Penn State a major player in specialty crop research initiative

University Park, Pa. — Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences will play a key role in a new research effort to support and enhance the nation's specialty-crop production.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Specialty Crop Research Initiative — authorized in the 2008 farm bill — has allocated $28 million nationally for this federal fiscal year, and Penn State is the lead institution or partner on three projects funded for about $7 million of that total.

The funding will help researchers address the unique challenges faced by specialty-crop producers, including rising costs for energy and other inputs, labor shortages due in part to changing immigration policies, and evolving consumer demand and preferences for safe, affordable, nutritious and locally grown produce.

Specialty crops are defined as fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, nursery stock and floriculture crops. This year's farm bill was the first to include dedicated federal research funding for these crops.

"With our existing research portfolio, extension programs and strong connections with growers, the College of Agricultural Sciences was well positioned to respond in this area," said Bruce McPheron, the college's associate dean for research. "We either led or were part of 16 proposals to this initiative, and I would argue that represents a bit of pent-up demand. Our relationships with producers also enabled us to secure the 100 percent nonfederal matching funds required by USDA for these grants."

Nationally, specialty crops constitute a $49-billion-a-year industry. Pennsylvania has a wide diversity of specialty-crop operations, accounting for as much as half of farm receipts. The state is among the national leaders in the production of several specialty crops, including mushrooms (first), pumpkins (third), apples (fourth), grapes (fourth), peaches (sixth) and snap beans (sixth).

Penn State researchers will be involved in the following funded projects:

— Innovative Technologies for Thinning of Fruit. This $1 million project, led by Penn State, is aimed at developing mechanical thinners for use in peaches and other tree fruits. Thinning of blossoms or immature fruit is a labor- and time-intensive process that allows remaining fruit to grow larger, increasing the yield, quality and value of marketable produce.

"We plan to test and refine nonselective thinners, which work in more-or-less random fashion," said principal investigator Paul Heinemann, professor of agricultural and biological engineering. "But we also hope to develop a selective thinner that knows which are the best blossoms or fruitlets to remove. Such a machine will require the use of advanced technologies such as robotics and machine vision."

The researchers also will look at what tree architecture and orchard structure is best suited to mechanization and examine the economic implications of this new technology for growers;

— Comprehensive Automation for Specialty Crops. Under a $6 million grant to Carnegie Mellon University, researchers will address automation in the production of apples and other tree fruits. Penn State's nearly $770,000 portion of the project is led by Tara Baugher, tree fruit extension educator in Adams County. The project is designed to develop and evaluate automation solutions that growers can use to increase labor efficiency, detect insect pests and diseases, monitor plant health, reduce the amount and cost of pesticide and fertilizer applications, and reduce crop damage at harvest; and

— Aligning Consumer Demand, Agricultural Industry Resources and Research and Education to Service Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Markets. Kathleen Kelley, associate professor of horticultural marketing and business management, will oversee the development of a coalition of specialty-crop growers, processors, wholesalers, retailers, researchers and educators to identify market trends and opportunities, as well as research and extension-education needs.

The goal of the $100,000 project, Kelley noted, is to engage industry, government and academia in a series of conversations culminating in a strategic planning workshop to discuss factors influencing consumer behavior and its impact on the Mid-Atlantic food industry. "We'll develop action plans that include best-practice approaches to production, integrated pest management, processing, food safety and understanding consumer behavior," she said.

Last Updated March 19, 2009