Potato industry commits $5M to support research

Sevie Kenyon

Madison — Wisconsin’s potato industry has had a strong, decades-long partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s potato researchers, one that has helped place Wisconsin among the top three potato-producing states in the nation. Now, in order to ensure the ongoing strength of this relationship, the industry has made a commitment to raise $5M over the next 10 years to support the university’s program.

“This support stems from the great value that our growers and our potato industry see in the University of Wisconsin-Madison research team and the related research facilities,” says Tamas Houlihan, executive director of the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA).

Continue Reading. . . .

Source: Wisconsin State Farmer, Nicole Miller, UW CALS author

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. –

Supporting Young Women in Science

Sharon Gray’s work in Ethiopia is not done.

The 30-year-old UC Davis postdoc had gone to the African nation to discuss the start of a plant biology research project. She and others — including Associate Professor Siobhan Brady — were in a car, driving on the outskirts of the capital city, Addis Ababa, when a rock came crashing through a window, striking and killing Gray. Brady was not injured.

Now, to preserve her legacy of mentorship, and hopefully bring this scientist to the United States,Gray’s family is raising money via GoFundMe to mentor women in science. “The mission of this current campaign is to make something positive out of this tragedy,” Markelz wrote for the GoFundMe site.

He said the family is discussing the exchange proposal with multiple institutions, including UC Davis and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where Gray received her Ph.D. Meanwhile, as of around 12:45 p.m. today (Oct. 11), the GoFundMe drive had raised more than $63,000 toward its $200,000 goal.

Memorial Fund: https://www.gofundme.com/sharonbethgray

Article detailing Sharon’s life and mentoring: https://www.ucdavis.edu/news/sharon-grays-mentorship-lives-on

Phil Simon Receives Lifetime Achievement Award

Horticulture professor Phil Simon is the recipient of the National Association of Plant Breeders Lifetime Achievement Award for 2016.

Phil Simon 2015Simon was selected based on his outstanding achievements and cutting edge research as a carrot breeder and geneticist, as well as the distinguished service and exceptional leadership he has provided on a regional, national and international level.

The award, given out to one person each year, recognizes individuals who have given distinguished long-term service to the plant breeding discipline in areas such as breeding/genetics research and publication, education (graduate or undergraduate training), extension outreach, and regional, national, and/or international leadership.

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 athttp://bit.ly/2bh7dtv.

For more information, contact Julie Dawson at dawson@hort.wisc.edu or (608) 609-6165.

CALS Vegetable Breeders Leave Their Mark

Tucked behind campus’ Walnut Street Greenhouses sits a nondescript brick building known colloquially as the “Carrot and Beet Lab.” It doesn’t look like much, but its exterior tells the story of an important campus legacy. Etched into its walls are various names, dates and symbols carved by UW-Madison faculty, staff and students who were—or are—involved in the university’s carrot and beet breeding research efforts.name.

The small building, built in 1910, originally functioned as a barn to house campus animals. In 1949, it was converted into a cooler to store carrot, beet and onion roots by Warren “Buck” Gabelman, who grew into an internationally respected plant breeder over the course of his 42 years with the Department of Horticulture. Ever since, the facility has functioned as a common space for campus’ various vegetable breeding labs.

Irwin Goldman, professor and chair of the horticulture department, recalls students and researchers nicknaming the building “The Clubhouse” which accurately portrays the building as a common ground used for lunch breaks, yard games, and conversation.

“Yes, it’s a campus building. Yes, it’s a place where we house our research materials, but it is also a gathering place, a place for people to play cards at lunch time and park their bikes,” says Goldman, who has been in charge of the Carrot and Beet Lab for the past 24 years.

From early on, as students and researchers moved on from the lab, they began carving their names on the south-facing wall to commemorate their time spent there. Thus, a new tradition was born.

One of the bricks bears the name of Robert Kane, who works as a plant breeder in the horticulture department. According to Kane, who has witnessed the evolution of the wall over time, the names are like a family tree of campus’ vegetable breeders. While each engraving represents a unique individual, the wall gives viewers a sense of the depth of the Lab’s alumni and current membership and the cumulative impact of their efforts.

“I’ve heard UW-Madison referred to as ‘the well’ of horticulture because of its variety and depth of talent,” says Kane. “If researchers needed anything—from someone with decades of professional experience to a fresh pair of eyes—they would go to ‘the well’ to recruit new team members.”

