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New software helps plant breeders bring out their best

CALS News, Cornell Chronicle [2019-07-19]:

Thomas Björkman, professor in the Horticulture Section, studies broccoli in a field at Cornell AgriTech.

Thomas Björkman, professor in the Horticulture Section, studies broccoli in a field at Cornell AgriTech.

Broccoli is in the eye of the beholder.

A head of broccoli that might appeal to one person – perhaps because of its deep green color – may leave another cold, due to an asymmetrical shape or too-large buds.

Cornell researchers participating in the Eastern Broccoli Project, which aims to produce broccoli varieties suited to grow on the East Coast, have devised a statistical method to standardize evaluations of broccoli, in order to make plant breeding decisions more consistent and efficient.

Now a Cornell group – doctoral student Zachary Stansell; Thomas Björkman, professor of horticulture at Cornell AgriTech; and Deniz Akdemir of the Cornell Statistical Consulting Unit – has released RateRvaR, a new software based on this method. RateRvaR is freely available, open source, easy to use and applicable to breeders of any vegetable, tree or flower with subjective features.

Using the software, breeders can select traits and ask multiple people to perform the same evaluation. The program will then analyze that data to determine which traits are more or less important in predicting overall quality, partly by prioritizing traits that are easier to judge objectively, such as size or color.

“The challenge for breeders, when they’re looking for wider adaptations, is that for certain crops, you plant all over the place and fly to various locations around the world to do the evaluations yourself,” Björkman said.

“But what if you had to check the plant twice a week for a month because it’s maturing at different rates? You can’t be jetting around the world; it just becomes impractical,” he said. “Breeders want to know not only how another person would score a plant, but how they would score it themselves, or how some idealized consumer would score it. This should open up the opportunity for breeders to do evaluations in multiple locations.”

Read the whole article.

Plant breeding project gives East African farmers better leafy green options

CALS News [2019-06-27]:

 Griffiths, associate professor of horticulture, and graduate student Hannah Swegarden pose with East African women harvesting collard greens.

Griffiths and graduate student Hannah Swegarden pose with East African women harvesting collard greens.

Phillip Griffiths, associate professor in the Horticulture Section of the School of Integrative Plant Science based at Cornell AgriTech, has a special connection in East Africa that’s improving the humble collard green to help smallholder farmers—and their communities—live and eat better. Griffiths’ East African connection was made when Charles Wasonga, recipient of the first Cornell Assistantship for Horticulture in Africa (CAHA), began his Ph.D. studies with Griffiths. The design of CAHA, which requires advisors to work alongside students on research in their home country, brought Griffiths to Kenya to oversee Wasonga’s work on green beans. While there, the two also saw a number of collard fields and realized the significant challenges farmers had in getting fresh, desirable products to rapidly urbanizing markets.

“The issue with fresh-market crops versus agronomic crops, like maize, is always getting them to end users. Farmers need to focus on marketable yield,” said Griffiths, associate professor of horticulture, plant breeding and genetics.

In Kenyan diets, collard greens—a member of the Brassica family—are a nutritious dietary staple for millions of people. Like all dark leafy greens, they’re high in vitamin A and a good source of calcium, iron and vitamin C. But collards are highly susceptible to black rot, which can reduce marketability by 50% to 80%. This susceptibility makes the crop a risky venture for small farmers looking to expand their income options with vegetables.

Recognizing the vulnerabilities that would have to be overcome, Wasonga and Griffiths started crossing several kale and collard varieties at Cornell with the goal of breeding for improved resistance to black rot. After Wasonga returned to Kenya, Griffiths applied for and was chosen as a David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future Academic Venture Fund project to continue the collaboration and investigate more diverse leafy Brassica vegetables in Kenya and Tanzania.

Read the whole article.

Hort alums named to GPN ‘Forty Under 40’

Cheni Filios

Cheni Filios

Two alumni from the Graduate Field of Horticulture were named to Greenhouse Produce New’s 2019 Forty under 40.

Cheni Filios (M.S. ’14) is now Global Product Manager for Vegetables at PanAmerican Seed Co.  Since joining the team there, she has helped to double the company’s product portfolio and sales.  While at Cornell, she also received the Frederick Dreer Award, which she used to study post-havest horticulture in New Zealand and Europe.

Ockert Greyvenstein

Ockert Greyvenstein

Ockert Greyvenstein (M.S. ’09) is now a plant breeder, also at PanAmerican Seed Co.  There, he’s helped get the male-sterile patent approved for the company’s vinca breeding program and has been instrumental in the program’s trialing, evaluation, test production and ultimate product selection. He has also been active mentoring college interns in the company’s breeding program to create an exciting, meaningful and educational experiences.

