Tree Fruit: Breeding Your Future Success

Let’s say you have the opportunity to introduce a new technology into your farming business that slashes costs for a key management practice by around 90%. Instead of spending $25,000, you spend $2,500.

Furthermore, this new technology is robust and field-tested, ready-to-go, with expert and accessible service after sale. Even better, it’s more accurate than current technologies and can be implemented at your convenience, rather than waiting for favorable weather conditions or hiring a specialized applicator.

Sound like one of those miracle products you’ve been hearing about at winter meetings?

This technology is not a miracle, but it does deliver on what it promises. It’s not a typical ag product or service, but it has indeed been showcased in a number of winter meetings, the most recent involving participants in a large research project called RosBREED (www.rosbreed.org) in San Diego, CA. This project focuses on improving the development and delivery of superior cultivars for rosaceous crops and is funded through the USDA Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI).

The technology itself is called Marker-Assisted Breeding (MAB). In some ways, it’s a very simple process, using our current knowledge of DNA sequences in crop plants to improve selection efficiency in breeding programs. It does so by identifying bits of DNA acting as “markers” — useful because they are inherited together with DNA controlling important traits like fruit sugar levels, plant habit, or disease resistance. Such markers are already employed intensively for field crops like corn and soybeans, as well as many specialty crops (mostly vegetables), but not for many rosaceous crops. RosBREED is changing that, building a genetic knowledge base, developing DNA-based predictive tools, and adapting the approach to crops like almond, apple, cherry, peach, raspberry, rose, and strawberry.

There’s tremendously interesting science in this “simple process.” RosBREED researchers spent a full day in San Diego in January discussing technical details: DNA extraction, genetic validation, statistical functionalities, bioinformatics platforms — not easy stuff for industry stakeholders around the table, but every single one agreed we’re headed in the right direction, with industry input a vital part of the process.

They also agreed those technical details are in very good hands. More than 40 scientists from research institutions worldwide are involved, led by Drs. Amy Iezzoni at Michigan State University and Cameron Peace at Washington State University (WSU). A year into the project, these outstanding scientists and their graduate students are right on target: enabling the efficient development of cultivars that are both grower-friendly and consumer-preferred. (for an example of this, see “RosBREED In Action”)

A Matter Of Science

Of course, DNA-informed tools, the promised outcome of RosBREED, complement, rather than replace, other breeding program activities, and exemplify how the SCRI is transforming the way science is being advanced in specialty crops. Furthermore, that includes social sciences.

Participating in the San Diego meeting were diverse industry stakeholders representing California, Michigan, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, and Washington. They and their organizations will soon participate in a nationwide survey developed by RosBREED’s socio-economics team, a survey that systematically evaluates crop traits of most economic value to producers, processors, packers-shippers, and consumers.

This information will be funneled into breeding programs to help ensure MAB technology focuses on the right crop traits, another way of enhancing program efficiency and effectiveness. As in MAB, this socio-economics approach doesn’t replace other necessary activities, like careful market planning, one-on-one interactions with producers, rapid dissemination of quality information on breeding selections, etc., but it does enhance the likelihood breeding programs produce more successes than failures.

You will be hearing much more about RosBREED (and other SCRI projects) at winter meetings and thereafter. To maintain a competitive edge, our specialty crop industries require this kind of research and Extension activities. Each project may not turn a $25,000 operation into one that costs $2,500, but together they will have lasting impacts across the country for our industries. It is my hope the next round of SCRI projects will have similar impact. It is also my hope the next Farm Bill will not just protect, but will expand funding for this extraordinarily successful program. Stay updated on SCRI projects and relevant news by going to www.growingproduce.com. And, yes, enjoy those winter meetings. Spring is not far off!

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