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Hort is Hot!

The Department of Horticulture is a hothouse of activity, using new technologies to address big issues—such as creating new markets, fighting climate change, using water wisely, and reducing pollution.
by Craig Cramer


When Thomas Björkman, PhD ’87, looks at a humble head of broccoli, he sees green. He’s leading a project to help growers cash in on growing interest in healthy, local foods and to nurture a $100 million East Coast broccoli industry.

The project will reap environmental rewards too, by reducing reliance on scarce West Coast irrigation water and limiting greenhouse gases emitted during cross-country transport. A $3.2 million U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant—with an additional $1.7 million in contributions from private companies—is fueling this project.

Thomas Bjorkman

Björkman with his broccoli research team.

“Today, 90 percent of the broccoli we eat on the East Coast comes from California or Mexico. So our goal is to build an East Coast broccoli industry that can provide a continuous, year-round supply and cut down on all that coast-to-coast shipping,”
says Björkman, an associate professor in the Department of Horticulture based at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (NYSAES) in Geneva, N.Y. The project team includes scientists at eight universities and the USDA, plus 11 collaborating seed companies, distributors, and retailers.

“It costs about $7,000 to ship a truckload of broccoli from the West Coast, notes Björkman. “And half of that load is just the ice to keep it cold on the way.” Shorter trips mean less fuel, less ice, and the possibility of replacing cardboard shipping crates with reusable plastic bins.

Virtually all commercial broccoli varieties were developed for California growing conditions and don’t perform well in the East. Phillip Griffiths, a colleague of Björkman’s, has been selecting breeding lines of broccoli better suited to the East. He and other public breeders are poised to test promising varieties at four research stations and on farms up and down the East Coast.

Part of that testing will include analyzing levels of glucosinolates, antioxidants, and minerals. “Nutrition is a big reason consumers buy broccoli. We need to make sure the new varieties are at least as healthy as current ones,” Björkman says.

Extension educators will form five grower networks to share knowledge about how to grow and market the crop. Seed company partners will breed new varieties and gear up seed production. And packer-shippers will begin working out distribution logistics.

Miguel Gómez, an assistant professor in CALS’ Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, will develop crop budgets for growers, identify cost-effective distribution systems, and assess just how much consumers value the “localness” of the East Coast broccoli.

Björkman and his colleagues are carrying on a tradition of cutting-edge horticulture dating back to 1889, when Liberty Hyde Bailey became the department’s first chair. Bailey was a horticulture pioneer and also an advocate for nature study, women’s education, and strong rural communities. He’d likely feel right at home in today’s Department of Horticulture. “We’re not just about producing crops and growing food,” says Marvin Pritts, the department’s chair. “In everything we do, we consider environmental sustainability and impacts on human well-being.”

The department’s basic research delves into crop physiology, biochemistry, and genomics, while applied research and extension programs address the needs of gardeners, turf managers, greenhouse growers, urban foresters, cut-flower producers, and myriad other audiences. The merger last summer of the Ithaca-based Department of Horticulture and the Department of Horticultural Sciences at NYSAES in Geneva has strengthened collaborations between these two groups of scientists. Students are among the big beneficiaries of the merger, notes Pritts, as new technology makes it easier for Geneva faculty to take a more active teaching role.

New roots

Taryn Bauerle
University Photography

Taryn Bauerle (left) with post doctoral associate Michela Centinari and Nathan Dykes, DVM ’74, chief of veterinary imaging, uses a CT scanner to explore the unseen world of roots.

New technology also makes for radical changes—and unusual collaborations.

Taryn Bauerle, who joined the department in 2009, studies root biology. “One of the difficulties doing root research is that you can’t see them,” she says. “So our lab is adapting technology from other fields—like medicine—to help us see what we can only imagine is going on underground.”

One of her graduate students is growing trees hydroponically to see how roots respond to moisture stress and then analyzing the roots using a small CT scanner. For larger specimens, Bauerle’s lab is using imaging equipment at the College of Veterinary Medicine normally used on cows and horses.

Bauerle is part of a $5 million multi-institution project using moisture sensors and wireless technology to detect when plants need water in nurseries, greenhouses, and green roofs. “Our part is to characterize the variability of how roots grow in time and space, so we can create computer models that will help us know when to water and how much to water. The system will help save water and reduce pollution,” she notes.

Jenny Kao-Kniffin
University Photography

Jenny Kao-Kniffin (above right), shown with grad student Kevin Panke-Buisse, is developing interactive applications for GPS-equipped mobile devices so turf managers can check detailed soil characteristics, weather data, and more. Liberty Hyde Bailey (left), shown here with his publications, had to rely on print to get out the word.

Another Hort newcomer is Jenny Kao-Kniffin, a microbiologist and urban weed ecologist who joined the faculty just last year.

“I focus on human-managed landscapes, which are much different from farmers’ fields,” she says. “More people live near turf than farm fields. That makes managing turf weeds more complicated, but it’s exciting working with the human dimensions.”

Her goal is to develop weed-suppressive landscapes that rely more on cultural and biological management practices, which is especially important with increased pesticide regulation. Kao-Kniffin plans to develop applications for GPS-equipped mobile devices that will—based on location—help professional turf managers develop site-specific plans that take into account soil characteristics, weather data and other environmental factors, and even what local laws apply. Turf managers will use the applications to report pest outbreaks and seek advice, feeding information into a network of experts on campus, extension educators around New York, and other practitioners on the front line, Kao-Kniffin says.

“It’s a system that relies more on information flowing in many directions through a network,” she adds. “It’s a 21st-century vision of extension.”

Farmers fight climate change

To better prepare farmers for the future, David Wolfe, a professor in the department, has been helping farmers cope with a changing climate that includes longer growing seasons, fewer but more-intense rains, and more heat stress for crops. Now he’s heading up a first-of-its-kind five-year, $4.7-million, USDA–funded project to help farmers become part of the solution to climate change.

David Wolfe
University Photography

David Wolfe is heading a five-year, $4.7-million project to help farmers become part of the solution to climate change.

Farmers can play a big role in fighting climate change by sequestering carbon in their soils, more carefully managing nitrogen fertilizer, and reducing their energy use, says Wolfe. “And there are many co-benefits, including improved profits and soil health for farmers, and environmental protection and food safety for everyone.”

Wolfe and a team of climate modelers, crop and soil scientists, biogeochemical modelers, mapping specialists, and economists will be working in corn-growing regions in New York, Iowa, and Colorado to develop low-cost, accurate ways to assess soil carbon levels and sequestration, as well as new tools to manage and account for energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

One focus will be nitrogen fertilizer management, with Harold van Es and Jeff Melkonian, MS ’83, PhD ’94, of the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences taking the lead. Antonio Bento, an associate professor in the Dyson School, will look at how economic incentives and energy savings could speed adoption.

“We’ll be able to apply what we learn working with corn to other crops in New York and elsewhere,” says Wolfe, who has traveled to Capitol Hill to brief policymakers on climate change and to Africa to assess how farmers there might benefit from carbon offsets.
Setting ambitious goals like these has helped the Department of Horticulture thrive in a changing world.

“We take seriously our role as part of the ‘land grant university to the world,’” says chair Pritts. “We know that our work will have impact not just in New York, but across the country and around the planet.”