Both were advised by Bill Miller, director of Cornell’s Flower Bulb Research Program.

Commencement videos

If you missed the festivities this weekend — or want to relive them — you can view videos of the Class of 2019 Undergraduate Recognition Ceremony (recognizing students receiving degrees in Agricultural Sciences and Plant Sciences May 26) and the 2019 Graduate Degree Ceremony (recognizing students receiving MPS, MS and PhD students from each of the five graduate fields within SIPS).

‘Urban Eden’ students put a price tag on trees for Arbor Day

Nina Bassuk and students tag a tree outside Roberts Hall.

Nina Bassuk and students tag a tree outside Roberts Hall.

What’s a tree worth?

In what has become an annual tradition, students in Creating the Urban Eden: Woody Plant Selection, Design, and Landscape Establishment (HORT/LA 4910/4920) are helping to make people more aware of why trees are worth hugging by hanging bright green “price tags” on trunks around the Ag Quad.

The students entered data about the trees, such as species, diameter and location, into i-Tree — a state-of-the-art, peer-reviewed software suite from the USDA Forest Service. The application then calculates monetary benefits from reduced stormwater runoff, improved air quality,  carbon dioxide sequestration and energy savings to nearby buildings by blocking wind in winter and providing shade in summer.

“It’s really quite eye-opening for people who think that trees are just nice to look at and don’t have any other value,” said Nina Bassuk, professor in the Horticulture Section of the School of Integrative Plant Science, who leads the class alongside Zac Rood, lecturer in the Department of Landscape Architecture.

There are also benefits that are not easily quantified, such as wildlife habitats and emotional responses, added Bassuk, who is also director of the Urban Horticulture Institute.

Students tagging oaks in front of Mann Library

Tagging an oak on the Ag Quad

Tagging a red oak.

Tagging a Kentucky coffeetree

Tagging Katsura tree outside Mann Library

Leonard Topoleski, vegetable crop expert, dies at 83

Leonard Topoleski

Leonard Topoleski

CALS News [2019-02-21]:

Leonard D. Topoleski, professor emeritus of vegetable crops and horticulture, died Feb. 8 in Sayre, Pennsylvania. He was 83.

Topoleski conducted research on vegetable crops, served as an extension agent and left a legacy as a popular teacher and student adviser.

“He was an enthusiastic teacher of our undergraduate beginning horticulture course and, over his career, inspired many students with his love of plants,” said Chris Wien, M.S. ’67, Ph.D. ’71, professor emeritus of horticulture.

Born in 1935 in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, Topoleski earned a bachelor’s (1957) and a master’s degree (1959) in horticulture from Penn State University and a doctorate in plant breeding and genetics (1962) from Purdue University. That same year, he joined Cornell’s faculty in the then-Department of Vegetable Crops where he worked until his retirement in 2001.

Topoleski’s research involved understanding incompatibility issues that arise when breeding different tomato species. He received training in the use of electron microscopy and became the department expert on using the technique for plant science research.

He also researched greenhouse vegetable production, evaluating new growing systems and fertility management, assessing new varieties and providing basic greenhouse tomato production information to new growers.

But his biggest impact may have been as a teacher.

“Professor Topoleski was revered by his students for his hands-on and engaging approach,” said Frank Rossi, professor and extension turf grass specialist in the School of Integrative Plant Science. “Students would be responsible for growing and studying the growth of plants from seed to harvest each semester, a tradition I know my colleagues and I have attempted to maintain in our coursework today.”

Topoleski’s general horticulture course (Hort 102) exposed hundreds of Cornell undergraduates to the world of fruits, vegetables and landscape plants for the first time. He also was an undergraduate adviser for more than 30 students per year.

As a 4-H vegetable crops extension specialist, he trained agents, wrote highly regarded extension publications and guides, and developed new programs.

“He was well-known and appreciated by 4-H and home gardeners all over the state,” said Elmer Ewing, professor emeritus of horticulture, adding that Topoleski was also a strong supporter of Cornell sports.

“A big man, with a booming voice and extrovert personality, he was a memorable figure in our department,” Wien said.

Topoleski is survived by his wife of 61 years, Janice, along with three children, five grandchildren and a sister.

A memorial event will be announced at a later date.

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

Zachary Stansell: paving the way for a New York broccoli industry

Photo credit: Justin James Muir


By Erin Flynn, CALS News [2019-01-24]:

Zachary Stansell, a fourth-year doctoral student in the field of horticulture, is studying under the guidance of Thomas Bjorkman, professor in the Horticulture Section of the School of Integrative Plant Science.

We spoke to Stansell about his research and what he sees for the future of the broccoli industry.

