What color is your carrot?

MADISON — Sevie Kenyon: Shelby, carrots are not just orange anymore, what colors are there?

Shelby Ellison: You can find carrots in red, yellow, you can have some purple varieties and actually carrots, before they were domesticated, were white.

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Sevie Kenyon: What would the difference be between one color and another?

Shelby Ellison: So typically, the color of carrot that you’re eating, it directly corresponds with the nutritional value or the nutritional compound found in that carrot. For instance, an orange carrot would be high in alpha and beta-carotene. A yellow carrot would be high in lutein and xanthophyll. A red carrot would be high in lycopene. Purple carrots have high levels of anthocyanins which are antioxidants and white carrots, while they don’t really confer much nutritional benefit, they’re very high in fiber.

Sevie Kenyon: Shelby, where are people going to encounter carrots other than orange carrots?

Shelby Ellison: Right now, one of the best places you can go to find a diversity of carrot colors is your local farmer’s market. You can also get them through community-supported agriculture. They’re growing many different varieties of carrots and some of the co-ops and smaller seed companies will sell heirloom varieties of different carrot colors.

Sevie Kenyon: For the home grower, is there anything they need to know about the different carrot varieties?

Shelby Ellison: Just a lot of them, because they’re more of the heirloom varieties, they’re not going to have the same uniformity that you’d find in a lot of the orange cultivars.

Sevie Kenyon: Shelby, can you tell us a little bit about what you’re looking for in your work?

Shelby Ellison: Because the colors do correspond with the nutritional content, I’m interested in looking at the genetics controlling each of these compounds. So understanding what gene or genes control beta-carotene accumulation in an orange carrot, or what controls lycopene accumulation in a red carrot and then through understanding the genetics of those traits you can make new improved varieties with improved nutritional quality.

Sevie Kenyon: Shelby, have we seen improved varieties on the market yet?

Shelby Ellison: There are improvements being constantly made through traditional breeding. There was a big change in the last twenty years or so where we started increasing the amount of beta carotene but now we are seeing if you’re adding the anthocyanins or the purple compounds into the orange varieties, you’re not only getting the benefit of the alpha and beta carotene in the orange carrot but you’re improving the antioxidants

Sevie Kenyon: Shelby, look into your crystal ball, what do you see carrots looking like 5, 10, 20 years from now?

Shelby Ellison: We’re probably going to be seeing a lot more colors in the grocery stores. Just how people really like the idea of having the baby carrots, I think we’ll see more of the different colors in the baby carrot packages.

Sevie Kenyon: We’ve been visiting with Shelby Ellison, Department of Horticulture, University of Wisconsin Madison and the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and I’m Sevie Kenyon.

Harvesting Ideas and Fruit with Amaya Atucha

In a lab filled with test tubes and microscopes the last thing one may expect to see are grape seeds and cranberry vines. However, this is necessary as Amaya Atucha and her team are studying the cold hardiness of fruit crops to better understand fruit crop physiology and production. Atucha serves in three main roles: an assistant professor in the department of Horticulture, a Fruit Crop Specialist for UW-Extension, and the Gottschalk Chair for cranberry research. Needless to say Atucha is well-versed in the field of fruit crop production, helping to improve the production practices of fruit crops across the state of Wisconsin.

How does the Wisconsin Idea animate your work? As a state specialist with UW Extension my work is basically the implementation of the Wisconsin Idea, in that I conduct research and interpret research from other scholars to help fruit growers across the state. Being part of extension has given me the opportunity to experience how the university can influence peoples live beyond what we see happening on campus, and that is very inspiring and gratifying at the same time.

How has your research and teaching path changed the way you think about Wisconsin and the world? My interaction with colleagues and scientists around the world has given me a broader perspective of the challenges and advantages others face in their work. As an international scholar, moving to Wisconsin has allowed me to experience a completely different culture, and has definitely changed my vision on the role universities can play in their local communities.

