Organic approach to improving carrots

Organic carrots are coming into their own. About 14 percent of U.S.-produced carrots are now classified as organic, making carrots one of the highest ranked crops in terms of the total percentage produced organically. With production and demand increasing in recent years, organic-carrot growers need help deciding which varieties to grow. Some varieties perform well as a conventional crop, but not so well under organic conditions. While conventional growers also can fumigate to control nematodes, bacterial diseases and fungal pathogens, organic growers don’t have that option.

That’s why the work of Agricultural Research Service (ARS) plant geneticist Philipp W. Simon and his colleagues is so important. Simon, who is the research leader of ARS’s Vegetable Crops Research Laboratoryin Madison, Wisconsin, is leading the five-year Carrot Improvement for Organic Agriculture (CIOA) project that is ultimately aimed at providing information and helping breeders develop carrots that are tastier, more nutritious and better equipped to combat weeds, diseases and pathogens. It is funded with a National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative grant.

The researchers are growing 36 carrot varieties in organic and conventional fields at four locations and comparing them for flavor, productivity, appearance, color, disease resistance and other key traits. Partners include researchers from Purdue University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of California-Riverside, Washington State University and the Organic Seed Alliance. The field trials are in Madison, Wisconsin, Pasco, Washington, West Lafayette, Indiana, and Bakersfield, California.

Carrots grow relatively slowly, and that means that faster-growing weeds are a major problem. Some large-scale organic producers in California estimate that they spend thousands of dollars per acre to weed carrot fields. A priority highlighted by the research is the need for carrots that can produce their large, above-ground leafy “tops” quickly to outcompete weeds for sunlight and moisture.

Organic growers also are more interested than conventional growers in producing carrots with novel shapes and colors—purple, red and yellow—that will attract organic consumers, according to Simon. When it comes to nutrition and health, orange carrots are always a good choice because they are high in vitamin A, an essential nutrient. But changing up your carrot color scheme once in a while might not be a bad idea, he says. Purple carrots have powerful antioxidants. Yellow ones are a good source of lutein, which could reduce the risk of macular degeneration, an all too common eye problem. Red carrots are high in lycopene, a nutrient associated with reducing the risk of certain cancers.

The researchers are still evaluating the 16 named carrot varieties and 20 scientific lines selected for the project. That includes assessing them for flavor, a major issue for consumers. When the market for baby carrots started to take off years ago (baby carrots account for about half of all the fresh carrots consumed in the United States), consumers came to expect carrots to taste good, and growers were quick to adapt, according to Simon. “That message has come through clearly. Flavor is a priority because if people don’t want to eat carrots, they’re not going to buy them.”

Dennis O’Brien, Agricultural Research Service

reposted from

Faculty Awards

Jim Nienhuis has been selected to receive an award for excellence in collaboration from the Institute of Technology in Costa Rica.  The award will be presented February 11, 2016, in Costa Rica.

Jiwan Paulta has been chosen to receive the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association’s award for “Researcher of the Year”.  The award will be presented at the WPVGA-UWEX Grower Education Conference next week.

Introducing Allen Centennial Garden (s)

Allen Centennial Gardens is now officially known as the Allen Centennial Garden (singular) – and it’s just as sweet. A request to change the name was recently approved by the Chancellor’s office.

Garden director Ben Futa kindly shared with eCALS some of the reasoning behind the shift:

The change came about as a result of our strategic planning process and our desire to make the Garden a stronger component of the campus community and student experience. While we’re made up of many special gardens (plural), we are one organization, one entity, one identity – the Garden (singular).

The Garden is the sum of many excellent parts and implies a cohesive vision and that we speak with one voice. It also helps us to brand our physical place. “Are you heading to the Garden? Have you been to the Garden lately?”

Another point to mention: We’ve generated a new marketing catchphrase through this process: “Uniquely UW-Simply Beautiful.” We want to emphasize the Garden as a critical part of the UW-student experience. We’re something you can’t get from an online class. We’re a reason to choose the UW-Madison campus experience.

Originally published in January 11, 2016

Hort Grad Career Path

While trying to figure out who she was during her teenage years, Emily Haga discovered plants. She wanted to learn about her culture and ancestry and in doing so she learned to cook, make art and enjoyed being in nature. She volunteered at a natural and local farm and worked at a natural food store in her hometown, just south of Madison. All her experiences led to an interest and passion for food and gardening.Emily_Haga

“I was hooked on vegetables and plant diversity. The more I learned about plants, the more I felt connected to the people I came from, the food I was eating and the land I lived on,” Haga stated.

No stranger to the University of Wisconsin, Haga pursued her interest in plants and completed both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UW-Madison. Her undergraduate degree was in horticulture while her graduate studies focused on plant breeding and genetics.

