Three UC Davis researchers have been awarded grants totaling $6.6 million by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to solve issues in the nation’s $50 billion specialty-crop industry.
The newly funded research projects focus on precision management of water and plant canopies, developing improved lettuce varieties, and preventing soilborne fungal diseases. The studies are intended to provide specialty crop producers with the information and tools they need to grow, process, and market safe, high-quality products. Specialty crops are defined in law as fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits and nursery crops.
The new grants are:

  • $2.6 million to study the use of sensors for precision canopy and water management of specialty crops. Researchers will develop and deploy farm-based, reconfigurable sensors that can be retrofitted to mobile platforms. This technology is intended to help growers make better management decisions that will improve crop quality, increase efficiency and profitability, and reduce environmental impact. The lead researcher on the project is professor of biological and agricultural engineering Shrini Upadhyaya, an expert on precision farming. He can be reached in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at (530) 752-8770 or skupadhyaya@ucdavis.edu.
  • $2.5 million to fund a project in the Department of Plant Sciences focused on developing improved lettuce varieties. The research team, led by Professor Richard Michelmore, director of the UC Davis Genome Center and an authority on the genetics and genomics of disease resistance in plants, will explore the genetic basis of horticulturally important traits in lettuce. The researchers plan to identify genes that could be used to improve lettuce breeding lines and develop better commercial lettuce varieties. Michelmore can be reached at (530) 752-1729 or rwmichelmore@ucdavis.edu.
  • $1.5 million to study the recurrent migration of Verticillium dahliae, a soilborne fungus that causes plant diseases and is a stealthy, pervasive threat to California and U.S. specialty crops. Researchers will investigate the relationship between international and interstate seed trade and spread of the fungus, as well as the risks of transmitting diseases and causing soil infestations by planting infected spinach and lettuce seed. They also will study how effective seed treatments are in reducing the risk of pathogen transmission, identify sources of disease resistance in spinach, and provide a cost-benefit analysis of Verticillium dahliae migration on selected specialty crops. The lead researcher, plant pathologist and Cooperative Extension Specialist Krishna Subbarao, can be reached in UC Davis’ Department of Plant Pathology at (831) 755-2890 or kvsubbarao@ucdavis.edu.

In all, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture awarded more than $46 million through the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, established by the 2008 farm bill to develop and disseminate science-based tools to address the needs of specific specialty crops.