Kansas State University and University of Florida comparing hoop houses and open fields
OLATHE, Kan. – Vegetable lovers may one day have fresher, more abundant locally grown produce thanks to a new project underway in Kansas and Florida.
Kansas State University and the University of Florida have teamed up to look for ways to improve the quality and extend the shelf life of fruits and vegetables using tomatoes and spinach as their models. The work is focused specifically on aiding small-acreage growers who sell locally and might lack the washing, packing and cooling facilities needed to reduce food postharvest (after harvest) losses.
The four-year project, which began March 1, is funded by a $1 million Agriculture and Food Research Initiative grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Of the 38 proposals submitted, five were funded. The K-State-Florida proposal was ranked No. 1 overall.
“The goal is to increase the availability of locally grown food by reducing the loss of fresh fruits and vegetables after they’ve been harvested,” said Eleni Pliakoni, K-State assistant professor of horticulture and lead researcher on the project. To do that, the team is developing a system that includes strategies growers can use before and after harvest to reduce crop losses from decay.
Once the team has developed tools that are most effective in the lab, it will take the strategies to local growers to determine the most practical ones to implement on small farms common to the region. The team also plans to develop digital tools, including a phone app that will help growers assess produce losses on their farms, and to disseminate the results of the study to growers and others.
“The great thing about the partnership between the University of Florida and Kansas State University is that we both bring unique strengths to the team, whether it’s in postharvest technology and pathology, high tunnel production, or extension and outreach,” Pliakoni said, adding “we’ve been having a lot of fun developing and now implementing the project.”
Others on the team include K-State assistant horticulture professor Cary Rivard and University of Florida horticulture professors Jeffrey Brecht and Xin Zhao, and plant pathologist Jerry Bartz.
“The grants are so competitive now; it takes a lot of teamwork to be successful,” Pliakoni said of the numerous teleconferences the team underwent in preparation for writing the grant proposal.
Tomatoes, both hybrid and heirloom varieties, and spinach are being planted in high tunnels and open fields in both states. The high tunnels – a low-cost, passive-solar alternative to traditional greenhouses – will help protect the crops from the abundant rain Florida typically receives and from the high winds experienced in Kansas. High tunnels are increasingly used by produce growers across the United States and are particularly prevalent in the Midwest.
The postharvest treatments to be investigated in the study include hot water treatment, chemical washes and modified atmosphere packing, which are all approved for organic production, but could be used by any small-acreage farmers who have limited access to postharvest facilities or choose not to use conventional chemical treatments. Modified atmosphere packaging, such as what is used in packaged mixed greens often available in grocery stores, can supplement and in some cases, be substituted for refrigeration to prolong the shelf life of fresh produce.
“Most of the fruit and vegetable growers in our region are first-generation farmers with little experience or equipment related to postharvest handling,” Rivard said. “One of the great things about this project is that it will help our young, small-acreage growers scale-up their supply by learning to handle and store their products in a way that increases shelf life, reduces losses, and ultimately provides high-quality, nutritious produce to the consumer.”
The researchers have identified growers and industry association representatives from both states who have agreed to serve on a project advisory board. The board will provide feedback on the research results and advice on future research directions.
While the crops will be grown in high tunnels and in open fields in both states, Florida will perform the part of the study looking at different organic postharvest physical and chemical treatments during sorting and washing of tomatoes and spinach. Kansas State will take the lead in developing the use of modified atmosphere packaging to prolong shelf life during storage. Both universities will play a role in creating the digital crop risk analysis tool and sharing the research results with growers and agricultural educators.