Tomorrow’s tomatoes grow in Yolo County today. So do better peppers, sweeter melons and dozens of other improved crops.
Searching for the next veggie sensation? Growers likely saw it here first at the American Seed Trade Association national vegetable trials.
Why Yolo? Great weather, ideal soil and lots of people who specialize in hybridizing vegetables. That includes UC Davis, home to one of the nation’s top agricultural schools. It’s part of what makes this region America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital.
“California is an awesome place for growing stuff,” said Ken Bradford of UCD’s Seed Biotechnology Center. “A lot of seed companies are located in California; we have the climate. Our state grows half the fruit and vegetables for the entire country. Our goal is to get better crops out to the industry and consumers, and to the market faster.”
ASTA represents more than 700 seed companies directly involved in seed production, distribution, research and development. Each August, hundreds of growers, seed buyers and nursery representatives from at least 25 countries meet with hybridizers and sample the latest introductions at the ASTA trials, which are not open to the public.
“The United States is No. 1 in development and No. 1 in seed production,” said Diane Blazek, executive director of All-America Selections, the seed industry’s equivalent to an Oscar. “Our industry is evolving, plant breeding is evolving. We’re finding out more about plant biology. The work done here doesn’t only help farmers and gardeners in the U.S. but around the world.”
UCD researchers are studying several specific crops, from coffee to tomatoes, to crack their genetic codes and find shortcuts in hybridizing.
“There’s an emerging seed industry cluster around UC Davis,” Bradford said. “Eighty seed industry members are within 100 miles of campus including eight out of the 10 largest global seed companies. We’re convenient.”
At the seed trials, potential growers and sellers walked through farm fields with shopping lists, selecting new veggies for their clients. Many of these varieties are so new, they don’t have names, just numbers.
But soon, these new introductions will be showing up in local farmers markets and grocery stores as well as home gardens. Watch for Midnight Snack purple-black cherry tomatoes (a 2017 All America Selection) and Candy Cane peppers with bright yellow and green stripes that ripen to shades of red.
Years of development and research went into these new varieties.
“People ask, why don’t farmers develop and save their own seed?” Bradford said. “Why don’t you build your iPhone on the kitchen table? This is very complicated stuff.”
At the trials, most growers want two things: Taste and appearance. That’s what sells new varieties to home gardeners or farm stand shoppers. Other factors such – drought, pest and disease resistance as well as time to harvest and reliability – also make some veggies more appealing.
“Our work used to be all about production – how can we increase yield?” Bradford said. “There’s a huge amount of interest now in flavor.”
H.M. Clause, the world’s second largest seed company, bases its breeding program in Davis. For the trials, the French company grows 25-foot patches or rows of similar vegetable varieties next to new introductions for side-by-side comparisons. In addition to seeing fruit on the vine or bush, researchers and buyers can observe firsthand if new introductions truly grow better.
“For each variety that goes commercial, there are 200 that don’t make it,” said Bill Copes, H.M. Clause’s melon man. “The market breeder failure rate is over 99 percent. A new variety doesn’t make it because it doesn’t out-perform what’s already available.”
Is one melon variety more mildew resistant than another? At the trials, potential buyers can see in a glance. How did tomato varieties hold up during the hottest summer in Sacramento history? They can see that, too.
“It takes six or seven generations of self-pollinating plants and growing (a variety) out, just to get it inbred,” Copes added. “With trials, tasting and testing, it’s three or four years before you select a new variety to go commercial.”
Disease and pest resistance can determine a new variety’s success, said Andy Lavigne, ATSA president and CEO.
“We’re looking at bringing old varieties back – ones that were grown regularly before the introduction of chemicals (pesticides and fungicides) – and looking at their characteristics,” Lavigne said. “How do you target that in future breeding programs and take advantage of those old varieties’ assets?”
At UC Davis, graduate students focus on specific goals. A priority is to breed plants that can be harvested with less labor, a major cost for California farmers.
Doctoral candidate Randi Jimenez works with jalapeños, a crop that traditionally must be hand picked. Her peppers grow on the outside of the plant, pointing up instead of hanging down, and all ripen at the same time. That way, a mechanical harvester can cut the crop. The caps of these jalapeños snap right off, eliminating another time-consuming (and eye-watering) step.
“Mechanized harvesting; it’s coming for sure,” Jimenez said. “If we could use less labor, we could keep pepper production in the U.S.”
Some hybrids make progress on one level, but then need more tweaking to take them to the next. Cantaloupes are an example.
For generations, Western Shipper cantaloupe was the industry standard, Copes said. Fragrant when ripe, the Western Shipper develops a golden skin under the characteristic netting. When ready to eat, the stem end always breaks off.
That cantaloupe is sensitive to ethylene, a gas that acts as a plant hormone to regulate growth and development. Apples, pears, bananas and other fruit fully ripen when exposed to ethylene.
But it also can cause cantaloupes to over-ripen or get soft during shipping. Breeders produced a strain of cantaloupe called Harper or LSL (long shelf life) that did not respond to ethylene; it always stays firm and green skinned with the stem firmly attached. Its shelf life in the stores is up to 20 days.
Because of the way Harper melons mature, they can be harvested with two sweeps of the field. That cuts down on labor costs, too; other muskmelon varieties need to be picked four or more times during the season.
These Harper/LSL melons tend to be super sweet, but without the depth of flavor as older varieties.
“Harpers have high sugar level, but low flavor development,” Copes said. Another drawback? No scent or golden color to cue shoppers to ripeness.
“You see people sniffing and sniffing but they never get that cantaloupe scent,” Copes said.
The next step: Bring back the scent and rich melon flavor while keeping new positive traits, too.
“We’re really trying to create new prototypes – all different types of crops with different characteristics,” Copes said. “How to find that flavor, color, texture; that’s one of the fun parts of my job. I’m making something never seen before.”