentally sustainable.

Looking to the future, Reisch and the VitisGen2 teams are aiming to expand the use of high-throughput DNA and plant evaluation technology to improve the quality of wine, raisin and table grapes, as well as rootstocks. VitisGen2 is using genome sequencing to identify markers within numerous genes of interest to better understand which genes are controlling priority traits.

The team is also looking at ways to use its collective knowledge of genetics to help growers manage vineyards. For example, AmpSeq technology can track the powdery mildew pathogen population, allowing researchers to determine which pesticides are most effective at specific times of the season, thereby reducing pesticide spraying and increasing its efficacy.

Ultimately, VitisGen2 will bring greater efficiency to grape growing, which is an intensive, comprehensive and costly process, said Reisch.

“It takes 15-plus years to get a new variety to the market,” Reisch said. “We’re probably shrinking the timeline down by two or three years.”
September 5, 2017, Netherlands - In a hidden experimental field in Wageningen, the Netherlands, surrounded by tall maize plants, there are several smaller plots with potato plants.

In some of these plots there are only dead plants, in others the plants have been affected by late blight (Phytophthora infestans) to a greater or lesser extent, but there are also fields with only perfectly healthy potatoes.

The latter are the result of the latest crosses by the Wageningen company, Solynta. The breeders have succeeded, thanks to their revolutionary hybrid breeding technique, in making potato plants insusceptible to the dreaded potato disease.

A new way of potato breeding

Potatoes are generally clone-bred and grown vegetatively. A seed-potato is put in the ground, which produces some ten new potatoes. One of the disadvantages of this system is that the parent plant transmits diseases to the offspring. Also, making the crop resistant is a long process.

Solynta has therefore selected a whole new approach: the company developed hybrid breeding with elite parent-lines, which allow propagation with true seeds. READ MORE
August 30, 2017, California - The Public Strawberry Breeding Program at the University of California, Davis, and colleagues in California and Florida have received a $4.5 million grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to improve the disease resistance and sustainable production of strawberries throughout the nation.

The collaborative grant is good news for strawberry farmers and consumers everywhere, according to Rick Tomlinson, president of the California Strawberry Commission. To signal its own support, the strawberry commission pledged an additional $1.8 million to the UC Davis program.

“An investment in the UC Davis strawberry breeding program is an investment in the future of strawberries,” Tomlinson said. “Thanks to their groundbreaking research and strong partnerships, Director Steve Knapp and his colleagues are developing improved strawberry varieties publicly available to farmers.”

Improving genetic resistance to disease

Strawberries constitute a $4.4 billion-dollar industry in the United States, and 94 percent of the nation’s strawberry fruit and nursery plants are grown in California and Florida.

Strawberries are especially vulnerable to soil-borne pathogens, which destroy plants and greatly reduce yield. Since the 1960s, strawberry growers have depended on fumigants like methyl bromide to treat soils before planting berries in an effort to control disease. But methyl bromide has been phased out by the Environmental Protection Agency and will no longer be available after 2017.

“Following the elimination of methyl bromide fumigation, strawberry growers are under greater economic pressures, and there is an urgent need for improved, disease-resistant strawberry varieties that will thrive without fumigation,” Knapp said.

Knapp will head a team of scientists from UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, UC Riverside, the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and the University of Florida.

Together, researchers will identify and manage pathogen threats, mine elite and wild genetic resources to find natural sources of resistance to pathogens, and accelerate the development of public varieties resistant to a broad spectrum of disease and other pests.

“Strawberry growers are faced with the need to deliver high-quality fruit to consumers year-round, while protecting the environment, fostering economic growth in their communities and coping with profound changes in production practices,” Knapp said. “We look forward to collaborating with our industry partners through research, agricultural extension and education to help them reach those goals.”

UC Davis Public Strawberry Breeding Program

During six decades, the UC Davis Public Strawberry Breeding Program has developed more than 30 patented varieties, made strawberries a year-round crop in California and boosted strawberry yield from just 6 tons per acre in the 1950s to 30 tons per acre today.

Knapp took over directorship of the program in 2015. He and his team are working to develop short-day and day-neutral strawberry varieties; studying the genetics of disease-resistance, fruit quality and photoperiod response; and applying genomic techniques to make traditional strawberry breeding more efficient. They have 10 public varieties in the pipeline and plan to release one or two new strawberry varieties later this year.

