Farm to Flavor dinner will feature plant breeding efforts

Farm to Flavor is a signature dinner experience and celebration of Wisconsin food that will be held on Thursday, September 15, 2016 from 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. in the Mendota Room inside Dejope Hall. It brings together the plant breeders, farmers, and chefs responsible for creating a new local cuisine. These co-creators encompass the motto that food is made at the intersection of seed, farm, and kitchen.

Taste the results of collaborative plant breeding in small plates from Madison’s highly acclaimed chefs including, Jonny Hunter of Underground Food Collective, Tory Miller of I’Etoile, Dan Bonnano of Pig in a Fur Coat and Eric Benedict of Café Hollander. Guest speaker Ken Greene of the Hudson Valley Seed Library will kick off a dinner discussion about the intersection of crop varieties, culture and art. Questions about plant breeding, farming and food systems are welcomed throughout the dinner.

Prior to the dinner, from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., a free plant-breeding showcase held at Allen Centennial Garden will give attendees the opportunity to meet leading plant breeders responsible for developing fruits and vegetables adapted for Wisconsin’s organic farms. While sampling the results, attendees will learn how collaborative plant breeding can increase productivity and the profitability of regional organic farms.

The cost to attend the dinner is $35 in advance and $40 the day of the event. Register at

For more information, contact Julie Dawson at or (608) 609-6165.

Atucha awarded Baldwin Grant

The Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment competitive grant program is open to UW–Madison faculty, staff and students. Grants of up to $120,000 and mini-grants of up to $4,000 are awarded.

Ira Baldwin, a longtime UW teacher, researcher and administrator, served as dean of the Graduate School and the College of Agriculture and as vice president for academic affairs. Ineva Reilly Baldwin taught and served in the university administration as assistant dean of women and associate dean of the College of Letters & Science. Their endowment is one of the largest gifts ever received by UW–Madison.

Building a Comprehensive Network of Fruit Growers to Improve Sustainable Production of Fruit Crops in Wisconsin
Christelle Guédot, assistant professor of entomology, and Amaya Atucha, assistant professor of horticulture

Fruit production in Wisconsin contributes over $400 million to the state economy and encompasses large-scale commercial growers, small-scale growers, as well as homeowners. The goal of the project is to develop new avenues for effectively delivering time-sensitive information on environmentally sound pest management practices and sustainable fruit crop production to all fruit growers, with special attention to underserved communities in the state of Wisconsin.

Carrot genomes

Carrot genome paints picture of domestication, could help improve crop 

Carrot color arrangement

Carrots derive their color from pigment compounds called carotenoids. Orange carrots are colored by alpha- and beta-carotene, while red carrots get their color from lycopene, yellow from lutein and purple from anthocyanin. These pigments also provide the nutrition found in carrots. PHOTO COURTESY OF PHIL SIMON, UW–MADISON, USDA-ARS

Sometimes, the evolutionary history of a species can be found in a fossil record. Other times, rocks and imprints must be swapped for DNA and genetic fingerprints.

The latter is the case for the good-for-your-eyes carrot, a top crop whose full genetic code was just deciphered by a team of researchers led by University of Wisconsin–Madison horticulture professor and geneticist Phil Simon. Simon is also a research scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, which helped fund the work. The study is published today in the journal Nature Genetics.

It tells a story of how the carrot has been touched by domestication and breeding practices and influenced by environmental and geologic change, and it fills in a family tree of relatives that otherwise appear distinct. It also reveals how carrots have become so good at accumulating carotenoids, the pigment compounds that give them their characteristic colors and provide them with their nutritional strength.

Photo: Phil Simon

Phil Simon

“The carrot has a good reputation as a crop and we know it’s a significant source of nutrition — vitamin A, in particular,” Simon says. “Now, we have the chance to dig deeper and it’s a nice addition to the toolbox for improving the crop.”

The knowledge gained from the study could also lead to the improvement of similar crops, from parsnip to the yellow-fleshed cassava, a staple food throughout much of Africa.

“This was an important public-private project, and the genomic information has already been made available to assist in improving carrot traits such as enhanced levels of beta-carotene, drought tolerance and disease resistance,” says co-author Allen Van Deynze, director of research at the University of California, Davis’ Seed Biotechnology Center. “Going forward, the genome will serve as the basis for molecular breeding of the carrot.”

Carrots have a long history as a domesticated root crop. The first cultivated carrots appeared 1,100 years ago in Central Asia. These carrots were — unlike their white wild ancestors — purple and yellow. The canonical orange carrot appeared later, in Europe in the 1500s, providing at the time an aesthetic subject for German and Spanish art. Even before domestication, wild carrot seeds showed up in 3,000- to 5,000-year-old primitive campsites in Germany and Switzerland.

The study cannot answer why the first crops were purple and yellow, though it can verify that it is not because of flavor. The genes for color and the genes associated with preferred flavors are not connected. But that colored carrots became popular is fortuitous: The pigments are what make them nutritious, and orange carrots are the most nutritious of all, Simon says. Carrots are the richest crop source of vitamin A in the American diet.

The new study reveals how that orange color happens. “The accumulation of orange pigments is an accumulation that normally wouldn’t happen,” says Simon, one of just a few carrot researchers around the world, along with another UW–Madison scientist, Irwin Goldman, who was not part of this study. “Now, we know what the genes are and what they do.”