The Eastern Broccoli Project is working to establish the scientific basis for a local, reliable source of broccoli production on the east coast. What are some of the hurdles and the opportunities to making this a reality?

Currently, reliable broccoli production on the east coast is constrained by a number of biological hurdles. For example, temperature sensitivity related damage often occurs. Modern broccoli types have also undergone a genetic bottleneck.

I believe that my work with this delicious super food—and, dare I say, favorite food—will enhance production and access to affordable, high-quality, locally produced broccoli. My work is addressing broccoli production issues by disentangling the genetic networks that regulate its adaptation to heat stress. I’m also taking a census of the current state of modern broccoli compared to large pools of genetic diversities contained in older “heirloom” types. This work will help us develop optimal broccoli types for New York state, while preserving the crucial genetic diversity needed to adapt to challenges such as climate change.

What is your most memorable student experience?

The relationships and community I’ve experienced at Cornell and Cornell AgriTech have been my meaningful life experiences.

Professor Björkman has been a consistent mentor, supporting and challenging me to create strong, inference-based research. I’m consistently impressed by the openness, inclusiveness and willingness of the Cornell AgriTech community to help graduate students.

What inspires you as a student at Cornell AgriTech?

As corny as it may sound, opportunities to give back inspire me. I feel immensely grateful to the people who have invested time, care, curiosity and resources into my development. I’m beginning to have an ability to give that back. For example, I am planning a demonstration garden to help Master Gardeners train community gardeners across New York state. I’m also collaborating with undergrad summer scholars to collect field data, write the code to analyze it, and make actual discoveries. Developing tools and methods to help quantify horticultural quality in other crops is also a passion of mine.

How do you think graduate student research benefits New York state agriculture?

My own experience here has allowed me to listen to and learn from nearly every stakeholder group in the New York state agricultural community. I’ve learned to communicate with people working on topics ranging from heat-stress mechanisms in model organisms, to farm workers transplanting cabbage, to venture capital funded agriculture entrepreneurs. I believe that sort of informational cross-linking created by graduate students serves to strengthen and integrate the network that Cornell AgriTech provides to New York state agriculture.

Seminar videos: What Darwin missed and LEDs

If you missed the last two Horticulture Section seminars, they are available online:

More seminar videos: Horticulture | School of Integrative Plant Science

Seminar video: Roots and rhizosphere interactions of temperate forest tree species in a changing climate

If you missed Tuesday’s Graduate Field of Horticulture exit seminar, Roots and rhizosphere interactions of temperate forest tree species in a changing climate with Marie Zwetsloot, PhD candidate, it is available online.


More seminar videos: Horticulture | School of Integrative Plant Science

8,000 bulbs planted in 11 minutes

bulb planter and class

Students in Bill Miller’s Annual and Perennial Plant Identification and Use class (PLHRT 3000) got a lesson in efficient bulb planting October 30. Using a tractor-drawn bulb planter imported from The Netherlands that slices open the sod, drops in the bulbs and then replaces the sod over them, they planted more than 8,000 bulbs in less than 11 minutes.

That’s a strip more than 200 feet long and 3 feet wide along the edge of Caldwell Field near the McConville Barn. The “naturalized” planting of daffodils, hyacinths, tulips, crocuses, scilla, muscari and chionodoxa bulbs will push up through the turf before the grass begins to grow in spring.

Based on the class’s experiences planting bulbs by hand earlier this semester, Miller estimates that it would have taken the students more than a week to accomplish this task using hand tools. He tested out the planter last fall planting 30,000 bulbs into sod strips totaling more than 2,000 feet at the Cornell Botanic Gardens (view video) and the NYSIP Foundation Seed Barn.

“This machine greatly reduces the labor required to establish naturalized bulb plantings,” says Miller, a professor in the Horticulture Section of the School of Integrative Plant Science and director of Cornell’s Flower Bulb Research Program, who was aided by CUAES field assistant Jonathan Mosher.

“Some people might be concerned about the lack of precise placement of the bulbs,” notes Miller. “But actually most bulbs are forgiving about how deep they are planted, despite what you might see on the labels. They also do fine if not planted right side up.”

Miller hopes that planters like this might catch on with commercial landscapers and municipalities and result in more naturalized bulb plantings.  A benefit of this approach can be less mowing of turf areas due to the need to let the bulb foliage die back naturally.  In such areas, landscapers could substantially reduce carbon emissions from maintenance activity leading to a more sustainable landscape, Miller says.

Update: Geerlings, the Dutch company that makes the planters, does not export them directly. If you want to purchase one, Geerlings will sell a planter to a bulb exporter who will ship it to the U.S. and handle the paperwork.

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