Initiative collaborators

The grant is funded by USDA’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative. Collaborators from UC Davis include agricultural economist Rachael Goodhue, plant pathologist Thomas Gordon, and plant scientists Julia Harshman and Thomas Poorten.

Other key collaborators are Oleg Daugovish with UC Agricultural and Natural Resources; Alexander Putman at UC Riverside; Julie Guthman at UC Santa Cruz; Gerald Holmes and Kelly Ivors, both at Cal Poly; and Seonghee Lee, Natália Peres and Vance Whitaker, all of the University of Florida.
August 10, 2017, Morgan Hill, CA – Next week, Sakata Seed America will host its annual California Field Days in Salinas [August 14-16] and Woodland [August 16-18], Calif.

This will be the 31st year Sakata has hosted the event, which continues to grow every year.

“We began hosting these trials in the small field in Salinas back in 1986,” said John Nelson, sales and marketing director with the company. “Since, it’s continues to expand with our growing infrastructure and has become our largest vegetable event of the year, showcasing the best of Sakata’s genetics and serving host to our customers, media, retail and more. We look forward to celebrating 40 years of business in NAFTA at this year’s trials.”

Those attending Sakata’s field days this year will see a few new modifications. Most notably, it will be the inaugural year Sakata will host its Woodland (warm-season crops – melon, onion, pepper, tomato, pumpkin, squash, watermelon) trials at the new Woodland Research Station; an investment in land, greenhouses, offices and other facilities slated for completion of the first phases in 2018. To learn more about Sakata’s Woodland development, check out the 40th Anniversary video.

In Salinas (cool-season crops – broccoli, beet, spinach, etc.) trials, customers will be greeted with an updated Broccoli Master. This information-rich piece of literature serves as the ultimate reference guide for all things Sakata broccoli, including ideal varieties for every growing region and other important information for successful broccoli cultivation.

“This will be the third generation of our Broccoli Master, and it has always been well-used by our dealers and growers alike,” said Matt Linder, senior broccoli product manager and Salinas Valley area sales manager. “It contains all the great information you need on our varieties right at your fingertips, and is heavy-duty enough to be kept in your truck or pocket when in the field. It’s been a few years since we’ve had an updated version, so we’re excited to include some great new additions we’ve recently added to our broccoli line, such as Millennium, Diamante, Eastern Magic, Eastern Crown and Emerald Star.”

For a digital copy, visit Sakata’s website; physical copies will be debuted at next week’s trials, and available for direct mail thereafter.
August 2, 2017, Ottawa, Ont. - Domestic subsidies in many countries encourage production increases that result in considerable surpluses and lower prices on global markets, according to a new study released today by the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI).

The study also found these production increases fuel highly unsustainable production practices and the misallocation of natural resources.

The comprehensive study, Understanding Agricultural Support, was prepared by Al Mussell, Douglas Hedley, Kamal Karunagoda, and Brenda Dyack of Agri-Food Economic Systems, with support from the Canadian Federation of Agriculture and Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. The report seeks a better understanding of the impacts of domestic income support programs in key markets and competitors on the competitiveness of Canada's agriculture and agri-food sector.
August 2, 2018, Guelph Ont. – Reducing food waste is not just the right thing to do; it’s also a way to improve business efficiency and profitability.

That’s the outcome of a food waste reduction project spearheaded by the Ontario Produce Marketing Association (OPMA) with funding provided by Growing Forward 2.

OPMA teamed up with Value Chain Management International (VCMI) to develop a workbook, prepare several case studies, and roll out a series of workshops to help OPMA members wrap their heads around how they can reduce waste in their businesses while making more money in the process.

“This is to identify opportunities for improvement in the value chain; if you improve process, you automatically reduce waste in areas like labour, energy, product, packaging and transportation,” project lead Martin Gooch told participants in the Agricultural Adaptation Council’s summer tour on June 14. “This will position the Ontario produce industry as a leader in reducing food waste, but it’s also a business opportunity for the entire value chain.”