Upon close inspection, the wall contains the names of a number of veggie celebrities such as Warren Gabelman, Rodger Freeman, Fred Bliss and JF “Rick” Watson II. All trained at UW-Madison and carved their names before going on to make influential contributions to the world of agriculture.

“These are people in our field who are now legendary figures, but who all once trained there in the modest little place called the Carrot and Beet Lab,” says Goldman.

The carving tradition still lives on today. With the names of such famous predecessors written just to the left or the right of fresh signatures, one can’t help but wonder what incredible accomplishments these recent graduates might achieve.

Originally posted by:  Gilliane Davison, student employee, CALS Office of External Relations in ecals newsletter Friday, August 5th, 2016

Irwin Goldman and Beets – a Retrospective

Source:  uwmadscience.news.wisc.edu – Chris Barncard

For all the moments while writing about research at UW–Madison in which I’ve been moved by a scientist’s passion for their work, the one that resurfaces most in my (admittedly shallow) memory comes from a Wednesday night in 2010.

Irwin Goldman

Irwin Goldman

My wife and I came to campus for a talk by Irwin Goldman, a plant geneticist and horticulture professor, in the weeklyWednesday Nite @ The Lab series. The title — “The Beet Goes On: Health, Nutrition, and Social Justice from an Under-appreciated Root Vegetable” — was not flashy. I mean, it was about beets. I don’t even know why we were interested enough to show up, other than we did grow beets in our garden. And we didn’t have any kids yet.

“This is a subject that is very dear to my heart,” said Goldman as an opener. “So it’s an honor to talk about it.”

Remember: “It” = beets. He’s talking about beets.

“And here, thanks to WN@TL’s extensive, indispensable video library, is Goldman’s first presentation slide:”

Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 12.08.52 PM

That’s heavy stuff. It’s bolted to the Statue of Liberty. It might seem over the top for a beet lecture.

But let me tell you something, with apologies to Emma Lazarus: Here at our lake-lapped, sunset gates stands a mighty grower with a torch whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and his name is Irwin Goldman.

He is a poet of root vegetables. He is the only person in the public sector in the United States working on table beet genetics. He knows everything about anything horticultural that has happened at UW–Madison, and he is unfailingly pleasant about sharing.

Here are things I know now because I spent an hour with Irwin Goldman in 2010:

  • Sucrose was first identified from beets.
  • Napoleon was spurring innovation through X Prize-style contests way back in the 19th century.
  • Wisconsin produces more table beets than any other state.
  • As many as 14 percent of us cannot absorb betacyanin, the red pigment in beets, so it gets excreted in our urine. And that looks scary.
  • The earthy flavor of beets owes a lot to the presence of geosmins, compounds produced by dying bacteria. Geosmins also contribute to that great smell that follows a good rain.

I might not know any of that — or anything about the modest Prof. Irwin Goldman — without Wednesday Night @ The Lab (WN@TL), which celebrates roughly 10 years of weekly presentations tonight when Carol McCartney of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey delivers “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants in the Digital Age: A Look at Charles Van Hise’s Field Notebooks.”

Fittingly, Van Hise is the guy who first articulated the Wisconsin Idea, and WN@TL is a window on the people still giving that idea life more than a century on from Van Hise.


Tom Zinnen

“Wednesday Nite @ the Lab helps keep the public connected to their public, land-grant research university,” Tom Zinnen, coordinator of the WN@TL series, told the Wisconsin Alumni Association, a WN@TL sponsor along with the UW Biotech Center, UW-Extension and Wisconsin Public Television. “This series has provided an opportunity for the public to stay connected to groundbreaking research activities, and we look forward to showcasing even more innovation over the next 10 years.”

Since the night (pardon me, the Nite) I learned more than I ever bargained about beets, WN@TL presenters have taught me about vaccines, cancer treatment, bird flu, frac sand mining, animal research ethics, plant diseases, polar vortices and a new branch of our family tree. Among other things.

I’ve watched it in person. I’ve watched it in overflow rooms. I’ve watched it from a roaming crowd touring lab buildings. I’ve watched it on TV at 3 a.m. with a fussy infant in my arms. And I recommend it to you.

You can soak in the science on 50 Wednesday nights every year in person at 7 p.m. in Room 1111 of the Biotechnology Center, 425 Henry Mall, watch live online, pick through the archives, or catch it on Wisconsin Public Television.

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 Vegetablegrowersnews.com

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.