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Cornell AgriTech

Michael Rosato: Creating a more sustainable and affordable future for New York growers

Mike Rosato and others harvesting snap peas in research plots at Cornell AgriTech

Michael Rosato, a graduate student studying under the guidance of Steve Reiners, professor and chair of the Horticulture Section of the School of Integrative Plant Science, is evaluating the soil sulfur levels on vegetable farms across New York State and conducting sulfur fertilizer trails that have economically important crops for growers. Above, Rosato, center, harvests snap peas at Cornell AgriTech with summer field workers, Christine Driscoll, Kim Day and Luke Czadzeck. Photo by Justin James Muir

CALS News [2019-08-23]:

Michael Rosato is a graduate student studying under the guidance of Steve Reiners, professor and chair of the horticulture section of the School of Integrative Plant Science.

What drew you to the program with Steve Reiners?

I first worked in Steve Reiner’s program at the beginning of my undergraduate years as a summer technician. Steve always took the time to answer questions and helped me explore the world of horticulture. Beyond being a true mentor, seeing how his worked helped growers—both with sustainability and success—was a big reason why I wanted to work with him.

What’s the focus of your research?

Historically, sulfur has been abundant in soils mainly due to widespread pollution and the use of manure. In the 1970s, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act led to a gradual but drastic reduction in atmospheric sulfur, and thus, less sulfur was deposited in U.S. soils.

My project has two key elements. First, we are evaluating soil sulfur levels on vegetable farms across New York State, and second, we are also conducting sulfur fertilizer trials that have economically important crops for growers. We are measuring both yield and quality factors across all crops.

In our tomato trial, we are conducting sensory evaluations, as well as testing soluble solids and titratable acids to see if sulfur may be impacting flavor.

What’s the most exciting thing you’ve discovered while doing research at Cornell AgriTech?

In our first sensory evaluation, a panel of 100 participants generally rated sulfur-treated tomatoes as more acidic. Their observations were mirrored in our measurements of citric acid in the fruit.

Sulfur is a macro-nutrient that may impact the flavor of vegetables like tomato and onions, but it is often overlooked. If growers can add flavor intensity to their tomatoes by using a sulfur source like gypsum, which is cheap, easily applied and has the option of being organic, it’s a win for the farmer and the consumer.

In what ways do you hope your research will help growers in New York?

By measuring soil sulfur levels state-wide, we hope to get a better idea of how common sulfur deficiencies are. Further, we want to create accurate fertilizer recommendations for growers, so they can produce the highest quality products possible in both an affordable and sustainable way.

How do you think graduate students benefit from doing translational research?

Working on real life issues and seeing your efforts positively impact others’ lives is an important experience for all of us, and it’s truly fulfilling. I think translational research is a place where people can find purpose in helping others in any variety of ways.

Knowing berry pests’ varied diets may help control them

Spotted-wing drosophila on a blueberry

Spotted-wing drosophila cause billions of dollars in damage to fruit crops across Asia, North and South America, and Europe.

Cornell Chronicle [2019-08-06]

With New York state’s $20 million berry industry entering peak season, an invasive fruit fly is thriving.

Female spotted-wing drosophila (Drosophila suzukii Matsumura) have a special ovipositor (a tube through which a female insect deposits eggs) with a saw-like end that allows them to cut into soft fruits and insert their eggs. The larvae and adults feed on the fruits, causing billions of dollars in damage across Asia, North and South America, and Europe.

But little has been known about how the pests survive before and after the growing season.

A Cornell study, published in May in Ecological Entomology, investigates for the first time what spotted-wing drosophila adults and larvae eat, and where they lay their eggs, when these short-lived fruits are not in season.

“They will lay eggs and successfully develop on less preferred resources and not the typical fruit that we think they prefer,” said Greg Loeb, professor of entomology at Cornell AgriTech and a co-author of the paper. Dara Stockton, a postdoctoral associate in Loeb’s lab, is the paper’s first author.

Read the whole article.

Schumer announces funding for hemp seed bank at Cornell

Larry Smart, professor in the Horticulture Section of the School of Integrative Plant Sciences, examines industrial hemp in a greenhouse.

Larry Smart, professor in the Horticulture Section of the School of Integrative Plant Sciences, examines industrial hemp in a greenhouse.

