Crossbreeding Underway in New Jersey for a Super Cranberry

Off a remote road in the Pine Barrens municipality of Chatsworth, N.J. vast beds carved into the sandy soil at the Philip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research await their annual, man-made flooding. When it comes, farm workers will drive specialized tractors to rake the submerged purplish green cranberry plants lining their floors, dislodging the fruit so it can float to the surface and be collected by the same type of booms used to soak up oil spills.

It's a technique practiced throughout southern Burlington County, New Jersey's epicenter of cranberry production, during the autumn harvest season.

But the cranberries grown on the Marucci Center's 20 acres aren't intended primarily for the supermarket juice aisle or the Thanksgiving table. They consist largely of experimental, cross-bred strains, meant to combat a fungal disease called "fruit rot" that's taking a heavy toll on global cranberry production.

The Marucci Center is one of the agricultural experiment stations created by a federal act dating to the 1880s, which created research centers in each state that are run in cooperation between state governments and institutes of higher learning. Although the experiment stations are tasked with assisting agriculture in their respective states, their research can have far wider reach.

And that's certainly the case with the Marucci Center, according to local cranberry grower Joe Darlington, who is chair of the New Jersey Blueberry and Cranberry Research Committee.

Darlington said international cranberry growers are closely following the Marucci Center's fruit rot research, in the hopes that it will rid them of the disease that's now a big financial drain on the industry.

"It's worth millions to us," Darlington said.

Nicholi Vorsa, a Rutgers professor of plant biology, said the disease was around when he first started at the Marucci Center in 1985. But it's worsened in recent decades, to a point where regional cranberry growers are so concerned that they're helping fund his research to the tune of more than $300,000 a year. Other funding sources include a $500,000 federal grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

So why has fruit rot become more of a problem in recent decades? Vorsa said the reason is two-fold.

First of all, global warming has made the fungi that cause it more prevalent. While New Jersey may not seem like a tropical hot zone, it's relatively warm compared to other major centers for cranberry growing. That means New Jersey cranberries are particularly susceptible, but it also means New Jersey is an ideal place for fruit rot research.

The other reason is that more national and regional regulatory agencies are reducing the allowable amounts of the fungicides once used to keep fruit rot under control. The European Union has recently lowered allowable trace amounts of those fungicides to an extent that they're effectively banned.

Vorsa said he and his fellow researchers at the Marucci Center don't weigh in on the politics of fungicide prohibition or global warming. They simply have a job to do and a problem to address — combatting fruit rot in a manner that doesn't involve the external application of chemicals.

Pretty much the only other option is breeding cranberry varieties that are naturally more resistant.

Vorsa said researchers with the program aren't producing genetically modified organisms, which contain genes that scientists have artificially introduced. They are simply cross-breeding different varieties to produce strains with desirable characteristics, which people have been doing intentionally or otherwise since the dawn of civilization.

Researchers at the Marucci Center identified strains that are resistant to fruit rot back in the 1980s, Vorsa said. The problem was that those resistant strains produced a low yield, so it wasn't practical to recommend them as an industry standard.
The subsequent years have been a laborious and painstaking process of cross-breeding different strains, and evaluating the results for fruit rot resistance, yield, and commercial factors such as color.

Though the nature of the work doesn't allow for setting and meeting specific timetables, Vorsa said the researchers are close to a strain that could meet the commercial needs of today's growers. If research continues in the direction it's going, he predicts it could be a matter of a few years.

And when it's ready?

"I think it will be huge," Vorsa said.

Such an innovation could have a big impact on agriculture in New Jersey, which was once the nation's third-largest producer of cranberries, and is now third after Wisconsin and Massachusetts.

According to Lynne Richmond, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, state growers harvested 54.8 million pounds of cranberries last year, valued at $20.3 million.

So for the time being, growers such as Darlington will keep their eyes on the Marucci Center's research, and keep their fingers crossed.

"The whole cranberry industry in general is struggling with poor-quality fruit," Darlington said.

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