You wouldn’t know it from looking at your dinner plate, but some of the foods you consume, whether from a supermarket, farm market, garden, or local restaurant, were developed at Rutgers. Through the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES), the university has been and continues to breed varieties of fruits and vegetables, and even nuts and shellfish, which play key roles in the food and agriculture industries.
Rutgers University was founded on November 10, 1766 as Queen’s College and originally affiliated with the Dutch Reformed Church. Fast forward 100 years and Rutgers began its legacy of contributions to agriculture that has had statewide, national and worldwide impact. One of the areas that Rutgers contributed on a grand scale is through its plant breeding programs.
Rutgers involvement with state agriculture began in 1864 after it became the land-grant university for New Jersey, followed by the founding of the agricultural experiment station in 1887. Plant breeding began at NJAES in 1900, with numerous new varieties of vegetables developed, and large quantities of seeds distributed to New Jersey farmers for propagation. Over the past 100+ years, some of the breeding efforts are for species native to New Jersey like cranberries and oysters, others have been traditional agricultural crops of key importance to New Jersey ag, like tomatoes, strawberries and peaches, and still others are new and innovative crops with potential for new markets, like hazelnuts and hot peppers.
The Rutgers NJAES breeding programs use traditional breeding techniques and not genetic modification.
All the developments that have come from the plant breeding efforts could fill a volume, but here is a condensed version to whet your appetite; a Rutgers NJAES agricultural products-menu, of sorts.
In southernmost New Jersey, the Delaware Bay has been a prolific source of the eastern oyster, long enjoyed by Native Americans. European settlers harvested the oysters of the Bay and an oyster industry grew in the region, with vendors selling oysters on the streets of Philadelphia, Trenton and New York.
In the mid-twentieth century, a decline in coastal water quality, and outbreaks of oyster diseases destroyed New Jersey’s valuable shellfish industry. After years of water quality improvements and oyster disease research and shellfish breeding by NJAES, the state’s Eastern oyster aquaculture industry has been re-invigorated. Researchers at Rutgers Haskin Shellfish Laboratory, an NJAES off-campus research center, have found a way to commercially produce shellfish that are not only resistant to disease, but are also more succulent, firm, salty and clean than wild Delaware Bay oysters. Now, triploid oysters (with three sets of chromosomes, rather than two) developed at Rutgers are a popular variety in the U.S., France, Australia and China. Rutgers oysters as sold as ‘seed’ (baby oysters) to hatcheries for commercial production. Although growers often market under their own trade name, many list the source of their oysters as disease resistant stock or ‘triploid’ oysters from Rutgers. The hatchery-produced disease-resistant oysters are marketed locally as “Cape May Salts.”
One of the newest vegetable breeds developed at NJAES is not a traditional crop grown at Rutgers research farms. In fact, this product was developed in one of the labs on campus, and instead of traditional agricultural attributes like yield or disease-resistance, this was grown for nutritional content. Using a non-transgenic process of tissue culture which replicates plant cells in a petri dish, then propagating in growth chambers, the lettuce seedlings are then analyzed for levels of polyphenols, anthocyanins and other antioxidants. The product has to be further investigated for local production and is not yet widely available, but the ‘Rutgers Scarlet’ lettuce was released as a high antioxidant “superfood”, with the polyphenol content that rivals blueberries.
Top that salad with a tomato – make mine a Jersey tomato, please. The most iconic, well-loved product of the Garden State is the Jersey tomato. Sadly, over time, as modern firm shipping varieties of tomatoes took hold, and agricultural practices changed, the Jersey tomato lost its luster. Rutgers “Rediscover the Jersey Tomato” program accomplished bringing back classic Jersey tomato varieties for home gardeners to once again enjoy. A home gardeners’ favorite, the ‘Ramapo’ tomato was developed at NJAES and released in 1968, but was then off the market for many years. The seeds of Ramapo tomato, along with two other classic Jersey tomato varieties were made available to New Jersey farms and home gardeners.
One classic Jersey tomato that was left out of the program’s seed offerings was the ‘Rutgers’ tomato, released by Rutgers in 1934; the tomato that once dominated commercial tomato production with world-wide use. Why didn’t the Jersey tomato program offer Rutgers tomato seeds? First, the Rutgers tomato was still widely found in seed catalogs and readily available. Second, although up until 1951, NJAES maintained certified seed stock of Rutgers tomato, the original line was not later maintained at the University, and the modern seeds sold today may be derivative selections, possibly even different cultivars, from the original. The opportunity of re-creating the Rutgers tomato from scratch became a reality when NJAES faculty obtained seed of the original parent varieties and the Rutgers tomato was re-invented and released in 2016 as the ‘Rutgers 250’ tomato.
