UW Crops Team competes in Chicago Collegiate Crops Judging Contest

On November 19, the UW Crops Team placed 8th out of 10 teams in the Chicago Collegiate Crops Judging Contest. The contest was held at the Loyola University downtown Chicago, IL campus and is sponsored by the CME Group, GROWMARK, American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and the Society of Commercial Seed Technologists.

crops-teamThe Crops Team consists of undergraduates Katelyn Van Treeck, Rachel Perry, Clare Gietzel, and Jacqui Hilliard. The team was advised and coached by volunteers Dan Smith and Nate Drewitz.

The contest consisted of weed, disease, and crop identification, grain grading, and seed analysis. In the identification portion of the contestant they were given plant and seed samples and had to identify common crops, wheat varieties, common diseases of corn, soybean and small grains, and weeds. In the grain grading portion of the contest they were required to grade barley, corn, oats, rye, sorghum, soybeans, and wheat according to USDA Federal Grain Inspection Service standards. In the seed analysis portion they were required to identify seeds of common crops, weeds, restricted and noxious weeds.

The Crops Team is part of Badger Crops Club and travel to the contest was made possible through a generous grant from the Wisconsin Certified Crop Advisors.

Congratulations, Crop Team!

(story by Dan Smith)

In Memoriam: 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 11:00 am today (Oct. 18), the GoFundMe drive had raised more than $92,000 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

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New Jackson lab manuscript on plant-associated soil microbes

The Randy Jackson lab has released a new manuscript titled “Bioenergy cropping systems that incorporate native grasses stimulate growth of plant-associated soil microbes in the absence of nitrogen fertilization”.

Abstract:

The choice of crops and their management can strongly influence soil microbial communities and their processes. We used lipid biomarker profiling to characterize how soil microbial composition of five potential bioenergy cropping systems diverged from a common baseline five years after they were established. The cropping systems we studied included an annual system (continuous no-till corn) and four perennial crops (switchgrass, miscanthus, hybrid poplar, and restored prairie). Partial- and no-stover removal were compared for the corn system, while N-additions were compared to unfertilized plots for the perennial cropping systems. Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) and Gram-negative biomass was higher in unfertilized perennial grass systems, especially in switchgrass and prairie. Gram-positive bacterial biomass decreased in all systems relative to baseline values in surface soils (0–10 cm), but not subsurface soils (10–25 cm). Overall microbial composition was similar between the two soil depths. Our findings demonstrate the capacity of unfertilized perennial cropping systems to recreate microbial composition found in undisturbed soil environments and indicate how strongly agroecosystem management decisions such as N addition and plant community composition can influence soil microbial assemblages.

You can read the manuscript here (PDF).

4th Annual Agroecology Barn Dance!

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barn-dance-2016

It’s that time of year again to show off your dancing skills and enjoy some great company! The 4th Annual Agroecology Barn Dance is here! This years dance will have live music, provided by the band Thirsty Roots with caller Steve Pike. Delicious vegetable stew, bread, and apple cider are included with your ticket price.

Date: October 22nd, 2016
Time: 7:30pm-10:30pm (doors open at 6:30)
Location: The Cates Family Farm – 5992 County Road T, Spring Green, WI 53588

ONLINE TICKETS (available until Oct. 21st @ 11:30pm)
$15 Students | $20 General |
$7 Kids 8 and Up | Kids under 8 Free
http://aebarndance2016.brownpapertickets.com/
TICKETS PURCHASED AT DOOR
$20 Students | $25 General catesfarm2
$10 Kids 8 and Up | Kids under 8 Free

Because this is Wisconsin, plenty of beer will be available by donation and we will be having a meat raffle. There will also be assorted desserts available by donation.

Camping is available on the farm for free for those who would like to spend the night and enjoy the Driftless scenery a bit longer. There will be no dogs allowed this year, as the cattle will be in the pasture.

Come join us and enjoy the beautiful Cates Family Farm! All proceeds benefit research by the students of UW-Madison’s Agroecology Program. Hope to see you there!

Please contact Sam Asper (asper@wisc.edu) with any questions.