One of Amaya's research assistants uses a microscope and camera attached to the microscope to observe the cranberry plantHow does your research tell a larger story about Wisconsin and the world? My research program focuses on fruit crop physiology and production of deciduous fruit crops; with cranberries being one of the main fruit crops I study. Wisconsin is the top producer of cranberries in the world, and UW-Madison is the place where most of the research on this fruit crop takes place. UW-Madison has an impressive group of researchers working on all aspects of cranberry production and we are definitely the main source of information on this crop worldwide.

Is there a fact about cranberries that tends to amuse or surprise people? Yes, that cranberries do not grow in water! Most people associate cranberry production with the images they see on the television, where the growers are harvesting the berries from a pool full of water, so people think that’s the way they grow. Cranberry beds, which are the production unit in a cranberry marsh, are flooded to harvest the fruit because it makes it easier to collect all the berries, but once the harvest is done the beds are drained.

What do you love about the University of Wisconsin-Madison? There are so many possibilities to connect and collaborate with great scientists and faculty from other disciplines around campus. To be part of a diverse community of scholars stimulate you to create innovative approaches to complex problems.

What or who inspires you? My amazing female colleagues who have successful careers and family lives.

Amaya opens small containers that contain frozen grape seeds

What has been one of your favorite courses to teach? I have a very limited teaching appointment; I teach Fruit Crop Production every other spring semester. I really enjoy teaching this class as it has an important field component where students can interact with fruit growers in the state and learn about the socioeconomic implication fruit production has in the state of Wisconsin.

What are three books that have influenced you? Women Who Run With Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes; The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben; When Breath Becomes Airby Paul Kalanithi

Atucha earned her B.S. in horticulture from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso (Chile) and her Ph.D. in horticulture from Cornell University. She also participated in the 2015 Wisconsin Idea Seminar and served as a context expert and collaborator for the 2017 Wisconsin Idea Seminar.

This article first appeared in https://wiseminar.wisc.edu/harvesting-ideas-and-fruit-with-amaya-atucha/

Back to Farming Basics in Guatemala

When Claudia Calderón touched down in the fertile highlands of western Guatemala, she was stepping into a sociological experiment already afoot.

What brought her to the verdant country in Central America in 2016 was a collaborative study conducted alongside her peers from Universidad de San Carlos in Guatemala. The group wanted to determine how two different types of small-holder farms (less than about 2.5 acres) perform in two key areas of sustainability — food security and climatic resilience.

The study compares semiconventional farms (those that use agrochemicals like pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers and grow a comparatively limited array of crops) and agroecology-adopting farms, which largely eschew modern pesticides for organic alternatives and are characterized by a sense of self-reliance, a concern for community well-being, a deeply rooted land ethic, and a tightly knit “solidarity economy” where food production and exchange occur for reasons beyond capital accumulation.

“They’re really focusing on the well-being of their families, of their communities,” says Calderón, an assistant faculty associate in the Department of Horticulture. “And not just the individual profit, but also the community profit.”

The first thrust of the study — food security — is a prominent issue in Guatemala. Large parts of the country lack the proper infrastructure to transport excess goods to market in time, and most rural households need to buy more food than they can produce. Combine this shortage with high levels of poverty, and malnutrition follows.

The group also investigated the agroecological method’s adoption and resilience to climate change. Agroecological farmers tend to grow a greater diversity of crops, including maize, bean, brassicas, leafy greens, potatoes, carrots, and fruits. This allows them to bounce back even if one crop is devastated by drought or rain. They also utilize terraces, contour planting, and live fences to mitigate the effects that washouts can have on their steep hillside plots.

“The whole world is talking about climate change, but particular regions of the world are especially vulnerable to the effects,” Calderón says.

Both agroecological and semiconventional agricultural methods are not without their challenges. Political will is fragmented. Property rights are murky or altogether absent. Extractive industries take advantage of this, hoping to ply the ground for valuable minerals in the soil.

But Calderón is intrigued by the symbiotic relationship between Guatemalan small-scale farmers and their land. She notes that women have become more involved in decisions about crop management. The takeaway? A set of farming practices aimed at optimizing yields, rather than maximizing them, may hold promise for the future of farming in Guatemala.