The first Ontario industry case study was recently released, with three more nearing completion. The case study with a progressive Ontario potato supplier, EarthFresh Foods, clearly shows the business opportunity in addressing food waste: a 29 per cent increase in grade-out of potatoes results in a 74 per cent increase in producer margin.

Most of the produce loss can be directly attributed to production practices, storage and handling, but addressing the problem requires a slight shift in thinking for farmers.

“Farmers often look at what their production per acre is, but don’t connect that with how much is actually being marketed and that’s where they are paid,” he said. “If you can prevent that 29 per cent loss of product, that’s an overall $17,000 increase in return on a single trailer load of potatoes. Businesses also benefit from incurring lower costs.”

To date, close to 100 people have participated in the waste reduction workshops developed by VCMI. The accompanying workbook uses a whole value chain perspective, and was designed to be an easy to use tool for businesses small and large with 10 easy steps to follow.

“You don’t need to have a PhD in math or be a statistical genius to improve your business,” Gooch said. “It’s about identifying where the opportunities are, what the causes are, and how do we address those causes in a constructive way.”

Overall, participants come away from the workshop with solutions they can use to improve performance in their businesses and no longer simply accept waste and “shrink” as part of doing business. Media interest in the initiative has been strong with global coverage, and other sectors, like meat processing, are making inquiries about applicability of the program to their industries.

More information is available at www.theopma.ca.

This project was funded in part through Growing Forward 2 (GF2), a federal-provincial-territorial initiative. The Agricultural Adaptation Council assists in the delivery of GF2 in Ontario.
July 14, 2017, Gainesville, FL – Some people love to eat a juicy, seedless watermelon for a tasty, refreshing snack during a hot summer day. University of Florida scientists have found a way to stave off potential diseases while retaining that flavour.

Consumers increasingly savour the convenience and taste of seedless watermelons, said Xin Zhao, a UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences associate professor of horticultural sciences and lead author of a new study examining rootstocks, flavour and texture of watermelons.

Many growers produce seedless cultivars because that’s what consumers want, and it’s important to maintain the fruit’s yield and taste, as seedless cultivars might be more susceptible to fusarium wilt, a major soil-borne disease issue in watermelon production, Zhao said.

For the study, UF/IFAS researchers grafted seedless watermelon onto squash rootstocks to ward off soil-borne diseases, such as fusarium wilt. In plant grafting, scientists call the upper part of the plant the scion, while the lower part is the rootstock. In the case of vegetable grafting, a grafted plant comes from joining a vigorous rootstock plant – often with resistance or tolerance to certain soil-borne pathogens – with a scion plant with desirable aboveground traits.

Grafting is a useful tool to manage soil-borne diseases, but in this study, researchers were concerned that if they grafted watermelon onto squash rootstocks, they might reduce its fruit quality and taste. Overall, study results showed no loss in taste and major fruit quality attributes, like total soluble solids and lycopene content, Zhao said. Consumers in UF taste panels confirmed the flavour remained largely consistent between grafted and non-grafted plant treatments under different production conditions.

Furthermore, said Zhao, compared with the non-grafted seedless watermelons, plants grafted onto the squash rootstocks exhibited a consistently higher level of flesh firmness.

“We are continuing our grafted watermelon research to optimize management of grafted watermelon production, maximize its full potential and seek answers to economic feasibility,” she said.

Still to come is a paper that specifically tells researchers whether they warded off fusarium wilt under high disease pressure, Zhao said. Grafting with selected rootstocks as a cultural practice is viewed as an integrated disease management tool in the toolbox for watermelon growers to consider when dealing with fusarium wilt “hot spots” in the field, she said. However, most squash rootstocks are generally more susceptible to root-knot nematodes, a potential challenge with using grafted plants. Other UF/IFAS researchers are tackling that issue.

The new UF/IFAS study is published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture.
July 14, 2017, Durham, NH – Researchers with the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of New Hampshire have succeeded in quadrupling the length of the strawberry growing season as part of a multi-year research project that aims to benefit both growers and consumers.

Strawberry season in the Northeast U.S. traditionally lasts only four to six weeks. However, researchers working on the multi-state TunnelBerries project were picking day-neutral strawberries in Durham last November. Last year, researchers harvested strawberries grown in low tunnels for 19 consecutive weeks from mid-July through the week of U.S. Thanksgiving. They also found that the low tunnels significantly increased the percentage of marketable fruit, from an average of about 70 per cent to 83 per cent.

