Southwest agriculture producers will benefit in the years ahead from two specialty crop projects funded last week by USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Specialty Crop Initiative.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made the announcement about the funding last week. In all, 19 grants totaling $36.5 million for research and Extension to support American farmers growing fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture and nursery crops (including floriculture) were made through the Specialty Crop Initiative as authorized by the Agriculture Act of 2014.
In all, universities and research projects in 12 states received grants, including Texas A&M University and New Mexico State University.
Texas A&M and Extension received $35,418 for “Guar Improvement and Utilization in the U.S. Southwest: A Research and Extension Planning” project. According to the grant proposal, guar [Cyamopsis tetragonoloba (L.) Taub.] is a heat and drought tolerant crop with potential to play an important role in maintaining productivity in the semi-arid to arid conditions of the U.S. Southwest.
The purpose of the grant is to plan expansion of the low-input crop because it is "inexpensive to grow and better suited than nearly any crop grown across the region to thrive in tough dryland conditions in the Rio Grande and Pecos River basins, an area that has suffered from the loss of Ogallala irrigation water and diminishing water availability in the two basins.”
According to researchers, guar will not necessarily suffer should climate change alter the Southwest crop production ecosystem’s temperature and rainfall in coming years.
The proposal is designed to address plant breeding and genetics of guar—the area that has the most potential for improving guar yields and quality, especially since almost all U.S. guar production uses varieties released in 1985 or earlier. A secondary but major focus will be improving production efficiency, and addressing long-term profitability of this crop.
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Guar production in the U.S. currently faces competition from cheap imported guar splits and guar gum. A portion of U.S. guar use can be met by domestic production, especially with a renewed commitment to developing guar varieties that increase yield and preserve/enhance guar gum quality. The project also may address price and supply issues. Current research in U.S. guar is limited by low acreage and no investment by private industry.
This proposal takes a three-step approach to developing and improving guar for Southwest U.S. agriculture. The initial step is to bring together a group of university research and Extension personnel with significant guar experience in a four-state region, including Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona. These guar specialists have been contacted and have agreed to work cooperatively on the project.
Secondly, a series of collaborative meetings will be staged, each session targeting one or more of four specific aspects of development, production and marketing of guar—including producer listening and education meetings, university/industry conference and planning sessions, a guar industrial end-user/research discussion session, and web-based sessions with the food industry to explore similar exchange of information.
Input and ideas generated from these sessions could help participants move forward with a full proposal to pursue priority goals for additional guar funding in subsequent years.
IN NEW MEXICO
New Mexico State University was awarded a $4,404,284 grant for 2016 for the coordinated development of genetic tools for pecans. According to the grant proposal submitted by NMSU, pecans (Carya illinoinensis) are grown in 27 U.S. states by about 25,000 pecan farmers. Pecan production provides a significant economic impact in rural communities across large areas of the country. It is considered a permanent crop, as trees can bear nuts for up to 300 years or more.
New Mexico is currently the second largest pecan producing state in the United States, largely because of the amount of research and development performed at NMSU. The horticultural issues to be addressed by genetic tool development include flowering, severe alternate bearing, disease susceptibility, salinity stress, drought stress tolerance, and micronutrient uptake. Project long-term goals are to increase pecan nutmeat yield and quality, optimize nutritional value, and subsequently stabilize pecan markets by improving major crop limiting characteristics for all U.S. pecan farming regions.
NMSU researchers say genetic variation within the species allows for differential adaptation in wide ranges of environments, and unraveling the genetics of several genotypes will allow for identification of genes controlling specific traits. Data obtained by this research will allow development of vital genetic tools necessary for increasing understanding of regional adaptation, promoting conservation, and selecting improved cultivars/rootstocks for all major farming regions. All sectors of the industry will benefit—nurseries, producers, nutmeat marketers, consumers, and the interdisciplinary research community.
Pecan, a Native American Algonquin word describing a "nut requiring a stone to crack" (Trumball, 1872), is North America's most economically valuable native tree nut. Its cultivation affects farmers and farm communities across the southern U.S. As a recently domesticated crop species, the development of genetic tools is essential for effectively addressing key constraints to stable and high quality nutmeat production.
As the pecan industry has evolved since its inception in the late 1800s, trees have been introduced as an exotic crop to be farmed in relatively alien environments, and this has led to major stress-associated horticultural problems, either directly or indirectly altering flowering and alternate bearing. The Genetic elements controlling key traits, such as efficient nutrient uptake/transport, scab disease resistance, salinity tolerance, drought tolerance, and nut quality need to be identified and integrated to produce better adapted cultivars for cultivation.
Projects funded by these two grants officially began Sept. 1 and will continue for one year.
"America's specialty crop farmers face many challenges ranging from a changing climate to increasing production costs. Investing in cutting edge research helps uncover solutions to keep their operations viable, and ensures Americans have access to safe, affordable and diverse food options," said Vilsack. "The universities, state departments of agriculture and trade associations that partner with USDA address challenges at the national and local levels to help sustain all parts of America's food and agriculture system, whether the farms are small or large, conventional or organic."
USDA's Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) develops and disseminates science-based tools to address the needs of specific crops. The funded projects address research and extension needs that span the entire spectrum of specialty crops production from researching plant genetics to improving crop characteristics; identifying and addressing threats from pests and diseases; improving production and profitability; developing new production innovations and technologies; and developing methods to respond to food safety hazards.