“What consequences are coming from particular ways of doing agriculture?” says Calderón. “We need to see the whole picture and recognize the role that small-holder farmers play for food security around the world.”

This article was originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of Grow magazine.

Farm to Flavor Dinner Scheduled

Join the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative and Allen Centennial Garden for Farm to Flavor 2017, a signature dinner experience and celebration of Wisconsin food that will be held on Thursday, Aug. 24 from 5 – 9 p.m. in the Discovery Building.

This unconventional tasting event will celebrate biodiversity in food through small plate dishes from Madison’s talented chefs. Taste habaneros bred for almost undetectable spice, tomatoes with a dark indigo pigment or beets bred to be deliciously mild and sweet. Learn from keynote speaker Lane Selman about the important role plant breeders play in building a more just and resilient food system, and the ways local chefs, farmers and eaters are working together to further the cause. Sample vegetables straight from the plant on a tour of Allen Centennial Garden immediately preceding the dinner.

The eight chefs of the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative evaluate hundreds of vegetable varieties every season, providing valuable feedback to plant breeders around the country. Farm to Flavor is their chance to share what they’ve learned with you, by featuring each of their favorite varieties in a dish of their own design.

Participating chefs include:

  • Jonny Hunter, Underground Food Collective
  • Torry Miller, L’Etoile, Graze, Sujeo, Estrellon
  • Dan Bonnano, Pig in a Fur Coat
  • Eric Benedit, Cafe Hollander
  • Joe Cloute, Heritage Catering
  • Yusuf Bin-Rella, Dejope Dining
  • Kathy Griswold, Epic
  • Sean Fogarty, Steenbock’s on Orchard

Keynote speaker Lane Selman is the founding director of the Culinary Breeding Network in Portland, Ore., which brings together plant breeders, chefs, bakers and other stakeholders in the food community to create more relevant and desirable cultivars for organic farmers. Lane has earned national acclaim for her work furthering the concept of “culinary breeding” and is a tireless advocate for small-scale organic producers.

To learn more and purchase tickets, visit the Isthmus Tickets page.

Farm to Flavor 2017 dinner attendees may also be interested in attending the UW Organic Vegetable Variety Trials Field Day that will take place earlier that day.

Dr. Yi Wang Joins the Department

Yi Wang is an assistant professor with a research focus on potato and vegetable sustainable production. The goal of her research and extension program is to conduct science-based applied research and collaborate with the potato and vegetable growers and processors to improve the resource use efficiency and sustainability of vegetable cropping systems in Wisconsin. Her major research areas are:

  • Investigate new irrigation technologies to improve the water-use sustainability of vegetable cropping systems;
  • Develop production recommendations for new varieties with higher water and nitrogen use efficiency;
  • Develop useful growth modelling tools to predict crop yield, quality, water balance, and nitrogen balance.

Yi got her B.S. in Biological Science from Nanjing Agricultural University in China, her Ph.D. in Potato Physiology from UW-Madison. She worked as an assistant professor at the Kimberly Research and Extension Center, University of Idaho before rejoining the Department of Horticulture at UW-Madison.

Winemaking In Wisconsin

How Discoveries And Accidents Led To Winemaking In Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s wine industry is modest in scale, but has roots as old as the state itself. A Hungarian immigrant named Agoston Haraszthy planted the state’s first vineyard in 1846 on the east bank of the Wisconsin River and founded the community that would become Sauk City. He headed west three years later, establishing the famous Buena Vista Vineyard in Seminole, California, and became known as the father of Californian winemaking. In Wisconsin, Haraszthy’s vineyard lands would later become the site of Wollersheim Winery.