Cornell Chronicle [2019-08-05]:

The 2018 Farm Bill changed federal policy regarding industrial hemp, including the removal of hemp from the Controlled Substances Act and the consideration of hemp as an agricultural product.

The change created an agricultural opportunity potentially worth billions of dollars, and thanks to a big push from Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Cornell will play a major research role as that industry grows.

On Aug. 2, Schumer announced $500,000 in federal funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service (USDA-ARS) to create the nation’s only industrial hemp germplasm repository – a seed bank – co-located at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva, New York. This funding, part of the Fiscal Year 2019 Omnibus Spending Package, builds on Schumer’s contributions to the 2018 Farm Bill.

“I fought tooth and nail to secure this federal funding,” said Schumer, the senate minority leader, “while also working to strip back the burdensome federal restrictions that held our farmers and growers back from growing industrial hemp as an agriculture commodity, because I knew the potential this crop had to transform the upstate New York economy.”

Industrial hemp is used to make a wide range of products, including fibers, textiles, paper, construction materials, cosmetics and food.

“The hemp seed bank and the research potential it gives our Cornell and USDA-ARS scientists will be vital resources for New York state farmers,” said Kathryn J. Boor ’80 , the Ronald P. Lynch Dean at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “We are grateful to Sen. Schumer for his hard work to secure this federal funding.”

Larry Smart, professor in the Horticulture Section of the School of Integrative Plant Sciences (SIPS), said the hemp repository is a desperately needed resource. The seed bank will enable researchers to identify pest-resistant and disease-resistant genes, giving them the tools to breed new varieties. Getting to the root of crop health, Smart said, is essential for providing better resources to New York hemp growers.

Read the whole article.

Susan Brown named American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS) fellow

CALS News [2019-07-25]:

Susan Brown with apples

On July 22, Susan Brown, head of Cornell’s apple breeding program and the Herman M. Cohn Professor of Agriculture and Life Science, was named a fellow of the American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS) for her outstanding contributions to horticulture through her research, teaching, extension work and leadership in the horticulture industry. Above, Brown holds an apple variety she developed.

In New York, apples are big business: the state’s 600 commercial growers produce an average of 30 million bushels annually, making it the second-largest apple producer in the U.S. But growing apples isn’t easy, and much has changed since Cornell began its breeding program roughly 115 years ago. Cornell’s program, one of the largest in the world, has released 66 apples, including the well-known Cortland, Jonagold, and Empire varieties.

But just over the past decade, public and private breeders have sped up the pace of release of new varieties—patenting hundreds of consumer-friendly apples, many trademarked, that are beginning to take a bite out of older varieties’ sales.

Enter Susan Brown, head of Cornell’s apple breeding program and the Herman M. Cohn Professor of Agriculture and Life Science. Brown has dedicated her professional career to using molecular marker-assisted breeding to develop important apple varieties that provide the best appearance, flavor, growing characteristics, and highest prices for New York growers and those in other temperate North American and international regions.

On July 22, she was named a fellow of the American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS) for her outstanding contributions to horticulture through her research, teaching, extension work and leadership in the horticulture industry.

Brown excels at meeting consumer and grower needs through plant breeding. Her research on the genetic control of tree form led to the development of trees that combine high yield with less labor, as well as those uniquely suited as ornamentals. And she has laid the groundwork for future advances with her research on the underlying biological mechanisms of phenolic synthesis, disease resistance genes, fruit texture and flavor, as well as the apple’s nutritional properties, plant architecture, and cross-pollination peculiarities.

Brown has published 64 research articles, 60 outreach publications, nine book chapters, and holds nine U.S. plant patents: four sweet cherries, one tart cherry, and four apple varieties. Her two most recent releases, in 2011, introduced growers to SnapDragon™ and RubyFrost™—apples that combine superior eating quality with high disease resistance and packout, which means that more market-ready fruit can be picked from each tree at one time. After more than a decade in development, consumers got their first taste in 2013 and Brown said demand has been exceptional for both.

Brown picks apples in a Cornell AgriTech orchard.

Brown picks apples in a Cornell AgriTech orchard.

