NC State
Small Fruits

Small Fruit Research

Delivering applied solutions to help the fruit industry grow

In our science, we are thinking of a sustainable future!

We understand that fruit production has to change in order to meet the demands of a growing population and the needs for a reduced environmental footprint. We therefore made it our mission to investigate fundamental approaches of how crops are produced and grown. Our focus is on the improvement of transplant production, with the aim to improve yield capacity, while reducing cost and environmental impacts. We collaborate with industry and academia to develop new, ground breaking tools of transplant production to the grape and strawberry industry.

Improve strawberry propagation for a future of clean strawberry plants

Propagating strawberries is a very complicated open-field business, and currently requires 3-4 years, and several locations that are highly depended on the local climate. Only a few specialized strawberry nurseries exist in America. Those nurseries are system-critical to the entire strawberry supply chain!

However, this system shows a variety of crucial vulnerabilities. For example, strawberry nurseries mostly rely on a single chemical, Methyl Bromide (MB), to control soil-borne pathogens. However, MB is a chemical that will be phased out in most countries world-wide for soil disinfestation. In the US, strawberry nurseries are one of the few industries that can apply for use exemptions to be able to use MB. However, the industry lacks new propagation tools as a viable alternative, and with the phase-out of MB on the horizon, the entire industry hangs on the threat of a needle.

We therefore lead a nationwide collaborative of researchers and industry partners to develop indoor propagation tools for the strawberry industry. Our aim is to development new tools that will allow to produce plants with less environmental impact, without MB, leading to a plant that always has high quality and less disease.

Annualize grape production systems for a future with less inputs and more returns.

Vineyard management is highly labor intensive, and in many regions requires a lot of pesticides. Systemic diseases such as viruses, Pierce’s Disease or certain wood infecting fungi are massive problems world-wide. A phenomenon called ‘replant disease’ causes every year large losses in vineyards in which vines need to be replaced. Climate change is increasingly a threat to existing vineyards, due to predicted higher temperatures, fires or water shortages.

It could be more sustainable and more cost-effective if grapes could be grown in an annual system. Such a system would reduce the impact of systemic diseases, and vineyard owners could be more adaptive to climate change. But currently it takes between 18 and 30+ months from planting a vine to a first crop in a vineyard. We think we can reduce that to 6-8 months, making annual grape systems possible.

We therefore are leading a research team that investigates a process called ‘Precise Indoor Vine Conditioning’ or PIVC. PIVC conditions grapevines for flowering in an indoor system. Those vines are then planted in Spring and harvested in Fall. The nice thing about PIVC is that we don’t just improve fruit development on grapes, we also use the plants’ natural talents to store carbon in their root systems. We envision that PIVC vines in the future will change the way grapes are produced. We hope to solve problems with systemic diseases, replant disease, labor, while at the same time reducing the environmental impact of a vineyard through more productivity, higher carbon storage and less pesticide use.

Sustainable and also profitable? Fresh-market Muscadines are a good example

While we focus on technology solutions for improved crop production, we also know that several fruit crops are suitable for sustainable production systems. Those crops have to be highly disease resistant, less prone to climate change, and have to be economically successful. Here in the Southeast, there are only a handful of crops that fulfill those criteria. Muscadine grapes are one of them. Especially fresh-market muscadines became commercially highly successful, thriving on a large variety of new cultivars with great flavors, crisp texture, seedlessness, and good balance of sugar and acids. At the same time, U-Pick operations are traditionally wide-spread and well built into the fabric of the Southeast. We therefore took the lead on projects to investigate and develop fresh-market muscadine growing guidelines for all growers and consumers in the Southeast.

Evaluate grape and strawberry cultivars for the Southeast.

Last, but not least: Cultivars are change. Change is the essence of progress. And progress is what is needed in an ever-changing world. We therefore are always at the lookout of new cultivars, be it in strawberry, muscadine or vinifera grapes. Since 2019, we are engaged in evaluating cultivars in collaboration with grower associations and breeding programs here in NC.