Del. Tour Highlights Fruit, Vegetable Research

9/1/2012 7:00 AM
By Michael Short Delaware Correspondent

GEORGETOWN, Del. — A few dozen people climbed aboard haywagons last week to tour some of the cutting edge fruit and vegetable research being done by the University of Delaware.

Disease-resistant lima beans, a bigger onion, lettuce that doesn’t turn bitter and strawberries that last beyond the first few warm days of summer were among the research projects.

The Aug. 21 tour took place at the Elbert N. and Ann Carvel Research and Education Facility located west of Georgetown. The facility is named for a former Delaware governor and features 26,000 square feet of labs, classrooms and offices together with 344 acres of agricultural research land.

It was a low-key evening with people tromping through fields and sampling different strawberry varieties.

At the end of the tour, the farmers and produce growers taste-tested watermelon varieties and then sampled fresh greens, succotash, watermelons and stuffed peppers.

Most of the dinner was grown on the grounds of the research facility.

Much of the research on the annual tour is aimed at significant crops for Delaware growers. Watermelons, field and sweet corn and lima beans were all well represented. All are significant crops in lower Delaware.

Other less common Delaware crops like strawberries, lettuce, blackberries, blueberries, greens and cucumbers are also being studied. In the case of blueberries, the university is doing a joint research study with Hail Bennett of Frankford.

Bennett Orchards grows peaches and nectarines, but Hail Bennett recently planted blueberries. Both he and the university are studying how to best make blueberries a profitable crop for Delaware growers.

Among the challenges is that blueberries need somewhat acidic soil and a high organic content in order to grow well. They are studying different varieties, different types of mulch and different soil additives.

In another plot, watermelon vines had been grafted on to disease-resistant root stock. The difference between the grafted and nongrafted parts of the field was dramatic, with only a handful of living vines in the nongrafted area.

“We’re going to look at some sick watermelons and some not-so-sick watermelons,” said fruit and vegetable specialist Gordon Johnson.

In another field, lima beans were going to be deliberately infected with diseases in order to try to develop more disease-resistant varieties to downy mildew and pod rot.

Researchers are looking at ways to reduce heat stress on lima beans, saying that stress can cause blossom loss.

They are also looking at low tunnel systems as a way of growing mustard greens, collard greens, kale and similar greens in cold weather conditions.

The University of Delaware Extension Vegetable and Small Fruit Program conducts the annual open house.

There were a few questions from the audience, including how seedless watermelons can be grown if they have no seeds.

Johnson said it would take awhile to answer that before moving on to demonstrate how researchers are studying fruit set for watermelons when pollen sources are limited.

The impact of stinkbugs is being studied.

So is the best way to manage water for lima beans. Research is continuing on the development of new and better lima bean varieties.

In one plot, researchers planted corn of different varieties to study how sweet corn can be planted earlier and still have good plant emergence.

Lima bean breeder and Extension agent Emmalea Ernest said there is a demand for corn to be planted earlier. She said some varieties appear to compensate for the poor emergence by developing double ears.

Different varieties of strawberries are being grown in an effort to find a strawberry that will bear fruit beyond the traditional short spring breeding season. Produce markets and pick-your-own farms do a brisk berry business, but it lasts only a short time in southern Delaware.

Different types of tillage, including high stubble, are being studied for lima beans in an effort to find what works best. When the beans are harvested, the amount of nonedible trash harvested will be measured for each of the different types of tillage systems.

Lettuce varieties were also examined to see which bolted early and which maintained their flavor with no bitterness. Ernest said they used a 1 to 4 rating system, with 1 tasting good and 4 being “for customers you never want to see again,” she laughed.

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