Colorado State University Leading Specialty Crop Research

Researchers in Colorado State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences are helping to solve critical specialty crop agriculture issues and address problems of food safety, food quality and economics. Specialty crops are defined as fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits and nursery crops.

The 2008 federal Farm Bill established the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, which provided $28 million in funding late last year and more than $40 million for future projects that will be awarded later in 2009. Two Colorado State projects are underway that will address threats from pests and diseases and develop methods to improve food safety.

Lawrence Goodridge, assistant professor in the Department of Animal Sciences, received a $1.7 million grant for a four-year study involving researchers at The University of California, Davis, The University of Florida, The Ohio State University, Rutgers University and The University of Guelph, in Canada,  that will establish various sampling methods for evaluating the microbial safety of fresh produce.

"Fresh fruits and vegetables have increasingly become responsible for many cases of food borne illness," said Goodridge, a leading researcher in the area of food safety and food microbiology. "We will develop rapid, sensitive and reliable detection methods that are capable of detecting food borne pathogens and indicators of fecal contamination. Additionally, a risk assessment model will be developed that will determine the types of agricultural water samples that are most likely to contain pathogens, such as E. coli 0157 H7 and salmonella."

Goodridge said crops will first be harvested, washed with large volumes of water and then the wash water will be tested for contaminants. The aim is to develop real-time tests for pathogens and biological and chemical indicators of fecal contamination to monitor the quality of agricultural products and water used to produce them. The bottom line is consumers will be getting safer produce that is tested before it leaves the site where it is grown.

Sustainability is one of the key elements behind an effort involving Howard Schwartz, professor of plant pathology in the Department of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management at Colorado State. Schwartz is teaming with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service and the University of Wisconsin, in addition to New Mexico State University, Washington State University and the J. Craig Venter Institute, on a nearly $1 million, four-year project that will identify and attempt to control thrips and Iris yellow spot virus, both identified as the most important threats to the sustainability of U.S. onion production.

Thrips are tiny insects that puncture plants and suck up the contents. The population of the pest can quickly increase and cause extensive damage to both bulb and onion seed crops. Control of thrips requires frequent pesticide applications. Associated with the increased thrips pressure, Iris yellow spot virus has emerged as a major production challenge. During the last three years, studies with Colorado State entomology Professor Whitney Cranshaw have found a strong association between the incidence of Iris yellow spot virus and reduced bulb yield.

"We will conduct extensive field evaluations of elite cultivars and diverse germplasms of onion for resistance or tolerance to Iris yellow spot virus or thrips," said Schwartz.

Selected plants will be provided to onion breeders and producers in the private and public sectors that will pollinate the plants and cross them with susceptible lines. Seed will be returned to Colorado State for re-evaluation in the field trials and to verify if they are reliable sources of resistance or tolerance to thrips or Iris yellow spot virus.           

Results of both CSU projects will be shared widely with growers, breeders, horticulturalists and students through new and expanded web-based resources.