Fruit Breeding Extension and Research

The University of Wisconsin-River Falls Fruit Research Program traces back to rather unique beginnings. Dr. Brian R. Smith’s father (Robert L. Smith) and grandfather started raising some of the first strawberries in Mitchell, South Dakota in the 1940’s. The rigorous prairie climate made it difficult to profitably grow strawberries since no cultivars were sufficiently adapted to the area. Robert Smith started an on-farm strawberry breeding program in the 1950’s, with assistance from Dr. I. C. Haut from the USDA breeding program at Salisbury, MD. Dr. Haut and Mr. Smith made crosses and planted their seedlings to select from on the Mitchell, SD farm. Other selections from Dr. Power’s USDA work at Cheyenne, Wyoming were also used. A superior selection from the Smith breeding program was informally named ‘Dakota Chief’ and was planted in commercial fields during the 1970’s.

In the fall of 1988, Dr. Brian Smith initiated a strawberry breeding program at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, drawing heavily on germplasm developed by his father. The first seedlings of the program were planted on the Smith Farm in Mitchell, as no land was yet available for fruit research on the UWRF campus. Research funding had not been secured yet and very little equipment was available for maintaining plots. In response to Wisconsin grower interest in strawberry breeding and research, Dean Gary Rohde appropriated four acres in late summer 1989 to be used for strawberry research. A second set of seedlings was then established on campus.

Dr. Brian Smith 1998

Dr. Brian Smith 1998

Members of the WBGA (Wisconsin Berry Growers Association) Board of Directors were invited to UW-River Falls for the fall 1989 strawberry meeting and to view the plots. In January 1990, WBGA funding was granted for strawberry research on campus and has been a continuing source of support for 17 years.

Since 1989, the fruit research program at UW-River Falls has grown. Fruit research is conducted in three locations on campus. The Teaching, Research & Extension Facility (TRE) was non-existent when Dr. Smith was hired and was developed under the direction of Dr. Smith from the original 4 acre plot appropriated in 1989 to the 30 acre dedicated facility of today.  The current facility has its own operations building and equipment fleet along with an irrigation system – all surrounded by an 8’ deer fence. This facility is unique in that it is the only one in the entire 26-campus UW-System that is dedicated primarily to fruit breeding.  It also serves as an Extension education site and an outdoor training laboratory for the 115 UWRF horticulture students who are pursuing a bachelor’s degree. An important facet of UW-River Falls fruit research is also conducted in the UW-River Falls greenhouse complex, in which one greenhouse is dedicated entirely to hybridization operations and another greenhouse to plum, strawberry and raspberry seedling culture from the breeding projects.

Over the years, multiple short-term commercial fruit production cultural studies have been conducted. Two additional, very unique on-going breeding projects were initiated, including stone fruit cultivar development in 1991 and cooperative raspberry breeding in 1993. Both continue today alongside the original strawberry breeding program.

The long-term projects currently in progress are described as follows:

Strawberry Breeding

The objective is to develop improved strawberry cultivars for commercial strawberry growers, incorporating fruit size and quality, winter hardiness, pest resistance and high yields in order to improve grower profitability. This project includes general breeding seedling plots, a tarnished plant bug (lygus bug) resistance-breeding project, clonal performance trials and a segment concentrating on pink/red flowered ornamental strawberry cultivar development. Funding sources past/present: USDA, WI Dept. of Agriculture, UW-Coop Research Grants, UW-Coop Extension, North American Strawberry Growers Association (NASGA), Wisconsin Berry Growers Association (WBGA) and Pesticide Use Risk Reduction Consortium (PURR) administered through the EPA and UW-Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS).

Progress thus far: As part of a program initiated in 1988, 59,258 seedlings have been planted with 55,316 identified as sources for selection. In 2006, 21 advanced selections were registered as “Invention Disclosures” to WiSys, in anticipation of potential patenting and release as cultivars to Wisconsin commercial growers. The 50+ entry clonal performance trials are estimated to be the 3rd largest in the U.S.  Set on a revolving 3 year rotation for renewal, breeding selections( usually approximately 20 from the UW-River Falls program and 5-6 from others) and cultivars from all over the world are tested under a randomized complete block/ 4-replicate design. Based on results from this trial, not only are recommendations made to commercial growers on an annual basis regarding which adapted cultivars should be planted but also UWRF selections are identified for appropriateness of use as either breeders and/or as potential new cultivars. In spring 2007, six UW-RF strawberry selections were sent to a commercial nursery to “ramp up” numbers for wide-scale pre-release/patent testing. It is anticipated that at least 1-2 of these selections will be released as new cultivars/selections and patented in the near future.

Raspberry Breeding

The UWRF raspberry program is part of largest raspberry breeding program in North America. It was initiated in 1993 as a cooperative program with University of Maryland, Rutgers University, Virginia PolyTech (Blacksburg) and Five Aces Breeding, L.L.C. The primary impetus for involvement in raspberry breeding was the elimination of the raspberry hybridization project at the University of Minnesota. This left Midwest growers without any potential source for new, adapted cultivars for the area.  The objective of this program is to develop commercially viable summer and fall-bearing raspberry cultivars with superior fruit size and quality, winter hardiness, pest tolerance and high yield.  UW-River Falls is the winter hardiness testing site for the project.   Both advanced selections and seedlings are planted and evaluated. Recently, Dr. Smith developed protocols for conducting the in-house hybridization that has occurred over the past two years to supplement the seedlings that have been sent semi-annually from Five Aces Breeding. The raspberry breeding project also encompasses two very large replicated performance evaluations trials similar to those described under the strawberry breeding project. These trials are also estimated to be the 3rd largest in the U.S. Funding sources have included the WBGA, NABGA (North American Bramble Growers Association), The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (WDATCP) ADD program, UW- System, Applied Research, and various private nurseries.

