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President’s Note: The Importance of Long-Term Research Trials for Sustainable Agriculture
Research can be expensive. In agriculture, new crop varieties are developed and released each year. In most cases, these are the result of long-term development and breeding programs – in other words, research.
There is also the split between corporate research and public institutional research. Corporate research tends to focus on plants adapted over a large geographic area, and seeks patents to maintain control of the genetics. In order to sell a new variety, the plants are tested to ensure that they do well in varying climates. This creates a larger market for the seeds or plants. While on the surface this sounds like a wise business decision, I am concerned this approach leads to a narrower genetic pool susceptible to more disease and insect damage, as well as an inability to grow well in a changing climate.
Many land grant universities have cut back on their research in horticulture. The focus is either on large-scale commodity crops (corn, soybean, wheat), or an institution is located in an area where vegetable and fruit crops are still economically important, and the focus is on large-scale production systems.
This presents a challenge for developing local food systems. Most of the developing local food systems rely on locally adapted horticulture varieties. When universities reduce their work on evaluating and developing such crops, growers are forced to use trial and error to determine the varieties that work best in their production system.
An example of this is the research trial the Kerr Center is conducting on elderberries. While elderberries are native to Oklahoma, all plants that have been released have been found in the wild in various locations over the central and eastern United States. This means they may not be adapted beyond the climate/geographic area where they were collected.
The Kerr Center research project is looking at several elderberry varieties to determine their viability for commercial production. The results to date show why long-term research is needed. In this case, three years is a starting point, but more time is needed to have truly meaningful results.
This trial is in its third year, and every year has been different. Plant dormancy broke in January one year, February the next year, and back to January in the third year. Insect pressure has been different each year and on different varieties. In 2020 we are seeing heavy eriophyid mite damage, which has been spotty in previous years. In 2019, we noticed the plants exhibiting nitrogen deficiencies during harvest. We feel this was a result of heavy rains in July and August leaching the fertility out. We increased our fertilizer rates to compensate in 2020. All of these results are different depending on the year.
These results show why elderberries are a perfect example of the need for long term research conducted in varying geographic locations. Elderberry growers are reporting different results when growing the same varieties in different locations. The current recommendation is to select three to five varieties, plant them in your location, and evaluate each variety over several years, before investing in a large-scale planting focused on only one or two varieties.
The University of Missouri has researched elderberries and has a variety trial in place. However, many other institutions have no such programs for elderberries or other crops. Budgets are tight for all institutions, and it is difficult to start new research programs under such conditions.
I wish more public institutions had the funding to expand their programs on fruit and vegetable breeding and variety trials with a focus on local food systems. In this era of tightening budgets, support for such work often falls victim to other priorities. Just remember, while it is expensive to develop new food crop varieties, staying ahead of the new diseases/insects and climate change is critical for successful long-term sustainable local food systems.