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K-State Today

August 30, 2013

K-State's tomato grafting work aims to enhance Great Plains production

Submitted by Mary Lou Peter

Great Plains states are well known for wheat, sorghum and cattle production. Fruits and vegetables, not so much. But a Kansas State University researcher may have a hand in changing that.

Cary Rivard, assistant professor of horticulture, and a team of K-State researchers from K-State’s plant pathology and biological sciences departments have been awarded $158,434 to develop grower recommendations for tomato grafting, a process relatively new to U.S. vegetable production.

The three-year project, funded by the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, will identify tomato rootstocks that can be used to increase profitability for growers in the Great Plains, develop grafting propagation methods and increase producer knowledge about those methods. The team also will investigate the role that rootstocks play in soil microbial ecology.

Tomato grafting fuses stem tissue from two plants, so that the two stems grow together, re-connecting internal plumbing systems within the plant. One plant is selected for its roots — rootstock — and the other for its stems, leaves, flowers or fruits — scion.

“Because grafting can bring desirable traits from two different cultivars — for example, disease resistance from one and the preferred tastiness of another — together to form one plant, it has the potential to significantly increase crop yield and farm profit for tomato growers in the Great Plains,” said Rivard, who is a fruit and vegetable specialist with K-State Research and Extension, based in Olathe. “As part of this project, we’ll introduce growers to grafting technology as well as assisting in the development of an industry that will supply grafted plants.”

Traditionally, high-value crops like tomatoes have been grown in regions such as Florida and California and shipped long distances. That model, he said, is becoming less sustainable because consumers are increasingly looking for local and organic produce.

“In the case of tomato, high tunnel production has been quickly adopted in the Great Plains because they reduce risk from crop damage due to wind, cool spring weather and storm damage,” Rivard said. “They also help to increase the season length and generally provide a more stable production environment.”

The researchers will study tomato rootstocks that will be grown in high tunnels, both in university and on-farm locations, including the Wichita and Olathe areas. The trials will include heirloom tomatoes known as Cherokee Purple, and hybrid  — "BHN 589" — scions. Both cultivars are already widely grown in Kansas and throughout the United States in more traditional growing situations.

As part of the project, the research team will pass along its findings to growers and others through K-State Research and Extension workshops, field demonstrations, publications, a website and videos.   

More information about the research project is available by contacting Rivard at crivard@k-state.edu.