“Susan has been breeding for the apples you wish you could have. She’s meeting the needs of everyone involved to get consumers better apples,” said Thomas Björkman, professor of vegetable crop physiology in the School of Integrative Plant Sciences, and also an ASHS fellow. “They have great texture and flavor plus disease resistance, which is critical for growers and valuable environmentally. Efficient tree form makes the economics work. Storage ability means a more marketable apple that people can enjoy for more of the year. Nobody else puts all the pieces together like that.”

Joy Crist of Crist Brothers Orchards in Walden, New York, said Brown’s work is crucial for her farm and all New York growers’ sustainability. Crist Brothers is a member of Crunch Time Apple Growers, a cooperative owned by growers that was formed in 2010 solely to manage and market the SnapDragon™ and RubyFrost™ varieties. The cooperative now has 147 growers representing 60 percent of New York’s apple production.

“We’re vying for shelf space in grocery stores with other club varieties. You have to have an apple that looks good and holds up to harsh handling,” Crist said. “The value of Susan’s work is keeping agriculture viable in New York state by growing something that’s appealing to customers, so they choose apples instead of other fruit. Without these new varieties, I don’t see how we’d be able to compete.”

Brown also has helped ensure that Cornell remains a leader in agricultural research and extension, and that its students can compete. She was former director of the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (now Cornell AgriTech) and has advised dozens of graduate students, mentored undergraduates in Cornell’s Summer Scholars program, and speaks regularly to anyone who loves apples as much as she does—including garden clubs, nurserymen and researchers.

“The society considers fellows to be the ‘best of the best’ that bring honor and prestige to the organization,” said Michael Neff, ASHS executive director. “I’m pleased to see Dr. Brown recognized as a fellow of ASHS this year. She and her colleagues in this 55th class of ASHS fellows exemplify professionalism in horticulture and are richly deserving of this signal honor of the society.”

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.

Cornell researchers win major awards from cider industry

Greg Peck working at Cornell Orchards. Peck, assistant professor in the horitculture section of the School of Integrative Plant Science,  and Chris Gerling, extension associate in the food science department, both recently received major awards from the cider industry. Photo by Sasha Israel

Greg Peck working at Cornell Orchards. Peck, assistant professor in the horitculture section of the School of Integrative Plant Science,  and Chris Gerling, extension associate in the food science department, both recently received major awards from the cider industry. Photo by Sasha Israel

Erin Flynn, CALS News [2019-04-19]

Hard cider is a fast-growing segment in the U.S. fermented beverage industry, and New York’s position as a leader in craft beverage production and expertise is paving the way for cider producers to succeed.

“The burgeoning craft beverage industry in New York state has helped create a lot of applicable resources and expertise for cider makers,” said Ian Merwin, M.S. ’88, Ph.D. ’90, owner of Black Diamond Cider and Cornell professor emeritus of plant science. “We can get bottles and equipment from well-established companies in the area. We have the legislative support we need and Cornell experts like Chris Gerling and Greg Peck to help us every step of the way.”

Merwin notes that the benefit of cider makers working with both Gerling, extension associate in the Department of Food Science, and Peck, assistant professor in the horticulture section of the School of Integrative Plant Science, is that they can gain expertise on both ends of the spectrum—when growing the cider apples and when making the cider itself.

Recently Gerling and Peck received major awards from the cider industry. Gerling was given the Apple of Appreciation award from the New York Cider Association (NYCA), and Peck was chosen as the Grower Advocate of the Year by the U.S. Association of Cider Makers (USACM).

Chris Gerling, who began his career offering extension expertise in the field of enology, found a natural transition into hard cider extension work. Wine and cider have many similarities, including the types of yeast used and the effect of climate, soils and terrain on the overall flavor profile.

“Chris has distinguished himself as being fully invested in improving the quality and profitability of cider made in New York and beyond,” said Jenn Smith, NYCA executive director. “He is as curious as he is knowledgeable, and in particular has been central in NYCA’s work to tackle the challenges of measuring and communicating the tricky concept of dryness to drinkers. We are grateful and lucky to have him as a partner in our work of developing a sustainable, excellent cider industry in our region.”

Greg Peck’s research explores ways to increase the quantity and quality of New York–grown cider apples, including best practices for fertilizer, crop load and harvest management. Peck also helps cider makers select varieties that will work best for high-quality and flavorful cider.

Michelle McGrath, executive director of the USACM, said the organization’s members overwhelmingly voted for Peck to receive the Grower Advocate of the Year award.