You can also check out the Facebook event here: https://www.facebook.com/events/353370345008960/

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Molly Jahn to speak at lecture series

May 7, 2017
Challenges of Feeding the World in 2050
Molly Jahn, Professor, UW-Madison Agronomy and Genetics departments

Molly is participating in a lecture series titled “Farming, Food, and Responsible Fruitfulness” organized by Bethel Lutheran Church’s environmental awareness program. The lectures, which take place at the church at 10 a.m. on various Sundays between Oct. 16 – May 7, cover topics such as relationships and challenges of agriculture and food distribution, land, water and energy use, urban and rural connections, food for the future, and food for the planet.

See more information on the lecture series here.

Ag Students Gain Experience in Summer ARS Internships

CALS undergraduate students participate in many “beyond the classroom” experiences during their time in college. Summer is a particularly popular time for those experiences, giving students the opportunity to take on internships, jobs and volunteer experiences related to their academic interests. Below we highlight two CALS students who spent the summer working as interns at the Arlington Agricultural Research Station.

Rachel Perry: Scouting the fields

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Rachel Perry

Rachel Perry has been involved in agriculture her whole life. Growing up on a farm in Waupun, Wis., she helped her family grow soybeans, corn and cannery vegetable crops and was also involved in 4-H and FFA. Perry was inspired by a high school agriculture teacher, Tari Costello, as well as her parents to pursue agriculture at UW-Madison. She is now a senior majoring in Agronomy with a certificate in Environmental Studies and Global Health, and she also serves as president of the Badger Crops Club and vice president of the Babcock House Cooperative.

This summer, Perry expanded her agriculture interests further as the Crop Scout/Agriculture Safety Intern at Arlington. She scouted fields for weeds, insects and diseases and monitored four different insect traps. She also updated safety kits and information around the station and pitched in to help the station superintendents wherever she was needed.

One of Perry’s favorite parts of her time at Arlington was the diversity of her work. “Every day there was something different happening, something different to learn,” she says. “Since it’s a research farm, there were things not common on regular farms, but there were also a lot of similarities to many of the farms in Wisconsin. Seeing both of these sides made it very interesting and educational.”

Perry was also given the opportunity to talk with Extension agents in various counties throughout the summer and learn what work in Extension entails. She says her time at Arlington helped confirm her desire to become involved with Extension after graduation. She hopes to be part of the outreach efforts to help farmers solve their problems by bringing university research to them.

Ryan Seffinga: Advancing precision agriculture

Ryan Seffinga spent a good part of his summer driving an ATV. But this wasn’t an ordinary ATV – it was fitted with a GPS receiver, a cellular modem and a monitor, all to collect data from the over 500 fields at Arlington. Seffinga says his time on the ATV driving around the fields, collecting data and familiarizing himself with the station was some of his favorite time during his internship.

His time was well spent as the equipment and data he collected is part of a farm management system that Seffinga established at the research station over the course of the summer. The new system advances precision agriculture technologies and will allow for easier data management by allowing users to view yields across harvested fields, plan for future field operations and more.

Seffinga’s interest in farm machinery and technology started many years ago as he grew up next to a John Deere dealership in Durand, Wis. He brought that interest to his internship and to UW-Madison where he is currently a senior studying Biological Systems Engineering with a focus on machinery. On campus he is part of the Badger Pulling Team that takes part in the ¼ Scale Tractor Design competition and is involved with the Engineers in Business student organization.

After graduating in December of this year, he plans to pursue a position in design engineering with an ultimate goal of starting his own engineering and sales business. Seffinga says his time at Arlington has shaped his goals and helped him realize the importance of precision agriculture. “I now know that the agricultural industry is investing more money into the precision side of things. By remaining in this part of the industry, I can expect tremendous opportunities to present themselves, especially in new product development.”

(Source)

Boy Scout Plant Sciences Badge Day

Last Saturday, Aug. 20, Kevin Cope, a graduate student in Jean-Michel Ané’s lab, organized the second annual Plant Science Merit Badge Workshop for Boy Scouts. The workshop was held in conjunction with the Plant Sciences Graduate Student Council (PSGSC) with help from PSGSC president Chris D’Angelo, a graduate student in Irwin Goldman’s lab. Boy Scouts from across Wisconsin and parts of Illinois attended, and 48 scouts earned the badge. More than 15 graduate student volunteers from several different departments and programs helped with the workshop.

