What’s Happening on the Farm: Tomato research at Mountain Horticultural Crops Research Station

by | Jan 29, 2015

Farms are places of year-round activity. There is almost always something going on, regardless of the season. Periodically, we highlight one of our research stations and the work taking place on the farm, as well as give a little insight into the world of farming and innovative agricultural research.

There are 18 research stations across the state, operated in partnership between the department, N.C. State University and N.C. A&T State University. The stations are strategically located to account for different soil types, climates, crops and livestock production. Department staff manage the day-to-day operations of the stations and the research field work, while researchers from the universities set up the parameters of the research. This month we are highlighting the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research Station in Mills River. This station sits on 377 acres in the French Broad River Basin in Henderson County.

Tomatoes growing in the greenhouse at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research Station.

Tomatoes growing in the greenhouse at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research Station.

It’s late January in North Carolina, which means the weather outside is cold, the trees have long shed their leaves and spring is still a couple of months away. But in a greenhouse at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research Station in Mills River, it smells like summer. This research station is home to the N.C. State University fresh market tomato breeding program, which grows tomatoes year-round in greenhouses.

“We grow any kind of tomato,” said Jeremy Smith, research specialist and greenhouse facilities manager. “Slicers, plum, grape, cherry and improved heirlooms are all part of the research.” Tomato research is ongoing to find varieties that are more resistant to disease and pests, drought-tolerant and produce improved yields.

Tomatoes grown in the greenhouse are strictly for research purposes. When the fruits begin to change color, that means the seeds are ripe. The fruits are then cut in half and the juice is squeezed out. The seeds are placed on a heat source to help ferment the seed and separate the gelatinous material from the seed. The seeds are then rinsed clean and treated with a bleach solution. After another rinse, the seeds are placed under dryers to help prevent mold. Then the seeds are packed up for future trials or to be sent to seed companies for field trials. Dried tomato seeds will last 20 to 30 years.

Over the last year, several varieties have been released from the tomato breeding program. These tomatoes are sold as the “mountain series” at farmers markets and in seed catalogs. The varieties have been grown for resistance to early blight, late blight and tomato spotted wilt virus. Some varieties also have increased lycopene, the pigment that gives tomatoes their red color. Growers might find mountain belle, mountain delight, mountain fresh, mountain gold or other varieties at their stores.

Traditional breeding trials for tomatoes still occur at the station. However, several of the research trials now take place at the molecular level. These trials let the plants grow to about 5 or 6 inches and then run a sample through a polymerase chain reaction machine to test for markers indicating desired traits. If those markers aren’t there, then the plant is tossed and the trial is restarted. The method can be time-saving.

“We pretty much have the perfect climate for tomato research,” said Smith. “The moisture conditions makes it a good environment to test for early blight and late blight.” The Mountain Horticultural Crops Research Station does more tomato research than any other station in the state, but that doesn’t mean that’s all the crop research taking place. Other research programs include aquaculture, vegetable crops, soil conservation, pest management and apple research. The station is a leader in the Southeast in apple research. The station is also involved in biofuels research and grows plots of miscanthus and sugar cane for potential biofuel production.

Ornamental trees growing in the greenhouse at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research Station.

Ornamental trees growing in the greenhouse at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research Station.

This station also conducts research on ornamental plants. Several breeding projects from these trials can be found in stores, including the N.C. Nursery and Landscape Association’s release of the Little Ruby Dogwood. The station was also used in field trials for a sterile ornamental grass that won’t spread called My Fair Maiden. This variety should be released this year.

This time of year the station has about 50 people working on staff or as faculty researchers and support staff. In the summer, the number can easily swell to more than 100. Among the structures on the site is housing for graduate students finishing their research projects.

The station hosts numerous tours, workshops and field days. Annual field days include Fresh Market Tomato and Vegetable Field Day and Plow Day. An Apple and Peach Field Day and Nursery and Landscape Field Day are held every other year. With the help of local food banks and gleaning programs, the station donates its produce to those in need.

In North Carolina, mid-winter may have us in its grip. But the work being done right now at this station could affect the delicious, red tomatoes we might see at farmers markets and grocery stores in the years to come.