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The following article was posted on September 6th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 27 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 18, Issue 27

Fighting by breeding: Millions awarded to California universities for strawberry research

By KASEY BUBNASH

To Dominique Pincot, farming is her family’s business. It’s the life her grandpa, uncle, and dad chose, and the work she never really wanted to do.

But growing up around the fields of Betteravia Farms in Santa Maria, where Pincot’s family helps grow vegetables and strawberries, had a lasting effect on her life. 

“My dad used to take me out to look at different plant varieties in field trials,” Pincot said, “and that got me interested in plant breeding.” 

This can include finding new ways to breed larger and better tasting crops, or in Pincot’s case, plants with a natural resistance to pathogens that commonly cause rampant disease and death among fruits and veggies. 

Pincot, now a graduate student at UC Davis, is working toward her master’s degree in horticulture and agronomy. While working on her master’s thesis project, Pincot found that some strawberries carry a gene that is naturally resistant to Fusarium wilt, a common fungal disease that poses a major threat to strawberry farms. 

Pincot’s identification of the resistant gene will allow plant breeders to create a wider variety of disease-resistant strawberries.  

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced on Aug. 24 its decision to award $8.8 million in grants to two teams of scientists, led by California universities, who are researching ways to manage and prevent soil disease on strawberry farms. The grant will largely support more research like Pincot’s. 

One group, led by UC Davis, received $4.5 million in support of its research identifying strawberry plants that are resistant to certain diseases. The team consists of researchers from various universities, including the University of Florida and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. 

Gerald Holmes, director of Cal Poly’s Strawberry Center, said he and a team of 13 other co-project directors hope to accelerate the development of disease-resistant strawberries by identifying more genetic markers that make some plants resistant. Identifying these genes would allow plant breeders to develop new strains of berries on a larger scale. 

Holmes said this is one of the first major projects for Cal Poly’s Strawberry Center, which was established in 2014. 

“I think we’re reaching a place now where we’ve become a part of the industry in an integral way,” Holmes said. “This is just one more thing that demonstrates our ability to get a lot of grants.”

California is the largest producer of strawberries in the U.S., according to a 2017 California Strawberry Acreage Survey, and the state is expected to produce 79 percent of the nation’s strawberries this year. In Santa Barbara County, strawberries provided a gross value of more than $400 million in 2016, according to the county’s most recent Agricultural Production Report, making strawberry farming the county’s top grossing commodity. 

There are 101 strawberry growers in the Santa Maria area alone, according to Assistant Agricultural Commissioner Rudy Martel, and a California Strawberry Commission Volume Pink Sheet shows that almost 48 million 9-pound crates of strawberries were shipped out of Santa Maria by Aug. 19 of this year. 

But California’s massive strawberry industry is being threatened by disease. 

Steve Knapp, director of the UC Davis Public Strawberry Breeding Program, said its objective is to help local strawberry growers struggling to battle soil diseases without the use of many once commonly used, and now banned, fumigants. Knapp said the issue started in 2005 when the use, production, and import of methyl bromide, a widely used fumigant that causes ozone depletion, was banned in the U.S. 

“Growers then had to turn to alternative measures, and those have not quite measured up to what methyl bromide did,” Knapp said. “As production practices have changed, largely for environmental and human safety reasons, pathogens have become more and more of an issue for growers.”

To researchers, creating plants with a natural resistance to pathogens is the most effective solution. The Public Plant Breeding Program will use a traditional breeding approach, Knapp said.

The strawberries will not be genetically modified in any way, he explained, and the project will rely heavily upon the collaboration between researchers and growers.

“I think these next few years are going to be really explosively productive for the strawberry compared to where it’s been,” Knapp said. 

On top of the USDA’s $4.5 million grant, which will support the project for four years, the California Strawberry Commission awarded UC Davis’ Public Strawberry Breeding Program with an additional $1.8 million grant. 

Santa Maria strawberry farmer Greg France said that money, which will also go toward the breeding research, is funded by required fees that farmers, processors, and shippers pay to the California Strawberry Commission. Farmers, processors, and shippers are able to vote on the money’s uses, France said. 

France has been growing strawberries at Mar Vista Berry, a family owned and operated farm, for 13 years. He said working with researchers is vital to the industry. 

Another California research project, led by the University of California Santa Cruz, received $2.5 million in grants to continue its research on bio-fumigation, a natural process that suppresses soil disease. 

California was just one of several states that received USDA grants this year, according to a USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture announcement. The USDA’s Institute invested nearly $35 million in specialty crop research this fiscal year, entirely funded by the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, which focuses on the needs of crops including strawberries .

“I think it’s great that Steve Knapp and his group are receiving this grant,” France said. “It’s important for the sustainability of the industry and California. Strawberries are No. 1 in Santa Barbara County and have been No. 1 in San Luis Obispo County. So it supports a lot of jobs and the economy.”

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at kbubnash@santamariasun.com.




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