Major research boost for U.S. tomato sector

January 21, 2011
Written by Mauricio Espinoza
Jan. 21, Wooster, OH – The Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) has received a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to improve disease control and food safety in the country's multi-million dollar greenhouse tomato industry – which now accounts for nearly 40 per rcent of all fresh tomatoes sold in American supermarkets.

The grant is part of the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI), which was established by the 2008 Farm Bill to support fruit, vegetable, horticulture and nursery crops by developing and disseminating science-based tools to address specific needs.

sally_miller_osu_3917
Plant pathologist Sally Miller is an international expert on diseases of vegetables. PHOTO COURTESY OSU

A crucial need of the greenhouse tomato industry is finding a more systematic and effective way to combat diseases, which threaten the sustainability of this rapidly growing sector of U.S. vegetable production. Annual losses of as much as $1 million due to tomato diseases have been reported in large greenhouse facilities, and a major U.S. hydroponic tomato grower cited diseases as one of the main reasons for filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in recent years. Meanwhile, disease management costs can be prohibitive for smaller operations.

"Greenhouse tomato producers list diseases as the highest risk factor to their productivity and profitability," said Sally Miller, a vegetable pathologist with OARDC and Ohio State University Extension, and the project's principal investigator. "This grant will allow us to look at the systems currently in place and make recommendations for improvements. The industry came to us with this need, and we are responding to it through a comprehensive approach."

THE RESEARCH APPROACH
This approach includes, among others, the identification of critical points for introduction and spread of high-risk pathogens; development of accurate, quick and cost-effective diagnostic tools to detect and identify diseases; generation of best management practices in conjunction with growers; and assessment of the various technologies and recommendations to ensure their effectiveness.

"The challenges facing greenhouse tomato production are different from those of field-grown tomatoes, which means the solutions need to be tailored to this type of production," Miller pointed out. "In greenhouses, mechanical handling can introduce problems that impact the entire system. And the diseases are different, too. You may not have Septoria leaf spot or early blight, but bacterial canker, for example, is expensive to manage and it can take down a whole greenhouse if it spreads."

In addition to helping greenhouse producers control plant pathogens more efficiently and cost-effectively, the project will also focus on preventing foodborne diseases such as salmonella, which have led to recalls and widespread economic losses in field-grown tomatoes in the past decade.

"Looking at plant and foodborne diseases as part of the same management system is a novel approach for this industry," Miller explained. "We will ultimately help producers increase productivity while at the same time improve food safety for the benefit of both industry and consumers."

OHIO A LEADING U.S. PRODUCER
Ohio is one of the leading US. greenhouse tomato producers alongside Arizona, Colorado, Texas, Maine, Pennsylvania, New York, California, Tennessee, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina and Florida.

Despite intense competition from Canada and Mexico, 408 hectares (988 acres) of greenhouse space were devoted to tomato production in the U.S. in 2007, and the industry is expected to grow.

Year-round interest in fresh produce as part of healthful diets is driving this growth, with U.S. consumption of fresh tomatoes jumping 71 per cent between 1991 and 2006. While 67 per cent of U.S. greenhouse tomato production takes place in large facilities, small and medium operations are entering the market as a result of consumer demand for locally grown and specialty produce.

ARDC and OSU Extension are the research and outreach arms, respectively, of Ohio State's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

Mauricio Espinoza is a communications specialist at OSU.

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