As an undergraduate, Haga completed independent research on plant flowering time and research on pepper germplasm adaptation for the shorter growing season in Wisconsin. During her graduate work, she completed a multi-year field study on early blight resistance in potatoes.
Today, Haga is a plant breeder for Johnny’s Selected Seeds where she works on tomatoes, lettuce and peppers. At Johnny’s she develops new varieties to support small scale farmers and growers and looks at trends in the market to meet the future needs of these growers.

It involves a passion for both plants and people. Everybody is trying to make a difference and we all need to work together to bring our unique contributions to the table. We need all types of people to solve different parts of this agricultural puzzle.

—Emily Haga

Although her interest was in plants, she said she hadn’t planned on becoming a plant breeder but she liked the idea of preserving and yet creating new genetic diversity in crops.

Deciding to purse plant breeding didn’t come as a lightbulb decision; Haga attended multiple conferences, field days, plant breeder meetings and visited different gene banks across the United States during school. Through these experiences she realized how much of a multi-disciplinary study this field was and liked that it combined a lot of her passions from youth.

Haga encourages other graduate students to jump at the opportunities offered. Whether it is a lab job, independent study, or capstone experience, she says, “Get out in the world, meet new people and see what is available to you.”

Originally printed in UW Grad School Alumni Careers

Know Your Nutmeg

1. It’s not a nut. Nutmeg is the seed kernel inside a yellow fruit of the nutmeg tree, an evergreen native to the Molucca Islands (sometimes called the Spice Islands) of Indonesia. Whole nutmeg seeds are oval, brown and about an inch long, with a nutty aroma and taste—but they don’t pose a risk to people with nut allergies.


2. This beloved holiday spice can be dangerous.But only in fairly large amounts. It takes two tablespoons or more to produce symptoms of nutmeg poisoning, toxicologists say. Those symptoms may include acute nausea, dry mouth, dizziness and a slowdown of brain function to the point where victims experience blackouts. Higher doses can cause shock and hallucinations.

3. That’s due to the nutmeg’s essential oil.Myristica, as the oil is called, contains myristicin, a narcotic that functions in the plant as a natural insecticide. Nutmeg also—as do its frequent recipe companions, cinnamon and clove—acts as an antibiotic.

4. Nutmeg has other medicinal properties as well. Consumed in small doses, nutmeg can serve as a digestive aid in reducing flatulence and indigestion, and can also help treat nausea and diarrhea as well as lower blood pressure. Applied topically, it can offer pain relief and has been used for rheumatism, mouth sores and toothache.

5. Nutmeg was more valuable than Manhattan. By the 16th century, nutmeg—coveted as a flavoring, hallucinogen, alleged aphrodisiac and deterrent to the plague—was being sold by European traders at a 6,000 percent markup. The Dutch soon wrested control of all the nutmeg-producing Moluccas except for a tiny island called Run, which was controlled by the British. At that time, Run seemed more valuable than Manhattan, then under Dutch control as New Amsterdam. In order to seal their nutmeg monopoly, the Dutch gave the British New Amsterdam in exchange for Run. It seemed like a good idea.

Johanna Oosterwyk, a faculty associate in the Department of Horticulture, is manager of the D.C. Smith Greenhouse, a facility that provides plant-growing space for the instructional needs of departments and programs of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

This story was originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of Grow magazine.

Moments in Time 2015

2015 Moments in time captured by University Communications photographers Jeff Miller and Bryce Richter include two from Horticulture. Check out # 20 and #38 at Moments in Time 2015

Gift Establishes Endowed Fellowship in Vegetable Crops

The Department of Horticulture is extremely grateful for the generous donation from Steve and Christa Slinger of Randolph, Wisconsin to establish an endowed graduate fellowship in vegetable crops in the Department of Horticulture.  Steve and Christa have had a long association with UW-Madison and with the Department of Horticulture, and have committed a gift of $200,000 to establish this endowed fellowship.

Their gift will receive a “Nicholas Match,” which will double its value to $400,000. In 2015, the Nicholas family pledged to match new gifts toward fellowships at UW-Madison. The Slinger fellowship is to be used at the discretion of the department to support graduate students working with horticulture faculty on research involving vegetable crops.

Steve and Christa have had successful careers as vegetable farmers and continue their efforts to produce high quality crops in the Randolph area. Our department expresses its gratitude to them for this generous gift.

Julie Dawson and Local Chefs Collaborate on Vegetables

The spread of dishes that filled tables in a church basement near the UW-Madison campus one night this fall would have been the envy of any Madison foodie.


