National specialty crop project explores new possibilities for grafted tomato and cucurbit plants

Five years ago, a North Carolina State University-led specialty crop project helped several U.S. growers have been able to use grafted tomato plants to return land plagued by bacterial wilt to production. The project paired needy growers with companies such as Ontario Plant Propagators that supplied grafted plants. Now NC State researchers are leading a new project that promises to find ways that grafted plants can give growers more choices to manage diseases and add value to their cucurbit and tomato crops.

“This project is about moving important traits to farms in a more timely and nimble way,” says Matthew Kleinhenz, extension specialist at The Ohio State University and one of the project directors.

Funded by a $3.2 million USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) grant, the project seeks to find new ways to develop rootstocks that can withstand a variety of pressures and pair them with fruiting cultivars that deliver the kind of quality that consumers want.

In addition to continuing to pursue fruit traits that consumers desire paired with disease-resistant rootstocks, the project will add even more rootstock traits to the mix. For example, some growers want plants that will produce well under extreme conditions such as drought, high salinity or low fertility. Other growers want tasty produce that is beneficial to human health.

Grafting takes the rootstock of one plant and combines it with the stem—or scion—of another plant. The result is a new plant with the best qualities of both plants. Most grafted plants combine disease resistant roots with flavorful fruiting cultivars, resulting in a desirable fruit or vegetable that does not succumb to common pathogens.

The traditional method of producing such a plant through breeding can take many years longer than successfully grafting a plant. However, grafted plants often come at an increased cost to producers since two plants are needed and grafting requires additional labor compared to traditional seeded plants.

grafted tomatoes at Patterson Farm

Louws (left) on a field visit with graduate students and other personnel observing grafted tomato plants at Patterson Farm, Rowan County, NC

Frank Louws, the Extension plant pathologist at NC State University and Director of the Center for Integrated Pest Management who leads the current project, led a previous project that helped alleviate the supply and demand issue with grafted plants. The earlier SCRI project sponsored four symposia that included suppliers of grafted plants and growers who had a need for disease-resistant varieties and sought better quality fruit.

“I remember standing on a hill with a grower who put in 20 acres of grafted tomatoes for the first time after being unable to grow tomatoes due to bacterial wilt,” says Louws. “We were looking down at several trucks that were being loaded with his tomatoes, and he said to me, ‘It sure is nice to see tomatoes going into those bins.’”

Kaitlin D. Horst, owner of Re-Divined, a supplier of grafted plants, said that the greatest value of the symposia has been learning information from the researchers that can help her provide the best service to her growers.

Demand for grafted plants within the U.S. is catching on with small- to mid-scale growers and being explored by large acreage growers.

“We can produce 200,000 plants a week in our current start-up facility,” says Bert Lemkes, manager at Tri-Hishtil, a partnership of companies from Israel, Italy and the USA, who started a grafting company that planted roots in North Carolina two years ago. “If we need to increase our capacity, we have enough land to accommodate this.”

The first project kept to its promise to connect suppliers to growers.

grafted plants vs non-grafted plants

Non-grafted plant killed by a soilborne bacterial pathogen and with healthy resistant grafted plants in the background (Photo credit: David Suchoff, NC State)

“Each year I have gained more customers, and many have stuck with us,” says Horst. “Our customer base keeps growing.”

With the demand for grafted plants growing, suppliers have noted an increase in the expectations of what grafting can provide.

“Because of the success of the first project, people are more aware of grafted plants, whether using or producing,” says Kleinhenz. “Any time there’s an unveiling of technology, and people start exploiting it, those people have follow-up questions and the questions become more sophisticated.”

The research team ultimately hopes the project will further integrate grafting technologies into major industries such as seed, robotics and nursery / propagation companies, and to optimize return on investment for tomato and cucurbit growers trying to expand production while dealing with a variety of environmental challenges.

“As old as the technology is, and as far back in history as it goes, it will persist only if it remains modern,” says Kleinhenz. “The team is helping the technology remain modern to more and more people.”

Part of that modernization involves addressing some of the questions that arose as more demand developed for grafted plants and more companies emerged to try to meet the demand while maintaining the quality needed for a clean plant.

“It’s essential for research and extension to help to get the maximum performance out of the rootstock of the grafted plant,” says Lemkes. “The irrigation and fertilization interact differently compared to a traditional plant. It’s like a high-efficiency fuel engine. If you put the wrong fuel in, it won’t perform.”

See more at NC State University.

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