Today marks the start of autumn, a season marked by shorter days, cooler weather and the color of leaves turning into a palette of deep reds and oranges. And autumn wouldn’t be autumn without apples, pumpkins, squash and corn. With support from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Land-grant Universities are conducting research and outreach to ensure your fall is marked by the bounty of the season.
In 1996, approximately two-thirds of the apples sold in the United States were Golden Delicious or Red Delicious. Neither is known for its outstanding texture or flavor, and neither inspires much enthusiasm. Today, consumers and growers are reaping the benefits of advances in apple breeding at the University of Minnesota (U of M), which has one of only three university-based apple-breeding programs in the United States.
Over a century of breeding has led to 27 varieties being released since the breeding and evaluation program began in 1878. Eighteen of those 27 varieties are still available today, including the famous Honeycrisp. Released by U of M apple breeders in 1991, the Honeycrisp now is the fifth most popular apple in the United States. It has become the most widely planted apple tree in the nation, with apples often fetching prices two to three times higher than other varieties. Thanks in large part to its explosively crisp and juicy texture, it has been credited with singlehandedly saving the apple industry in the northern Midwest as well as creating new apple fans.
The University of New Hampshire (UNH) holds the distinction of being home to the largest continuous pumpkin and squash breeding program in North America, started in the 1940s. More than 100 varieties of melons, squash, gourds and ornamental pumpkins produced by this program have become seed varieties for commercial sale and have had an important impact on agriculture in the Northeast. Royalties from the sale of new cucurbit breeds have generated more than $2 million for UNH since the founding of the program.
Many American diets don’t provide enough critical micronutrients. Improving the nutritional quality of crops through plant breeding – called biofortification – is a cost-effective and sustainable way to help address nutritional deficiencies. Sweet corn is one of the most consumed vegetables in the United States and a natural target for micronutrient biofortification.
At Cornell University, researchers mapped genome of sweet corn to identify genes responsible for variations in micronutrients of fresh kernels, including provitamin A, vitamin E, iron and zinc levels. The findings of this genetic mapping study were used to develop and test crop-breeding prediction models, with the goal of aiding rapid and cost-effective development of biofortified sweet corn appropriate for growing in New York and the Northeast.
As you enjoy the splendor of autumn, remember to thank scientists at Land-grant Universities whose research efforts bring the fall harvest to your table.
Top image: Beautiful autumn landscape with colorful foliage in the park. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.