Carrots are the richest crop source of vitamin A in the American diet. Vitamin A is an essential nutrient. PHOTO COURTESY OF PHIL SIMON, UW–MADISON, USDA-ARS

Carrots are the richest crop source of vitamin A in the American diet. Vitamin A is an essential nutrient. PHOTO COURTESY OF PHIL SIMON, UW–MADISON, USDA-ARS

The research team used the Nantes carrot — a bright orange form of the vegetable named for a city in France — to assemble and analyze the full genetic sequence, peering into the machinery that drove the carrot’s evolution, and the bread crumbs left through time.

The carrot genome contains more than 32,000 genes arranged among nine chromosomes, which code for pest and disease resistance, colorful carotenoids and more. Carotenoids, like alpha- and beta-carotene, were first discovered in carrots.

The researchers uncovered features traced to distantly related plant species, from grapes and tomatoes to kiwis and potatoes. Carrots more recently split from lettuce and they are in the same family as spice crops, like parsley and fennel.

The researchers also sequenced 35 different types of carrots to compare them to their wild ancestors. They showed carrots were first domesticated in the Middle East and Central Asia, confirming the Vavilov Center of Diversity theory, which predicts cultivated plants arose from specific regions rather than randomly.

They also learned that sometime between the Cretaceous and Paleogene periods — roughly around the time dinosaurs went extinct — carrots picked up genetic advantages common to other plants of the era that allowed them to thrive.

Additionally, the study confirmed a gene called Y is responsible for the difference between white carrots and yellow or orange ones, and that a variation of it leads to the accumulation of carotenoids.

“They could keep their crops ‘clean’ from a patch of wild carrots growing 50 meters away by choosing only the purple or yellow ones. Or maybe it was the food fad of the 10th century …”

Phil Simon

But it also identified a new, previously unknown gene that contributes to the accumulation of the colorful compounds. Both genes are recessive, which means two copies of each are needed for carotenoids to build up in the plant, which is actually a defect in a metabolic pathway that appears to be related to light-sensing.

Plants derive their own nutrition through light-sensing, or photosynthesis, but roots like carrots aren’t normally exposed to light and do not need photosynthetic pigments like carotenoids. “It’s a repurposing of genes plants usually use when growing in light,” says Simon.

It appears these genes were inadvertently selected for by early growers, and Simon suggests it may have simply been to aid early domesticators — likely to have been women — differentiate between wild carrots and the plants they intended to grow.

“They could keep their crops ‘clean’ from a patch of wild carrots growing 50 meters away by choosing only the purple or yellow ones,” says Simon, who jokes: “Or maybe it was the food fad of the 10th century, with orange in the 16th.”

Global carrot consumption quadrupled between 1976 and 2013 and over the last 40 years, breeding has led to more nutritious carrots with the selection of ever more intensely orange crops. In fact, carrots have 50 percent more carotene today than they did in 1970.

While most Americans are not deficient in vitamin A, it is considered an essential nutrient and deficiency is a problem in some U.S. communities and around the world. While the study may not solve the problem, it does highlight the opportunity carrots present to improve health and economic outcomes in other nations.

“Globally, we hand out vitamin A capsules, but why not have people grow their own?” Simon asks. “In one square meter you can grow a single crop of carrots per year to feed up to a half dozen adults. You can grow half now and half in six months to give you a sustainable source of vitamin A and a valuable crop in the marketplace.”

The study also reflects a shift in how plant breeders operate, by taking advantage of new technologies to answer basic questions about cultivated crops.

“It tells us things about the genome we expected but didn’t know before,” says Simon. “Each crop has a story to tell.”

The study also includes co-authors from Michigan State University and around the world, including Poland, Spain, Italy, Turkey, China and Argentina. It was funded by several seed companies and the carrot industry, as well as the National Science Foundation, the Polish National Science Center and the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education. The authors declare no competing financial interests and Simon explains that industry funds make the work possible.

Reposted from:  by Kelly April Tyrell


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

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.

Giant Pumpkin Regatta set for October 10

Chris D'Angelo and Lynn Maher, grad students in the UW Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics program, with the Giant Atlantic pumpkins they helped grow for the UW-Madison's Giant Pumpkin Regatta event, set for Oct. 10, 2015 at the Memorial Union Terrace.

Chris D’Angelo and Lynn Maher, grad students in the UW Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics program, with the Giant Atlantic pumpkins they helped grow for the UW-Madison’s Giant Pumpkin Regatta event, set for Oct. 10, 2015 at the Memorial Union Terrace.

MADISON, Wis. — There’s a fun, alternative way to enjoy the fall harvest: attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Giant Pumpkin Regatta. The event, which features students paddling hollowed-out pumpkins grown by fellow students, is set to take place at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 10, at the Memorial Union Terrace, 800 Langdon St.

Parking is available in the Helen C. White Hall parking ramp, and the festivities will be held at the pier in front of the Wisconsin Hoofers’ outdoor programs office, located on the water level below the Memorial Union Theater.

The event is organized by UW-Madison horticulture professors Irwin Goldman and Jim Nienhuis, with help from the UW’s Hoofer Sailing Club. Racers, called “pumpkin pilots,” are recruited from Goldman and Nienhuis’ class on world vegetable crops. They will paddle hollowed-out, three-foot-wide Atlantic Giant pumpkins – rendered buoyant by tractor-tire inner tubes – through a course set up by sailing club members.

The massive pumpkins were tended by a number of UW students over the growing season, including Chris D’Angelo and Lynn Maher, graduate students in Goldman’s lab who are in the university’s Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics program.

The inaugural Giant Pumpkin Regatta was held in 2005, with the idea to make it an annual event. Mother Nature, however, doesn’t always cooperate.

“We’ve done it a number of times since 2005, but we have had to skip some years due to poor pumpkins,” says Goldman.

Fortunately, 2015 yielded a good crop.