The wines produced in Wisconsin’s unlikely climate are the result of centuries of selection, cultivation and hybridization of many grape varieties, said Amaya Atucha, a fruit crop specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension and assistant professor of horticulture at UW-Madison. With only 80 to 180 frost-free days across different parts of the state in an average year, Wisconsin’s cold climate and soil pH is not particularly hospitable to many wine grapes. Atucha discussed the history and difficulties of viticulture in the state in a July 8, 2015 talk for the Wednesday Nite @ the Lab lecture series on the UW-Madison campus, recorded for Wisconsin Public Television’s University Place.

“It’s very challenging to grow grapes here,” Atucha said. “And this has been a lot of science and a lot of discoveries and accidents that have taken us through this journey to be able to have Wisconsin wine.”

Variants of a grape species first cultivated in western Asia thousands of years ago, Vitis vinifera, are grown to produce 99 percent of the world’s wine today. While male and female flowers grow separately on wild grapes, Vitis vinifera was bred to have what are called perfect flowers, which have reproductive structures for both sexes. This morphology greatly increases fruit yield, supplying enough juice to produce wine.

Many grape species are native to the Americas, including Vitis riparia, Vitis berlandieri and Vitis labrusca. Wine production did not begin in the Western Hemisphere until the 1500s, though, when Spanish conquistadors and missionaries planted vineyards in hospitable regions using cuttings of Vitis vinifera. The lower fruit yields of North American grape species proved unfavorable for wine production, and the flavors of their wines discouraged cultivation for that purpose.

“For me, coming from Chile, never having these grapes… [i]t just tasted very chemical, like this foxy taste,” Atucha said of her first experience with juice made from Concord grapes, which is cultivated from Vitis labrusca, and left her believing the taste was artificial.

“Afterwards, they took me to a vineyard where there was Concord grapes and they gave me some of the grapes to taste, and I was like ‘wow, it tastes just like the juice,'” she said.

Much of North America is inhospitable to Vitis vinifera, leading to failed attempts at establishing vineyards in the British colonies along the Atlantic Seaboard during the 1600s and 1700s. European grapes faltered in the climate, and they were also more susceptible to insects and disease American grape species had evolved to resist.

It was not until the 1740 discovery of the Alexander grape in Philadelphia that North American wine production became feasible. A natural hybrid, this variety combined the hermaphroditic flowering traits of Vitis vinifera with the hardiness of a native species. The new, viable variety sparked an interest in hybridization, resulting in grapes capable of flourishing and producing wine in Wisconsin a century later.

“So the solution to the problem was actually not to try to make the vinifera grow, but to find a grape that would survive, that would yield enough, and that would make wine decent enough that they could sell and that people could drink,” Atucha said.

 

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Key Facts

    • Modern viticulture has its roots in the soils of the southern Caucasus Mountains, a region that now includes portions of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, and northern Iran and Iraq. The first evidence of wine production dates to around 7,000 years ago, when the burgeoning viticulturists of the Neolithic era found particularly fruitful Vitis vinifera vines, grew these grapes along the shores of the Caspian and Black seas, and began fermenting the juice. Viticulture spread to Mesopotamia, Egypt and on to regions around the Mediterranean.
    • Over time and through trade, the rise of the Roman Empire and the growth of Christianity, Vitis vinifera eventually found a new, favorable climate in the high pH soils of southern Europe. Romans advanced grape cultivation and wine production, but the monks of the medieval Catholic Church developed many of the techniques used in the present day.
    • While Native Americans fermented fruits like apples and other plants to produce alcoholic beverages, there is no archeological evidence to suggest grapes were used to produce wine, despite the fruit’s prevalence in North America.
    • In the 1620s, King James I declared wine production mandatory in Virginia. He sought to supplement supplies from France, Italy and Spain by meeting the growing British taste for wine with a domestic product, so as to lessen dependence on imports from these rival nations.
    • Several North American wild grape species contributed to the hybridization of Vitis vinifera. Vitis riparia, found from Canada to Texas and between the Atlantic Ocean to the Rocky Mountains, is cold hardy and resistant to fungus and disease. Vitis berlandieri, native to central Texas and eastern Mexico, grows well in high pH soils and aids in breeding of grapes for a variety of soil types. Vitis rupestri, a nearly extinct species, lent disease and fungal resistance to some modern varieties. And Vitis labrusca is a vigorous vine known as the Northern Fox Grape; its cold hardy variants have a distinct flavor, the Concord grape the most famous among them.
    • New Englander Ephraim Bull created the Concord grape, named for his hometown in Massachusetts, after testing millions of seedlings and selecting based on desired traits. The grape’s distinct, sour taste makes it a popular choice for jams, jellies and juices, but aficionados generally consider it an undesirable flavor for wine.
    • The eventual success of wine grape cultivation in the United States led to the export of North American hybrids to Europe in the mid-1800s. European botanists sought to study and collect these varieties, but unintentionally introduced diseases and pests like the grape phylloxera, devastating the continent’s grape vines. Nearly 90 percent of European vineyards collapsed, and wine production fell to 20 percent of previous levels. Although hybrids were the source of the invasive species, they were also key in ending the 20-year die-off; Vinis vinifera was grafted on to North American root stock, maintaining the properties of European varieties with the resistance of imported hybrids.
    • Scientists play a role in contemporary viticulture. While working for a University of Minnesota grape breeding program, Wisconsin native Elmer Swenson developed a number of cold resistant varieties that also produce good wine, releasing many to the public upon his retirement in 1980. More recently, the Northern Grapes Project is a collaboration between a dozen Midwestern and Northeastern universities that seeks to develop new varieties and growing techniques that work well in colder climates.