Scouts attending the workshop took part in lectures, hands-on experiments, and tours of the D.C. Smith Greenhouse and the Allen Centennial Gardens. Said one parent who attended the workshop, “My son commented on how much they learned and came home in very good spirits after a long day. We’ve been to many different merit badge workshops…[This] was one of the best run and highest-quality workshops we’ve seen.”

This is the second time Kevin, who serves as vice president of PSGSC, has organized this workshop with the student council. They plan to continue offering this merit badge workshop in the future so that young men interested in plant science can learn more and enjoy the facilities that UW–Madison has to offer. They are also interested in expanding the workshop to involve young women and welcome ideas about how to do that. Contact Kevin at kcope@wisc.edu with any questions or suggestions.

(Source)

 

Breeding for Flavor

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Picture: A team of students led by horticulture professor Julie Dawson (center, in cap) and agronomy professor Bill Tracy (second from left) prepare vegetables for the chef’s tasting. The students conduct a tasting of their own to determine which varieties go on to the chefs.

CALS scientists are breeding new varieties of produce that not only are delicious, but also will thrive in organic growing systems. And in a new collaboration called “Seed to Kitchen,” they’re partnering with chefs and farmers to help determine what works best.

By Erik Ness

Chef Tony Miller, Estrellón, takes a seat with colleagues Jonny Hunter of the Underground Food Collective and 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.”

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.

Julie Dawson decided she wanted to be a farmer at age 8. By her senior year in high school she was hooked on plant breeding and working on a project developing heat tolerance in beans. By the time she finished college, Dawson had a strong background in both plant breeding and participatory research. During her graduate education she began breeding wheat for organic systems. As a postdoc in France, she started working on participatory breeding with bakers and farmers, focusing on organic and artisanal grains.

In September of 2013, Dawson attended a conference organized by food impresario Dan Barber, author of The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, the conference gathered chefs and breeders from across the country to talk about flavor. Barber knew what could happen when chefs and breeders talked because he was already working with Dawson’s graduate advisor at Washington State, wheat breeder Stephen S. Jones.

In the 1950s, as grocery stores replaced corner markets and California’s Central Valley replaced truck gardens, the vegetable market began to value sizes and shapes that were more easily processed and packed. That a tomato could be picked early in Florida and ripen during the boxcar ride to Illinois was more important than how it tasted. Pesticides and fertilizers also became more common, buffering differences between farms and providing a more uniform environment. Packing houses and national wholesalers dominated the market, and vegetable breeding followed.

Breeders have at their disposal a huge variety of natural traits—things like color, sugar content and hardiness. Over the course of decades they can enhance or inhibit these traits. But the more traits they try to control, the more complex the breeding. And flavor has been neglected over the last few decades in favor of traits that benefit what has become our conventional food system. “Breeders were targeting a different kind of agricultural system,” explains Dawson.

Barber wanted to reverse that trend, to connect farmers and plant breeders and chefs. It appealed to Dawson’s sense of where food should be going. “Breeding for standard shapes and sizes and shipping ability doesn’t mean that breeders aren’t interested in flavor,” she says. “It just means that the market doesn’t make it a priority.”

New to Madison, Dawson hadn’t met Tory Miller, but they connected at the Stone Barns Center, and together realized Madison was the perfect place to pursue this focus on flavor: A strong local food movement supporting a dynamic and growing number of farms, world-class chefs, and—through CALS’ Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics Program—one of the highest concentrations of public plant breeders in the world.

They decided to get started in the summer of 2014 by growing a collective palette of many varieties of the most common vegetables. Dawson approached the breeders, Miller rallied the chefs, and both reached out to their network of farmers. “The main idea of the project is to get more informal collaboration between farmers and plant breeders and chefs—to get the conversation started,” says Dawson. “We can really focus on flavor.”

When the chefs are done tasting tomatoes, they wander over to a table of corn and cucumber. They are magnetized by the different kinds of corn: an Iroquois variety, another type that is curiously blue, and large kernels of a corn called choclo, which is very popular in the Andes.