A volunteer tastes butternut squash as part of a UW-Madison program that aims to create new and better-tasting types of fruits and vegetables. John Hart – State Journal picture credit

There were beets with farro koji, yogurt and pickled carrots, the creation of A Pig In a Fur Coat chef Dan Bonanno. The Underground Food Collective’s Jonny Hunter served a squash puree with corn, onions and peppers. Tory Miller, the star chef behind four Madison restaurants, prepared a paella with squash and kale.

As impressive as the lineup of chefs was, the stars of that October night were the ingredients they used.

The squash, corn, peppers, carrots, kale — just about all of the ingredients that went into the dishes — were some of the early results of a UW-Madison program that has brought professors, plant breeders, organic farmers and some of the city’s top chefs together with the goal of creating more flavorful fruits and vegetables for local agriculture.

Bonanno, Hunter, Miller and Eric Benedict of the recently opened Cafe Hollander have played an integral role in the program, which is now wrapping up its second growing season, volunteering their finely tuned tastes and knowledge of the restaurant business to give farmers and breeders detailed feedback on the new varieties of produce they create.

“This is one of the cooler things that’s happening in food in the world right now,” Hunter said. “We could really do something extraordinary here that makes vegetables more attractive to people to eat … and then we can also benefit as far as restaurants go, because our vegetables will be way better than anyone else’s.”

Farmers and chefs both want flavorful produce, says Julie Dawson, the UW-Madison professor who runs the initiative. Connecting them with UW professors’ deep knowledge of plant breeding and horticulture can help them get it, Dawson says.

“It’s something we can do as a public institution that really serves the farmers of the state that are trying to get more local produce into the market,” she said.

Flavor is top priority

When farmers and seed companies breed produce, they usually do so with production — not taste — in mind, said Miller.

They want vegetables that can withstand hundreds or thousands of miles of travel; that will ripen after they’re picked and that have a uniform appearance so they’ll look good on supermarket shelves.

But in the UW-Madison program, flavor is “a priority from the beginning of the breeding process,” Dawson said.

The breeders take some practical concerns into account — chefs want vegetables that can withstand some time in storage at their restaurants, and whatever produce they develop has to grow well in Wisconsin and the upper Midwest, Dawson said.

But for the most part, the program focuses on finding and breeding varieties of fruits and vegetables with specific flavors and textures in mind.

So far that has included peppers that pack a moderate punch of heat, squash with higher sugar content that will caramelize when roasted, potatoes with a firmer texture that won’t disintegrate in soups, and corn with a more savory taste, rather than the ubiquitous sweet varieties.

The program works with 15 direct-market farmers — smaller operations that sell their produce directly to restaurants, community-supported agriculture programs and some markets. Those flavor traits can set the farmers’ fruits and vegetables apart, Dawson said, and also give chefs ingredients that can make for tastier dishes.

People think of heirloom varieties of tomatoes or other vegetables as being the most flavorful, she said, but those varieties are themselves the result of breeding and selection by farmers and gardeners.

“There’s no reason why we can’t continue that selection to breed varieties that are really excellent for local and organic agriculture, and also to have the highest quality and best flavor,” Dawson said.

Chefs are central

With such an emphasis on flavor, the researchers must extensively taste-test the fruits and vegetables grown through the program, often enlisting students, staff and faculty in various UW-Madison agricultural departments to help evaluate the many varieties of produce.

At one recent tasting, volunteers slowly moved down a line of roasting pans with butternut squash and plastic tubs of kale, sampling each variety and filling out forms evaluating their color, sweetness, acidity and texture.

Researchers also set up taste tests at farmers markets around Wisconsin to get a sense of what the general public thinks of the varieties, and local farmers taking part in the program give feedback on how well the vegetables grow and what sort of yield they see from the crops.

But some of the program’s best feedback comes from the chefs — Miller, Hunter, Bonanno and Benedict — who have spent hours tasting different kinds of tomatoes, peppers and corn to discern which have just the right flavor profile.

“When you try 27 different types of kale in the morning … you think about kale in a way you’ve never thought about it before,” Hunter said.

Kale grown in warm weather tends to be more bitter, so the program is working to develop a variety that will be sweeter in the summer.

“You’ve really got to concentrate on tasting something,” he said.

The chefs can pick up on the subtle differences in flavor and texture between varieties that might be lost on less discerning palates, said Philipp Simon, a UW-Madison professor and carrot breeder. That knowledge can give researchers very specific feedback on what does and doesn’t work.

“They’re very good at describing what they want,” Simon said. “Nothing against the average consumer, but they just say, ‘better’ and ‘good’ and those kinds of descriptions don’t help us very much.

“We get a lot more detailed kind of information from these professionals.”