WisContext produced this article as a service of Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television and Cooperative Extension.

Link to Original

Breeding Potatoes for More Calcium

Have you ever cut into a potato to find a dark spot or hollow part? Early research shows that these defects are likely the result of calcium deficiencies in the potato—and that tuber calcium is genetically linked to tuber quality.

Neither consumers at grocery stores nor chip and fry manufacturers want these low-calcium defects. In addition to the obvious cosmetic issues, these potatoes are more likely to rot.

Most farmed varieties of potatoes have naturally low levels of calcium. So researchers at the USDA-ARS and University of Wisconsin-Madison, including Shelley Jansky, John Bamberg and Jiwan Palta, looked to wild potatoes. Their purpose: to breed new potato cultivars with high calcium levels.

Many wild potato relatives are still present in South America. Their presence means growers’ potato plants in that region often exchange genes with wild species.

“That’s a way they continue to evolve as the climate changes or as disease and pest patterns change,” says Jansky. “But in the U.S. we have removed our potatoes from that environment. We have to breed new genes in from these wild relatives when we want to improve our cultivars.”

These wild relatives are an invaluable resource for scientists across the country.

“If you go down there and drive along the roadside you can see these weedy, wild plants growing along the roads and fields,” says Jansky. “Whenever we have looked for any trait in wild potato species, we have been able to find it.”

And so it was with searching for a high-calcium potato. The team found a wild potato with almost seven times as much calcium as typically grown varieties. The next job was to isolate the calcium trait. Jansky and her colleagues interbred the high- and low-calcium potatoes. The resulting generations showed a molecular marker—a pattern in the plant’s natural DNA. This pattern led researchers to the plant’s calcium trait.

“Finding this marker will allow us—and other breeding programs—to make faster progress in breeding potato plants with high tuber calcium content,” says Jansky. “This has been difficult and time-consuming in the past. You have to grow all the populations, harvest tubers, and then analyze the tubers for the trait you are looking at—in this case, tuber calcium levels. And that’s a long, laborious process.”

A typical breeding program grows and assesses up to 100,000 seedlings every year. It takes 10 to 15 years to release a particular variety of crop plant. However, the process simplifies with known molecular markers.

“We can collect DNA from seedlings and check for these molecular markers,” says Yong Suk Chung, the first author of the study. “If you have the marker present, then you select those seedlings and save a tremendous amount of time and labor.”

