Undergraduates lend their hands to fruit research
• Undergraduate horticulture students participated in research efforts at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s Fruit Research Station.
• The students’ work helped advanced division research and breeding efforts to improve fruit production in Arkansas.
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — The Fruit Research Station at Clarksville added an undergraduate flavor to its horticultural efforts this year and the results are decidedly sweet.
Three Bumpers College undergraduate horticulture majors lent their hands and heads to University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture fruit research during the summer.
Senior Olivia Hines of Stuttgart and junior Lesley Smith of Alpena served internships at the station, earning academic credit for their work. Sophomore Loren Anthony of Fayetteville worked as a summer employee.
All three horticulture majors worked with station personnel to help build a database of knowledge that helps advance the division’s fruit breeding, cultivation and management research, said John R. Clark, University Professor of horticulture, who directs the fruit breeding program.
“This is an opportunity to experience research as an undergraduate and see if maybe graduate school is something we’d want to do,” Hines said. “And we’re learning how to work together as a team.”
Hines said she has dabbled in everything that goes on at the Clarksville station. “I wanted to extract knowledge from the station’s staff about the mechanics of fruit farming — pruning plants, training vines, and other skills,” she said.
Early in the summer, Hines conducted an honors thesis project on sensory perception of blackberries. She worked with Division of Agriculture food scientist Renee Threfall to set up four taste test panels in the division’s sensory perception lab in Fayetteville.
Two of the test panels were designed to determine consumer preferences for flavor, texture, size, and other traits. Two panels were designed to acquire descriptive analysis of those traits.
There were 76 consumer testers and 11 descriptors.
Hines harvested the berries at Clarksville one day and conducted the tests in the sensory perception lab in Fayetteville the next day.
The tests included a crispy blackberry that Smith has been working on with Ph.D. student Alejandra Salgado of Chile. Samples also included tart and low-acid berries.
“The aim was to see what people want when they go to the store to buy blackberries,” Hines said.
Clark does most evaluations for breeding line selection on site at the Fruit Research Station. “This was the first time we used consumer panels to evaluate breeding lines for advancement toward release as a variety,” Hines said.
Later in the summer, Hines worked with Ph.D. student Terrence Frett of Wisconsin to phenotype peaches — characterizing visual traits, acidity and sweetness. They used the resulting data to validate genetic markers for those traits and to build an online history of breeding information.
Smith worked with Salgado on a study to measure firmness and evaluate texture of blackberry and peach selections and varieties at harvest and at intervals thereafter to determine fruit quality during storage and shipping.
They used a computer-controlled machine that measures the force needed to puncture the fruit. It provides a quantifiable measure of firmness and texture.
The project is part of Salgado’s research on evaluating breeding selections for firmness to improve post-harvest handling and storage.
Clark said the research is aimed at giving consumers the best possible experience when eating store-bought fruit. “We want to know it tastes good when it gets to somebody’s mouth,” he said.
Anthony helped program associate Taunya Ernst with advanced trials for the blackberry breeding program and other research projects. She picked blackberries at harvest, analyzed samples in the lab and compiled the data.
Anthony’s analyses included tests for acidity and sweetness and measurements of berry weight — all traits that are evaluated in breeding selections that are being considered for eventual release as varieties.
Part of her efforts were aimed at selecting berries for reduced acidity as well as for flavor and texture traits that consumers prefer.
One of the goals of having the undergraduates at work on the station was to learn together, Clark said. At times, they all got together to see how crosses are made and other activities associated with fruit breeding and research.
“We’d just gather up and go look and see how things are done,” Clark said.
All three undergraduate students worked with Frett in the first four weeks of the summer on research concerning bacterial spot disease in peaches, Clark said. The results were correlated with genetic markers, which can help breeders make crosses to improve resistance.
“All these projects by all three students are different parts of a bigger picture,” Clark said, “to discover what people want in their food and develop fruit varieties that meet consumer desire.”
Clark said one of his chief goals in bringing undergraduates into research activities at the Fruit Research Station is to inspire tomorrow’s horticultural research and production leaders. “All three students gained substantially from the experience,” he said.
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Agriculture is America. In short, the agriculture industry — sustained in large part by the American land-grant university system through both Agricultural Experiment Stations and Cooperative Extension — is integral to jobs, national security, and health.