Seeds & vegetables in the future – Audio

Friday, January 20th, 2017

Bill Tracy, Professor
Department of Agronomy
UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
NOTE: Fifth and final in a series for 2017 Wisconsin Agricultural Outlook Forum held Jan. 19
Total Time: 3:10
0:12 – What’s New in Wisconsin
0:43 – CRISPR
1:15 – Opportunities in vegetables
1:57 – Nutritional differences
2:33 – The future of production
3:00 – Lead out


Lauren Baker: Looking towards the future in plant breeding we’re visiting today with Bill Tracy, Department of Agronomy, University of Wisconsin-Madison in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and I’m Extension Intern, Lauren Baker. Bill, tell us about what is new in seed and vegetable?

Bill Tracy: There’s a lot of things new, I mean plant breeders are always coming out with new things; there’s new improved flavor improved germination. Many people out there probably don’t know that Wisconsin is one of the leading sweet corn producing states in the country and also one of the leading vegetable processing states in the country. So, a lot of new stuff in vegetables always coming along. I think the biggest thing that everyone is talking about is, so called CRISPR Continue reading

Carrot genome paints picture of domestication, could help improve crops

Monday, May 9th, 2016

Sometimes, the evolutionary history of a species can be found in a fossil record. Other times, rocks and imprints must be swapped for DNA and genetic fingerprints.

The latter is the case for the good-for-your-eyes carrot, a top crop whose full genetic code was just deciphered by a team of researchers led by University of Wisconsin–Madison horticulture professor and geneticist Phil Simon. Simon is also a research scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, which helped fund the work. The study is published today in the journal Nature Genetics.

It tells a story of how the carrot has been touched by domestication and breeding practices and influenced by environmental and geologic change, and it fills in a family tree of relatives that otherwise appear distinct. It also reveals how carrots have become so good at accumulating carotenoids, the pigment compounds that give them their characteristic colors and provide them with their nutritional strength.

Carrot color arrangement

Carrots derive their color from pigment compounds called carotenoids. Orange carrots are colored by alpha- and beta-carotene, while red carrots get their color from lycopene, yellow from lutein and purple from anthocyanin. These pigments also provide the nutrition found in carrots. Photo: Phil Simon

“The carrot has a good reputation as a crop and we know it’s a significant source of nutrition — vitamin A, in particular,” Simon says. “Now, we have the chance to dig deeper and it’s a nice addition to the toolbox for improving the crop.”

The knowledge gained from the study could also lead to the improvement of similar crops, from parsnip to the yellow-fleshed cassava, a staple food throughout much of Africa.

“This was an important public-private project, and the genomic information has already been made available to assist in improving carrot traits such as enhanced levels of beta-carotene, drought tolerance and disease resistance,” says co-author Allen Van Deynze, director of research at the University of California, Davis’ Seed Biotechnology Center. “Going forward, the genome will serve as the basis for molecular breeding of the carrot.”

Carrots have a long history as a domesticated root crop. The first cultivated carrots appeared 1,100 years ago in Central Asia. These carrots were — unlike their white wild ancestors — purple and yellow. The canonical orange carrot appeared later, in Europe in the 1500s, providing at the time an aesthetic subject for German and Spanish art. Even before domestication, wild carrot seeds showed up in 3,000- to 5,000-year-old primitive campsites in Germany and Switzerland.

The study cannot answer why the first crops were purple and yellow, though it can verify that it is not because of flavor. The genes for color and the genes associated with preferred flavors are not connected. But that colored carrots became popular is fortuitous: The pigments are what make them nutritious, and orange carrots are the most nutritious of all, Simon says. Carrots are the richest crop source of vitamin A in the American diet.

The new study reveals how that orange color happens. “The accumulation of orange pigments is an accumulation that normally wouldn’t happen,” says Simon, one of just a few carrot researchers around the world, along with another UW–Madison scientist, Irwin Goldman, who was not part of this study. “Now, we know what the genes are and what they do.”

The research team used the Nantes carrot — a bright orange form of the vegetable named for a city in France — to assemble and analyze the full genetic sequence, peering into the machinery that drove the carrot’s evolution, and the bread crumbs left through time.

The carrot genome contains more than 32,000 genes arranged among nine chromosomes, which code for pest and disease resistance, colorful carotenoids and more. Carotenoids, like alpha- and beta-carotene, were first discovered in carrots.

The researchers uncovered features traced to distantly related plant species, from grapes and tomatoes to kiwis and potatoes. Carrots more recently split from lettuce and they are in the same family as spice crops, like parsley and fennel.