Commercial cranberry cultivation began in New Jersey around the mid-1800s in Burlington and Ocean counties. Barrels of fresh cranberries were sold to ship merchants for sailors to use as a source of vitamin C. Just as limes prevented scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) for British sailors, the cranberry was of service to American sailors.
Cranberries have come a long way since their traditional use in cranberry sauce and juice. Now making an appearance in a variety of foods, the varieties of cranberries have also come a long way. Like blueberries, commercial cranberries were developed from strains first found in the wild, but today’s varieties are bred for size, improved fruit quality, resistance to heat and drought, and to span the season from early to late harvests. The Rutgers cranberry breeding program began in 1985 and has released several improved varieties: ‘Crimson Queen’, ‘Demoranville’, ‘Mullica Queen’ and ‘Scarlet Knight’.
Asparagus, a perennial favorite and prized vegetable among gourmands, has attracted a wider base of devotees as research reveals the nutritional powerhouse found within its spears. One might assume that new and improved asparagus varieties originate from Europe, the epicenter of the culinary world. This is partly true, but the asparagus fancied in Europe is white, requires peeling, and the flavor is reminiscent of parsnips. For the rest of the world that prefer the more traditional, typically green asparagus, they looked to North America, to a handful of select breeding programs at Rutgers, and the University of California, in the U.S. and the University of Guelph, in Canada.
Rutgers NJAES had a robust asparagus breeding program for close to seventy years, producing some of the most widely grown commercial varieties today. Until several decades ago, asparagus varieties were a mix of male and female plants. But Rutgers NJAES researchers developed a method for propagating only the male plants that don’t produce seeds. These “all-male” asparagus varieties — including ‘Jersey Giant, ‘Jersey Supreme’ and ‘Jersey Knight’ — produce up to three times more than older, open-pollinated male/female varieties. Rutgers hybrid male asparagus varieties are a culinary prize for consumers and an important commercial production advancement for farmers. The Rutgers parent lines became a series of superior male hybrids recognized worldwide, with much sought after consistency.
For the past decade, a familiar scenario has been playing out on farms and in gardens across the U.S. A healthy, fragrant crop of sweet basil begins to display yellowing leaves. Upon closer inspection, the undersides of the leaves show signs of a menacing grayish sporulation. It is only a matter of time before the basil plant and others in proximity succumb to this new disease of basil downy mildew.
Rutgers New Use Agriculture & Natural Plant Products Program, working with the NJAES vegetable pathologist, and cooperating with New Jersey basil farmers, sought to address the problem by identifying basils from any species that exhibited tolerance or resistance to downy mildew. Once resistance was identified in the other basil types, the researchers made hundreds of crosses to get the desired traits of a true sweet basil along with downy mildew resistance. Plant breeding is an art, science and craft – with the basil, the breeders focus not just on disease resistance, but also breed for high yield and field performance, aroma, taste and the plant’s visual appearance. The new resistant basils will be released over the next few years.
Rutgers ethnic crops researchers have been evaluating hot pepper varieties for potential local markets. Part of this research developed into the Exotic Pepper Project which involves plant breeding methods to combine desirable fruit quality, earliness, yield, horticultural, and disease/pest resistance characteristics. Over 100 selected breeding lines of exotic peppers are being evaluated at NJAES research farms. As the uses, interest and demand for exotic hot peppers increase, the project’s plan is for New Jerseyans to be able to tap into an expanded market of locally grown hot peppers. By 2020, the Exotic Pepper Project will release 3-6 unique new varieties of exotic/hot peppers to New Jersey growers for production. These varieties will combine the best fruit quality and horticultural characteristics from selected interbred Capsicum annum, C. chinense, and C. frutescens breeding lines.
Farmers have been growing peaches in New Jersey since the 1600s. By 1680, peaches were found in abundance in orchards from Trenton to New Brunswick. The area of production spread north to Morris County and around Hackettstown. The peach was New Jersey’s first fruit to be sold commercially and wagon loads of peaches from New Jersey orchards were marketed in New York City and Philadelphia. By the mid-1800s New Jersey was known for its abundance and quality of peaches. In 1890, there were more than 4 million trees in the state, and half of them were in Hunterdon County.