“His advocacy for cider at Cornell and his research collaborations with the industry are important for expanding our knowledge of growing cider apples. We know so little about propagating cider-specific varieties in the U.S., and Greg is such a valuable resource for cider makers looking to use specific apple varieties.”

While hard cider makers have many valuable resources in New York, the recent awards for Gerling and Peck underscore the fact that producers value experts who can help them piece together the many components that equate to a high-quality end product.

To learn more about Cornell’s hard cider research and outreach efforts, visit: https://hardcider.cals.cornell.edu

So You Want To Grow Hemp

Larry Smart examining hemp plants in the greenhouse at Cornell AgriTech.

Larry Smart examining hemp plants in the greenhouse at Cornell AgriTech.

From Science Friday podcast [2018-12-07:]

Good news could be coming soon for anyone interested in hemp, the THC-free, no-high strain of cannabis whose use ranges from fibers to food to pharmaceuticals. If the 2018 Farm Bill passes Congress in its current form, growing hemp would be legal and products derived from hemp would be removed from their current legal gray area.

Universities and private research teams have been busy studying hemp pests, genetics, and other cultivation questions since Congress legalized the research in 2014. Cornell horticulture professor Larry Smart explains why a plant that hasn’t been grown legally in the U.S. for nearly a century will require a monumental effort from scientists to catch up to crops like soybean and tomatoes.

Listen.

Big, blue Everest Seedless is Cornell’s newest grape

Bruce Reisch with Everest Seedless grape vines
Everest Seedless, the newest offering from Cornell’s grape breeders, is a big, bold fruit that comes with a towering history. Above, Bruce Reisch ’76, professor of horticulture, examines clusters of Everest Seedless in a research vineyard at Cornell AgriTech. Photo by Erin Flynn/Provided

CALS News [2018-09-13]:

The newest offering from Cornell’s grape breeders is a fruit that’s big, bold and comes with a towering history.

Those factors led the grape’s breeders to name the new variety Everest Seedless, a nod to the celebrated Nepalese mountain, said Bruce Reisch ’76, professor of horticulture in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and grape breeder with Cornell AgriTech in Geneva, New York.

“We were looking to develop very flavorful grapes with large berries and large clusters, and we’ve achieved that with Everest Seedless,” Reisch said.

The new variety is a cold-tolerant, blue-colored Concord-type, with berries that weigh up to 7 grams – roughly twice the size of the traditional Concord. It is also the first truly seedless Concord-type grape ever released. It’s intended as a table grape – meant primarily for eating fresh, rather than using for jams, juice or wine, as most American Concords are used.

Read the whole article.

New high-yield strawberry, raspberry varieties released

Cornell’s berry breeding program is releasing two new varieties, which will be available for planting in spring 2019: a strawberry, Dickens, and a raspberry, Crimson Treasure.

Cornell’s berry breeding program is releasing two new varieties, which will be available for planting in spring 2019: a strawberry, Dickens, and a raspberry, Crimson Treasure.

CALS News [2018-09-05]:

Cornell’s berry breeding program is releasing two new varieties, which will be available for planting in spring 2019: a strawberry, Dickens, and a raspberry, Crimson Treasure. Both varieties produce large fruits with vibrant colors that maintain peak flavor for longer than most heritage varieties.

The new berries are the handiwork of berry breeder Courtney Weber, associate professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences based at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva, New York.

Dickens is a traditional, June-bearing strawberry with high yields and bright red fruit that continues bearing late into the season. The berries are firm, so they hold well on the plant and in the container, Weber said, but not so firm that they have no flavor. Strawberries are the third-leading fruit crop in New York state, but most strawberries sold in supermarkets are from California.

“With New York-grown berries, because we don’t have to ship so far, we can handle a softer fruit. And people notice the softer, sweeter, juicier fruit,” Weber said. “Customers can get supermarket strawberries any day of the week; the reason people make the effort to come to the farm stand or farmers market and buy the local product is because it tastes so much better. Maintaining that flavor is paramount to what we do in our breeding program.”

Read the whole article.

Crimson Treasure produces large fruit with vibrant colors and maintains peak flavor and texture for longer.

Crimson Treasure produces large fruit with vibrant colors and maintains peak flavor and texture for longer.

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