The researchers also sequenced 35 different types of carrots to compare them to their wild ancestors. They showed carrots were first domesticated in the Middle East and Central Asia, confirming the Vavilov Center of Diversity theory, which predicts cultivated plants arose from specific regions rather than randomly.

They also learned that sometime between the Cretaceous and Paleogene periods — roughly around the time dinosaurs went extinct — carrots picked up genetic advantages common to other plants of the era that allowed them to thrive.

Additionally, the study confirmed a gene called Y is responsible for the difference between white carrots and yellow or orange ones, and that a variation of it leads to the accumulation of carotenoids.

But it also identified a new, previously unknown gene that contributes to the accumulation of the colorful compounds. Both genes are recessive, which means two copies of each are needed for carotenoids to build up in the plant, which is actually a defect in a metabolic pathway that appears to be related to light-sensing.

Plants derive their own nutrition through light-sensing, or photosynthesis, but roots like carrots aren’t normally exposed to light and do not need photosynthetic pigments like carotenoids. “It’s a repurposing of genes plants usually use when growing in light,” says Simon.

It appears these genes were inadvertently selected for by early growers, and Simon suggests it may have simply been to aid early domesticators — likely to have been women — differentiate between wild carrots and the plants they intended to grow.

“They could keep their crops ‘clean’ from a patch of wild carrots growing 50 meters away by choosing only the purple or yellow ones,” says Simon, who jokes: “Or maybe it was the food fad of the 10th century, with orange in the 16th.”

Global carrot consumption quadrupled between 1976 and 2013 and over the last 40 years, breeding has led to more nutritious carrots with the selection of ever more intensely orange crops. In fact, carrots have 50 percent more carotene today than they did in 1970.

While most Americans are not deficient in vitamin A, it is considered an essential nutrient and deficiency is a problem in some U.S. communities and around the world. While the study may not solve the problem, it does highlight the opportunity carrots present to improve health and economic outcomes in other nations.

“Globally, we hand out vitamin A capsules, but why not have people grow their own?” Simon asks. “In one square meter you can grow a single crop of carrots per year to feed up to a half dozen adults. You can grow half now and half in six months to give you a sustainable source of vitamin A and a valuable crop in the marketplace.”

The study also reflects a shift in how plant breeders operate, by taking advantage of new technologies to answer basic questions about cultivated crops.

“It tells us things about the genome we expected but didn’t know before,” says Simon. “Each crop has a story to tell.”

The study also includes co-authors from Michigan State University and around the world, including Poland, Spain, Italy, Turkey, China and Argentina. It was funded by several seed companies and the carrot industry, as well as the National Science Foundation, the Polish National Science Center and the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education. The authors declare no competing financial interests and Simon explains that industry funds make the work possible.

For more information, contact Phil Simon at (608) 262-1248 or

Accessing the wholesale produce market – Audio

Friday, February 5th, 2016

Developing wholesale produce markets

Michelle Miller, Program Manager
Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems
UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
(608) 262-7135

2:56 – Total Time

0:18 – Reaching a wholesale market
0:48 – Whole is where the money is
1:11 – Putting together enough
1:44 – A new market model
2:12 – Developing whole access in Wisconsin
2:39 – More information
2:47 – Lead out


Sevie Kenyon: Getting local produce growers into the wholesale market. We’re visiting today with Michelle Miller, Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, University of Wisconsin-Madison in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and I’m Sevie Kenyon. Tell us about the troubles growers have getting to a wholesale market.

Michelle Miller: The Center for Integrated Ag Systems works with farmers to figure out problems that they have. Seven, eight years ago we started hearing from farmers that it was very difficult for them to access wholesale markets in a way that was efficient enough that they could actually make money there and so we started looking into some of the issues of bringing enough product together, aggregating product and also transportation issues that were prohibiting access to market.

Sevie Kenyon: Michelle, first of all why is that wholesale market so important to growers?

Michelle Miller: A wholesale market is where growers can start to realize production efficiencies. Our Center’s worked very hard with farmers to think about sustainable production practices and now they’ve got those nailed down and they’re ready to scale up their production; especially a number of vegetable crops. But in the meantime, access to market has dried up.

Sevie Kenyon: Michelle, what impedes the flow of produce to the wholesale market for many growers?

Michelle Miller: I think scale is one of those. So the scale of our grocery industry has grown and concentrated over time. So that where there used to be a couple of small grocery chains, now there is one large grocery chain that serves the entire upper Midwest. Because they’re looking at very large supply chains, they can’t take small amounts of product, so there’s a need to aggregate the product into supply chains that are of scale to meet the needs of these larger markets.