Source:  www.potatogrower.com

 

Seed to Kitchen

Plant breeders partner with chefs for tastier produce

Have you noticed that more and more restaurants are featuring great-tasting, locally sourced foods on their menus? Now, through a UW–Madison horticulture initiative called “Seed to Kitchen,” chefs on the culinary cutting edge are working with plant breeders to grow produce with specific flavor characteristics their customers will love. –

Antique Apples

Autumn is just around the corner, and instead of lamenting the end of summer, many Wisconsinites embrace cooler weather with fall activities.

One favorite excursion around the state is apple picking, which goes hand-in-hand with cider, donuts and pie. Many Wisconsin pick-your-own orchards and farm stands showcase “antique” or “heirloom” apple varieties, which have been passed down through generations of growers after being found from a chance seedling. Antique apples can have unusual flavors, textures, and aromas, and usually come with an interesting back-story too. Many are of U.S. or even Wisconsin origins.

In recent years, antique or heirloom varieties have become more popular at farmers’ markets and pick-your-own orchards, as consumers are searching for apples that are essentially different from those offered by big supermarket chains. This search for a “different” kind of apple is not only driven by the lack of choice and poor quality of apples offered by superstores, but also by a change in consumer preferences that are a consequence of increasing interest and concern regarding where and how fruit is grown.

Many of these rarer varieties can be found at many Wisconsin orchards and local direct markets, but it may take a little searching to get past the rows of Honeycrisp. Hundreds of varieties of antique apples are available — this list is meant as a starting point only.

Gravenstein is one the first varieties to ripen in the apple season. It originated in Denmark in 1669. The fruit is irregularly shaped with broad red stripes and a sweet-tart flavor. It’s great for eating fresh, or for making into sauces or cider. Ripens late July to early August.

Northfield Beauty originated in Vermont in the early 1800s. The fruit is medium-large, with a tart flavor extremely well suited for pies and sauces. Ripens in late August.

Duchess of Oldenburg is a cold-hardy plant, producing tart red apples, best used for making pies or sauces but also good for eating. A great early-season options, it can be found even in the northern parts of Wisconsin. Originating in Russia in the 1700s, it is naturally resistant to many diseases, reducing the need for pesticides. Ripens in late August.

Chenango Strawberry was discovered in the eastern United States in the early 19th century, and is renowned for its rich apple flavor and aroma, and beautiful mottled appearance. The skin and flesh is soft and juicy. Ripens early September.

Summer Rambo is a tart, crisp, juicy apple that originated in France in the 1500s. The fruit is greenish-yellow with a red blush. It’s good for both eating and for sauces. Ripens in early September.

Holstein Cox has large fruit with an intense sweet/tart flavor with intense citrus and pineapple aroma, and is good for eating or cooking. It is a relative newcomer, being developed in Germany in the early 1900s. Ripens in early September.

Court Pendu Plat was first described in France in the 1600s, but is thought to have been brought there much earlier during the time of the Roman Empire. It has a dense texture, and balance of sweetness and acidity, making it excellent for cider and sauces, but also tasty fresh. Ripens in early September.

Wealthy makes a good eating apple with a mellow, sweet flavor. Having originated in Minnesota in 1868, it is very cold-hardy. Ripens in mid-September.

Pink Pearl is not only a novelty, with bright pink flesh underneath a smooth yellow skin, but is also a flavorful, tart, juicy and crisp apple. A suggested use is to make rosy-pink applesauce. This variety originated in California in the early 1900s. Ripens in mid-September.

Wolf River originated in central Wisconsin, and is an old-time favorite around the state. The large apples are primarily used for baking — supposedly one apple makes one pie! Ripens in late September.

Reinette Gris produces medium-sized sweet, crisp and dry fruit, with a red blush. The trees are very hardy and fruit keep well. It originated in France in the 1600s. Ripens in late September.

Egremont Russet, like other russetted apples, has lost popularity recently to the smooth shiny varieties generally showcased in grocery stores. However, despite its rough appearance, this variety is full of unique flavors, which have been described as nutty, smoky, or with anise undertones, which combined with a pear-like smooth texture makes for a one-of-a-kind apple. It originated in England in the 1800s. Ripens in late September to early October.