Progress thus far: Dr. Smith is listed legally as “co-inventor” on 62 unique raspberry selection invention disclosures. Included in these are 7 joint, co-patents on new bramble cultivars-including a blackberry, and summer and fall-fruiting red and yellow raspberries. One of these, cultivars, ‘Caroline’, is considered to be one of the best fall-fruiters grown in North America. The patents are as follows : ‘Anne’ PP # 10,411 (5/26/98), ‘Caroline’ PP # 10,412 (5/26/98), ‘Lauren’ PP # 10,610 (9/22/98), ‘Josephine’ PP # 12,173 (10/30/01),  ‘Emily’ PP # 12,350 (1/15/02), ‘Chesapeake’ blackberry, PP # 13,878 (6/17/03) and ‘Jaclyn’ PP # 15,647 (3/8/05). Since 1993, 100 elite selections have been identified out of a total population of  11,421 seedlings established at the UW-River Falls Fruit Research Facility.  One of these UWRF selections, (OAM-W2), has been propagated by Nourse Farms in MA. Approximately 1,800 plants of this elite clone were distributed to Wisconsin commercial growers in Spring 2007 for widespread trials and feedback.

Evaluation of Overseas Apple Germplasm – Origin: Kazakhstan

This program’s purpose is to grow and evaluate apple seedlings originating in Kazakhstan for important traits to be used in breeding new cultivars. Approximately 650 trees have been planted on campus. Kazakhstan is the center of origin and evolution for apples and contains entire forests of 300-400 year-old genetically diverse trees. Important traits found in these seedlings could represent unique flavors, winter hardiness, pest and stress tolerance, high yield and other important characteristics as yet unidentified. Two USDA expeditions in 1995 and 1996 collected seed from this endangered area and made them available to fruit researchers. Significant gains in apple performance could result from this wild source of genes. This is a cooperative project with the USDA, National Germplasm Repository (NGR) and Cornell University (Geneva). Funding Sources include Cornell University, NGR, and private donations.

Progress thus far: Seedlings have been screened for fruit quality and disease resistance (apple scab, fireblight and cedar apple rust) over a three year period. Twelve superior selections have been identified. This program has also been a great teaching tool for undergraduate classes.

Interspecific – Interploidy Stone Fruit Hybridization – Cultivar Development

This program was initiated in1991 to develop new plum, cherry (since 1983) and apricot cultivars, incorporating fruit quality and winter hardiness for commercial and home orchards. Until the UW-River Falls program was initiated, no research had been conducted to improve these crops for our climate since 1949.  A very promising untapped potential exists for hybridizing high-quality California cultivars with native wild species to improve performance. The existing tart cherry industry in the state could integrate new high quality cherry cultivars immediately into the marketing system.  The new plum and apricot cultivars being developed could improve the agricultural economy of Wisconsin by serving as the basis for an entirely new industry. This is the only program of its type in an 11-state and 3-Canadian province area and could potentially serve that entire area. Significant improvements have already been made over existing cultivars, with several selections close to release as new varieties (cultivars). Funding Sources for this research include USDA, UW-System grants, UW Cooperative Research, WDATCP ADD program, Applied Research program and private donations.

Progress thus far: Over 193 selections have been made from seedlings over the years. ‘Lydecker’ plum was released in 2005, with plant patent # 16,621 awarded 6/6/2006. Over 350 trees of this cultivar were propagated in 2007 by two nurseries (one in Washington and the other in New York) and will be available for commercial growers by Spring 2008. Multiple complex, promising selections await release, including many plumcots, that incorporate plum and apricot characteristics and over 30 % SS. Propagation options and commercialization strategies are key to this project significance. A continuing rootstock trial has been established to investigate performance of new UW-River Falls selections on various rootstocks. Four new plum rootstocks developed at UW-River Falls are in the process of being evaluated. Cooperative efforts continue with a grower near Madison, WI.

Dr. Smith plans to continue all general projects as listed and described above, with the possible exception of evaluation of overseas apple germplasm since all attempts to secure further funding for this work have been unsuccessful. All other breeding and evaluation projects must continue on an annual basis to be effective. In all cases, the valuable germplasm that is generated is on a continuous scale ranging from “early” to “intermediate” or “advanced” status, regarding both potential use in breeding and /or as new cultivars.

Dr. Smith has received substantial public recognition for his work. He received The University of Wisconsin System 2004-2005 “ Wisconsin Idea Fellow” award in recognition of “extraordinary public service and impressive contributions towards “improving the quality of life and economy in Wisconsin.” He also received the  WiSys Technology Foundation and UW-River Falls 2006 WiSys Innovation Scholar Award for “exemplary research… thereby advancing science for the common good” and the Wisconsin Berry Growers Association award for “outstanding service to the berry industry and loyal support of the WBGA”.

Fruit Research Plot 1998

Fruit Research Plot 1998


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