Sevie Kenyon: And Michelle, what steps are being taken to meet this market?

Michelle Miller: We’re very interested in the work that they’ve done in Ontario to assure access to market from smaller farmers. They’ve got what amounts to a wholesale farmers market where farmers are able to sell direct wholesale to any scale of buyer. So they could sell to a large buyer like a Kroger, they could also sell to a smaller one like a locally owned grocery store or a restaurant in a neighborhood.

Sevie Kenyon: Michelle, what initiatives are under way to address the wholesale market issue?

Michelle Miller: A very exciting one is the efforts of the Madison Regional Economic Partnership, which is a coalition of a number of counties in southern Wisconsin to look at what it’s going to take to build the food and beverage industry in our region. And they’re very interested in doing some feasibility studies to figure out what it would take to build a wholesale aggregation point for farmers in our region.

Sevie Kenyon: Michelle, where can people go for more information about this topic?

Michelle Miller: On the web Google Center for Aggregated Food Systems.

Sevie Kenyon: We’ve been visiting with Michelle Miller Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, University of Wisconsin-Madison in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and I’m Sevie Kenyon.

The Field to Food Bank Project – Audio

Friday, December 2nd, 2011
[audio:|titles=Jed Colquhoun: The Field to Food Bank Project]

Jed Colquhoun, Extension Horticulturist
Department of Horticulture
UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
(608) 890-0980

The Field to Food Bank Project

Time – 3:00 minutes

0:18 – Second Harvest food distribution center
0:37 – The Field to Food Bank Project
0:55 – How Field to Food Bank works
1:25 – How the project started
1:56 – Chain of generosity
2:20 – Produce in the project
2:40 – How to get involved
2:51 – Lead out


Getting that extra food out of the field and into people’s mouths. We’re visiting today with Jed Colquhoun, Department of Horticulture, University of Wisconsin, in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Madison, Wisconsin… and I’m Sevie Kenyon.

Sevie Kenyon: Jed, welcome to our microphone. Start out by telling us where we are today.

Jed Colquhoun: We’re at Second Harvest of Southern Wisconsin Food Bank in Madison, Wisconsin. This is a distribution source for 16 counties in southern Wisconsin that distributes food products to a variety of different clientele.

Sevie Kenyon: And Jed, how are you involved with Second Harvest?

Jed Colquhoun: We’ve been involved in a project that we’ve called now, field to food bank. That program is looking at capturing resources out of the field, and putting them into a format to be distributed through the food bank system, such as Second Harvest of Southern Wisconsin.

Sevie Kenyon: Can you give us an example of how that works?

Jed Colquhoun: Sure. We’ve had some great test runs in the 2011 growing season, including a couple of acres of carrots from one of our very generous producers in central Wisconsin. Those carrots were harvested, transported to a local processing plant, in cooperation with the food processors and the can manufacturers. And then those cans will end up, eventually, at the Second Harvest of Southern Wisconsin, and distributed through that 16 county food pantry network.

Sevie Kenyon: Can you tell us how you became involved in this?

Jed Colquhoun: We were at a food producers’ meeting and those producers were talking about some of the crops they had produced during that growing season and what they might be able to do with the produce that was in excess of what the system could handle. Meanwhile, Jim Shireman, of Second Harvest of Southern Wisconsin was also at that luncheon and realized the potential to combine the agricultural strengths with the need to fight hunger, and it all grew from there.

Sevie Kenyon: Can you describe for us the chain of people involved in this project?

Jed Colquhoun: This was a community that’s been very generous to the food banks in the past and we’re building on that capacity in this project. Everybody from growers to food processors, to the can manufacturers themselves, to the trucking companies that move this produce around, this is another opportunity to build on that generosity and their business entity that happens to produce food.

Sevie Kenyon: And what kind of products are we talking about?

Jed Colquhoun: In the first year we took test runs on a wide variety of foods from carrots to potatoes …focusing on fresh, end processed vegetables, with the capacity of processed vegetables to be able to be stored for a longer period of time.

Sevie Kenyon: And Jed, are there opportunities for more growers to be involved?

Jed Colquhoun: If folks want to get interested they can contact us at the Field to Food Bank project, or contact their local food bank and see what capacity they have to handle locally produced food.

Sevie Kenyon: We’ve been visiting with Jed Colquhoun, department of horticulture, University of Wisconsin, in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Madison, Wisconsin… and I’m Sevie Kenyon.