These are just a few jewels from the collection amassed over four decades by CALS corn breeder Bill Tracy, who works in both conventional and organic sweet corn. Tracy leads the world’s largest research program focused on the breeding and genetics of organic sweet corn, with five organically focused cultivars currently on the market. He was recently named the nation’s first endowed chair for organic plant breeding, with a $1 million endowment from Organic Valley and Clif Bar & Company and a matching $1 million gift from UW alumni John and Tashia Morgridge.

The support gives Tracy more room to get creative, and Dawson is helping to develop potential new markets for his breeds. Despite his focus on sweet corn, Tracy has always suspected there might be interest in corn with more flavor and less sugar. “We know from sweet corn that there are all sorts of flavors and tendencies,” Tracy says. From soups to the traditional meat and potato meal, he thinks savory corn deserves a place.

And building from deep Mexican and South American traditions of elotes and choclo corns, Tracy sees vast potential for new varieties. “Corn is one of the most variable species,” he says. “For every trait that we work with in corn there is an incredible range of variation.”

The chefs went crazy last year when Tracy introduced them to some of the Andean varieties. “Amazing,” says Bonanno of A Pig in a Fur Coat. “I want to make a dish like a risotto or a pasta dish or some type of salad. I don’t want the sweet on sweet on sweet. I just want the corn flavor. I want savory.”

Tracy’s modest sampler inspired chefs Hunter and Miller as well, and they started brainstorming potential growers for 2016. If the experiment takes off, the corn could start infiltrating Wisconsin restaurants this summer.

With so much genetic potential, the chefs help focus the breeding process. “Breeding is a craft,” Tracy says. “The great chefs—and we have some great ones in Madison—are truly artists. They are fine artists at the same level as a fine arts painter or musician. The creativity is just mind-boggling.”

And there is little question that they understand flavor. “They are able to articulate things that we can’t. We might be able to taste the differences, but we can’t say why they are different or why one is better than the other. The chefs are able to do that,” says Dawson. “And that’s useful for the whole food system.”

A food system has so many pieces— chefs, farmers, retailers, processors, consumers—but perhaps the most fundamental unit is the seed. After decades of consolidation in the seed industry and a significant decline in public breeding programs at land grant universities, many sectors of the food movement are turning their attention to seed.

One fortunate consequence of the industry concentration has been to create a market opening for smaller regional and organic seed companies. They, along with a few public breeders, still serve gardeners and market farmers. One goal of the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative is to systematically support breeding for traits that are important for local food systems.

These small companies develop their own breeds, but also adopt interesting varieties from public breeding programs. They have the capacity to target regional seed needs, and are usually okay with seed saving. “It’s almost like working with nonprofits because they are really interested in working with the community,” says Dawson.

After Adrienne Shelton MS’12 completed her PhD in 2014—she studied sweet corn breeding under Bill Tracy— she moved to Vitalis Organic Seeds, where she works with growers to find cultivars best suited for the Northeast. As a graduate student in CALS’ Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics program, Shelton was a leader in establishing the Student Organic Seed Symposium, an annual national gathering to offer information and support to young researchers focusing on breeding organic varieties.

“Getting farmers’ feedback is critical,” says Shelton of the opportunity to work with the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative. “The more locations, the better, especially in organic systems where there is more variation.”

The organic movement deserves a lot of credit for the trajectory of new food movements. “Organic growers often have a higher bar for the eating quality of produce because that’s what their customers are demanding,” Shelton says. “Putting a spotlight not just on the farmers but all the way back to the breeding is helping the eater to recognize that all these pieces have to be in place for you to get this delicious tomato that you’re putting on your summer salad.”

“We try to make the project practical,” says Dawson. “The food system is so complicated. It feels like this is something we can make a difference with. This can help some farmers now, and in 10 years hopefully it will be helping them even more.”

Bill Tracy puts the program in an even bigger context.

“The decisions we make today create the future,” Tracy says. “The choices we make about what crops to work in and what traits to work in literally will create the future of agriculture.”

To read this article in its entirety, please visit http://grow.cals.wisc.edu/food-systems/breeding-for-flavor