Northwestern Greening originated in Wisconsin in the late 1800s. It is the predominant apple-pie apple of the north, but is too tart for eating fresh. Ripens in October.

Arkansas Black is a deeply colored, crisp, and flavorful apple. For best flavor, store at least a month before eating; it can be stored up to eight months in refrigeration. Ripens in October.

Winesap is an old-timer favorite, with high sugar content, a crisp texture and deep red color. This variety originated in the US in the 1800s. Ripens in late October.

Newtown Pippin has a distinctive flavor, and firm, crisp flesh. The skin is light yellow-green with just a slight red blush. It was developed on Long Island, New York in the 1700s. This apple is excellent for eating fresh or for making cider. Ripens in late October.

Black Oxford produces a dark purple, almost black skinned fruit with tart, aromatic flesh. It originated in Oxford, Maine in the 1800s. The fruit keeps well in storage. Ripens in late October.

Source:  Wiscontext, September 23, 2016 http://www.wiscontext.org/picking-holstein-cox-and-other-antique-apples-wisconsin-orchards

Janet van Zoeren is a fruit crops associate with the University of Wisconsin-Extension. Amaya Atucha is a fruit crop specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension and UW Fruit Program, and an assistant professor in the UW-Madison Department of Horticulture. This article is adapted from an item originally published in Wisconsin Fruit News, Volume 1, Issue 9, a publication of the Fruit Crops Team 

Breeding for Flavor

On a sticky weekday morning in August, a new restaurant called Estrellón (“big star” in Spanish) is humming with advanced prep and wine deliveries. All wood and tile and Mediterranean white behind a glass exterior, the Spanish-style eatery is the fourth venture of Madison culinary star Tory Miller. Opening is just three days away, and everything is crisp and shiny and poised.

Chef Miller takes a seat with colleagues Jonny Hunter of the Underground Food Collective 2016-09-13_8-47-52and Dan Bonanno of A Pig in a Fur Coat. The chefs are here to lend their highend taste buds to science, and they start to banter about tomato flavor. What are the key elements? How important are they relative to each other?

Despite their intense culinary dedication, these men rarely just sit down and eat tomatoes with a critical frame of mind. “I learned a lot about taste through this project,” says Hunter. “I really started thinking about how I defined flavor in my own head and how I experience it.”

This particular tasting was held last summer. And there have been many others like it over the past few years with Miller, Hunter, Bonanno and Eric Benedict BS’04, of Café Hollander.

The sessions are organized by Julie Dawson, a CALS/UW–Extension professor of horticulture who heads the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative (formerly called the Chef–Farmer–Plant Breeder Collaborative). Her plant breeding team from CALS will note the flavors and characteristics most valuable to the chefs. Triangulating this with feedback from select farmers, plant breeders will get one step closer to the perfect tomato. But not just any tomato: One bred for Upper Midwest organic growing conditions, with flavor vetted by some of our most discerning palates.

“We wanted to finally find a good red, round slicer, and tomatoes that look and taste like heirlooms but aren’t as finicky to grow,” says Dawson at the August tasting, referring to the tomato of her dreams. “We’re still not at the point where we have, for this environment, really exceptional flavor and optimal production characteristics.”

Nationwide, the tomato has played a symbolic role in a widespread reevaluation of our food system. The pale, hard supermarket tomatoes of January have been exhibit A in discussions about low-wage labor and food miles. Seasonally grown heirloom tomatoes have helped us understand how good food can be with a little attention to detail.

But that’s just the tip of the market basket, because Dawson’s project seeks to strengthen a middle ground—an Upper Midwest ground, actually—in the food system. With chefs, farmers and breeders working together, your organic vegetables should get tastier, hardier, more abundant and more local where these collaborations exist.

Please continue reading this story on the Grow magazine website.

Note: The Seed to Kitchen Collaborative is one of the projects that will be featured at the upcoming Horticulture Showcase on Thursday, Sept. 15, and there are still tickets available to a dinner event featuring the work of the Collaborative that will take place immediately after the showcase.