The peach breeding program began at NJAES in 1907 and throughout the 20th century, many new varieties of delicious peaches and nectarines were developed – helping maintain New Jersey as one of the leading peach producing states in the U.S. Now, in the 21st century, NJAES tree fruit breeding program continues to develop high quality peaches, but also innovative products like apricots and beach plums. One of the most recent releases patented by the program, is a “not your grandma’s peach” variety. The visually-striking ‘TangOs’ is a flat peach with heirloom cling-peach flavor, and bright yellow skin, with none of the typical red coloring found on peaches.
Strawberries are native to New Jersey. The original native people, the Lenni Lenape had no need to cultivate the plants, as wild strawberries were abundant. The first colonists in America shipped the larger wild strawberry plants back to Europe as early as 1600. Wild strawberries were small, acid and seedy compared to the hybrid cultivars that came later, but were still considered better than European varieties. Around 1820, commercial cultivation of strawberries in New Jersey began with farmers around Hackensack shipping berries by wagon and sailing vessel to the New York City. New Jersey strawberry production continued to flourish with acreage gradually shifting to the southern part of the state. In the 1860’s, Burlington County had the most strawberry acreage than any other county in the U.S.
Now, in the 21st century, strawberry production in New Jersey is a shadow of its former glory. The remaining farm acreage producing strawberries is mostly planted with Chandler strawberry, a California variety bred for berries firm enough for shipping long distances but not for flavor. New Jersey commercial growers face competition from growers in California and Florida that provide a year-round supply of strawberries.
General strawberry research at the NJAES dates back to 1870, with respect to fertilization, irrigation, insects and variety trials, and strawberry breeding didn’t begin in earnest at Rutgers until around the late 1920’s. The objective was a good commercial strawberry variety which would ripen after the harvest period of the varieties of the day.
Strawberry breeding for today’s New Jersey farmers and home gardeners is being re-invigorated by the recent and upcoming releases of varieties that were developed at NJAES over the past few decades. Bred for growing conditions in New Jersey and the region, with the aim of improving strawberry fruit quality and yields, the most important characteristic of these varieties is ﬂavor. The strawberry breeding project has resulted in several advanced selections worthy of commercial production and in 2015, the ‘Rutgers Scarlet’ strawberry was released.
If the world of candy had a star couple, hazelnuts and chocolate would be its Bogie and Bacall. This trendy combination is driving the market for hazelnuts, with 90 percent of the world’s hazelnut crop currently going into candies and demand exceeding supply. Unwrapped from its golden foil shroud, however, the true potential of this nut lies in not only expanding local agricultural markets, but also helping to feed a hungry world. That, at least, was the vision of a late professor who began an ambitious perennial tree crops breeding project at Rutgers in 1996.
In New Jersey, native hazelnuts grow as a spreading shrub, and produce tiny, thick-shelled nuts. On the other hand, the taller European variety, which is used commercially, grows as a single-trunk tree and produces large nuts with desirable thin shells and high-quality kernels But, as is often the case with imported plant species, the European hazelnut is susceptible to disease and also lacks a tolerance for New Jersey’s winters.
The hazelnut breeding program is addressing this issue by selecting and breeding resistant and tolerant varieties that will not only thrive in New Jersey but also produce large, tasty nuts. The first generation of plants from the breeding program will soon be making their way to farms, while opportunities for the New Jersey nursery industry to produce hazelnut trees for residential use by breeding several ornamental varieties with attractive purple leaves, bright fall color, contorted and weeping branches, and edible nuts.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER INTO ONE CELEBRATORY MEAL
Recognizing that the aforementioned Rutgers NJAES breeding items would make enticing dishes for a celebratory meal, Rutgers NJAES held a Rutgers 250 Breeding and Celebration Luncheon on November 4 to highlight these important agricultural products and the role they play in the New Jersey agriculture and food industries. The event brought together a menu of these foods, the breeders who are developing them, New Jersey food entrepreneurs, and key players in the ag and food industries of New Jersey.
For more information on Rutgers NJAES breeding programs and “all-star varieties” that were highlighted throughout the anniversary year, go to http://breeding.rutgers.edu.