Federal grant awarded for organic tomato research led by Purdue

October 1, 2014  

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Purdue University has received a $2 million federal grant to lead multi-institution research on breeding new varieties of organic tomatoes that would resist foliar diseases and still have the delicious taste that consumers want.

The grant, awarded by the Organic Research and Extension Initiative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, will also enable researchers to identify management practices that reduce disease pressure while protecting soil and water quality.

Lori Hoagland, assistant professor of horticulture at Purdue, is heading the project that includes researchers from North Carolina State University, North Carolina A&T University, Oregon State University, University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Organic Seed Alliance.

The research reflects increasing consumer interest in organic crops, said Jay Akridge, Glenn W. Sample Dean of Purdue Agriculture.

"Research like Dr. Hoagland's is helping farmers improve productivity and profitability in their organic and low-input systems so they can take advantage of the demand and meet the needs of this growing market," Akridge said.

The researchers will look into ways farmers can avoid foliar pathogen diseases such as early blight, late blight and Septoria leaf spot. The issue is especially important in the Midwest and Southeast regions of the U.S. where warm, humid conditions favor these diseases and severe outbreaks can destroy tomato crops.

Tomato growers often plant heirloom varieties rather than newer disease-resistant hybrids because of the heirlooms' appetizing taste. But heirloom varieties tend to be highly susceptible to foliar diseases.

Frequent application of copper fungicides can help organic growers manage foliar diseases. But copper can kill microorganisms in soil that help plants grow and can affect water quality. Growers could forgo copper applications if a new, resistant, sweet-tasting variety were produced.

Conventional growers also could benefit from such new varieties because they would reduce the amount of pesticides they use, thereby lowering their costs.

The researchers will work on breeding tomato varieties that can connect with beneficial soil microbes in their roots that help them fight diseases, Hoagland said. They will also investigate management practices that favor these beneficial soil microbes and identify new organic fungicides that are more environmentally friendly.

Vegetable producers will contribute to the four-year project.

"The growers will be intimately involved in all phases of the research, especially the breeding component," Hoagland said. "The growers will help us identify key plant traits, and final selections will be conducted on working farms."

Other Purdue researchers involved in the project are Tesfaye Mengiste, professor in botany and plant pathology and Dan Egel, Extension plant pathologist. 

Writer: Emma Hopkins, 765-494-8402, hopkine@purdue.edu 

Sources: Lori Hoagland, 765-494-1426, lhoaglan@purdue.edu

Jay Akridge, 765-494-8391, akridge@purdue.edu

Ag Communications: (765) 494-2722;
Keith Robinson, robins89@purdue.edu
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