Now in its second year, the TunnelBerries research project is being conducted at the UNH Woodman Horticultural Research Farm. It is part of a larger, multi-state U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded initiative to optimize protected growing environments for berry crops in the upper Midwest and northeastern United States. UNH’s component is focused on improving berry quality and the role day-neutral varieties may play in extending the length of strawberry season in the Northeast.

“[Strawberries] are a very valuable early season crop for farmers,” said graduate student Kaitlyn Orde, who is working with experiment station researcher Becky Sideman on the project. “Unfortunately, though, this season is very brief, limiting the period in which … producers are able to meet consumer demand for the fresh fruit. A longer strawberry season is good for both grower and consumer.”

The UNH project consists of two parts. Researchers want to determine the yield and fruiting duration of day-neutral strawberry varieties. Day-neutrals are a different plant-type than the traditional June-bearers; day-neutrals (or ever-bearing) have been shown to fruit continuously for four to six months in the region. In addition, day-neutrals fruit the same year they are planted, which is not the case with June-bearers.

“We are growing one day-neutral variety on three different mulches to determine if there are any differences in total production, production patterns, runner production, and fruit characteristics among the mulches,” Orde said. “We also are investigating the role plastic covered low-tunnels play in improving berry quality, and what the microenvironment is within low tunnels, especially late season. To do this, we are evaluating five different plastics for the low tunnels.”

Researchers in Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina, and New York have conducted preliminary research on similar systems. There also are limited growers in the Northeast who already cultivate day-neutral varieties, and even fewer who have experimented with low-tunnels in combination with the strawberry crop.

For more information, visit www.tunnelberries.org.
June 27, 2017 – Why do the best fruits seem to have the shortest shelf life? It’s a challenge that plagues fresh fruit markets around the world, and has real implications for consumers and fruit growers.

Now, new research from University of Guelph has led to the development of a product that extends the shelf life of fresh fruits by days and even weeks, and it is showing promise in food insecure regions around the world.

“In people and in fruit, skin shrinks with age — it’s part of the life cycle, as the membranes start losing their tightness,” said Jay Subramanian, Professor of Tree Fruit Breeding and Biotechnology at the University of Guelph, who works from the Vineland research station. “Now we know the enzymes responsible for that process can be slowed.”

The secret, according to Subramanian, is in hexanal, a compound that is naturally produced by every plant in the world. His lab has developed a formulation that includes a higher concentration of hexanal to keep fruit fresh for longer.

Subramanian’s research team began experimenting with applying their formula to sweet cherry and peaches in the Niagara region. They found they were able to extend the shelf life of both fruits and spraying the formula directly on the plant prior to harvest worked as well as using it as a dip for newly harvested fruit.

“Even one day makes a huge difference for some crops,” Subramanian said. “In other fruits like mango or banana you can extend it much longer.”Once the formula is available on the market, Subramanian sees applications on fruit farms across Ontario, including U-pick operations, where an extended season would be beneficial. But the opportunities could also make a significant impact on fruit markets around the world.

Subramanian’s research team was one of only 19 projects worldwide awarded an exclusive research grant from the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund, a program governed by the International Development Research Centre and funded through Global Affairs Canada.

The team used the funding to collaborate with colleagues in India and Sri Lanka on mango and banana production. Mangos are one of the top five most-produced fruits in the world, with 80 per cent of the production coming from South Asia. After more than three years, researchers learned that by spraying the formula on mangos before harvest, they were able to delay ripening by up to three weeks.

“A farmer can spray half of his farm with this formulation and harvest it two or three weeks after the first part of the crop has gone to market,” Subramanian said. “It stretches out the season, the farmer doesn’t need to panic and sell all of his fruit at once and a glut is avoided. It has a beautiful trickle-down effect because the farmer has more leverage, and the consumer gets good, fresh fruit for a longer period.”

The team is at work in the second phase of the project applying similar principles to banana crops in African and Caribbean countries, and hopes to also tackle papaya, citrus and other fruits.

The formula has been licensed to a company that is completing regulatory applications and is expected to reach the commercial market within three years.
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