Excited by the future

The chefs say they often find themselves thinking about the dishes they could build around the new varieties of fruits and vegetables while they’re taking part in the taste tests.

“How I’m going to use the food is going through my mind already,” Bonanno said.

That can benefit the farmers involved in the program, because if restaurants like Bonanno’s A Pig In a Fur Coat or Miller’s L’Etoile use the new varieties, that could help farmers to market them to consumers, Simon said.

It will still be several years before those new varieties are widely available. But the chefs and researchers involved in the program are excited for the future, when the new and unique vegetables they helped engineer could be found in community-supported agriculture boxes and restaurants around Madison.

“What we’re hoping for is a Wisconsin pepper, or those tomatoes that we developed or that we searched for,” Miller said. “That’s going to be the raddest thing five years from now.”

Futuristic Cranberries

The last time you ate cranberry – perhaps as a dried snack, in a glass of juice or as a saucy condiment with the Thanksgiving turkey – it was likely paired with sugar, and a lot of it. A cup of cranberry juice may be packed with antioxidants, but it has about 30 grams (or 7.5 teaspoons) of sugar. You’ll get about 26 grams (or 6.5 teaspoons) of sugar in a cup of dried, sweetened cranberries.

Why are cranberries and sugar a seemingly inseparable pair? The typical fresh cranberry is an acrid thing to put on the tongue without sugar to balance it out.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. Cranberry breeders at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have developed an experimental variety that’s naturally sweet. It’s called the “Sweetie.”

Jeff Miller/University of Wisconsin - Madison

Jeff Miller/University of Wisconsin – Madison

The cranberry breeding program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was created in the early 1990s to help growers produce better berries. Brent McCown, a biologist who helped found the program, says growers want berries that are larger, have a consistent red color and produce a reliable crop year after year. Flavor — and sweetness, in particular — have generally been an afterthought.

Nicole Hansen, a Wisconsin cranberry grower working with the university’s breeders, says she wasn’t expecting a sweet variety to come along. “As a cranberry grower, you always hope that you’ll find that [sweet] variety, but you’re thinking cranberries are just too tart,” she says. Then a few years ago, she was taste-testing experimental varieties grown by the university with another grower. “And they said, ‘You gotta taste this,'” Hansen says.

The berry handed to her was the Sweetie. “I was excited … it had a milder taste than most fresh cranberries,” she says. It was so enticing that Hansen says she and other growers started dreaming of the day when they could grow the Sweetie or other similar varieties that people could eat fresh – like cherries.

We at The Salt had to try this mythical sweet cranberry. So we asked Hansen to send us some from the small batch she’d grown.

The Sweetie is about half an inch wide and white on the inside. The skin is the color of red wine, and pops open when you bite in. The flavor is tart and faintly sweet, like a Granny Smith apple. It shares some of the aromas of a Granny Smith, too.

At NPR, the Sweetie received some mixed responses. One editor at the Science Desk ate one and then regarded the bowl of berries with disdain. “It’s supposed to be like a munching snack, like table grapes?” he asked.

“I think so,” I said.

“Never going to happen,” he said.

Another editor lifted some Sweeties, skeptically, to his mouth. “Wow. Yeah,” he said and nodded in approval.

The jury may still be out in this office. But while the idea of snacking on fresh cranberries once seemed unimaginable, the Sweetie offers that with mild tartness and crisp texture. When there’s nothing else to snack on, I’ve been reaching for that bag of cranberries by my desk.

For McCown and Juan Zalapa, a geneticist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s cranberry breeding program, the promise of a cranberry as sweet as a blueberry might lie somewhere in the cranberry genome. And if they can find it, breeding could move to develop a fresh cranberry that people would actually buy. “It’s just a matter of increasing that sugar level,” Zalapa says.

For now, though, the researchers say the Sweetie isn’t ready to leave the test beds. It’s still in an experimental phase, and it might not ever go into production. But one of its descendants might one day be a fresh cranberry that you’ll be snacking on at your desk — no sugar added.

Can Plant Breeding Go Open Source?

Claire.LubyOn a warm and sunny day last fall, a handful of horticultural students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) descended on Elderberry Hill Farm, a small CSA
just across the lake from campus. They were harvesting carrots: orange, yellow, and purple; skinny and fat; stubby and elongated.

With a care and precision not normally associated with carrot har- vest, they logged the numbered tags for each small row, selected about a dozen of the better specimens, and bagged them for further study back in the lab. As they worked, they bantered about breeding technology, how long grad school takes, food politics, and the ethics of genetic engineering.

This carrot project led by Claire Luby (pictured on the cover of this issue) has radical intent.  Continue reading the article here.