Biologist using $4.4 million grant to create hardier pecan trees
You may enjoy receiving those packaged pecans as a gift during the holiday season. Or maybe it’s that freshly baked pecan pie that makes your mouth water. The pecan is one of the most nutritious nuts out there, and pecan production across the U.S. could improve thanks to a $4.4 million grant awarded to New Mexico State University.
The grant was funded as part of the Specialty Crop Research Initiative through the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute ofFood and Agriculture. NMSU’s allotment was part of $36.5 million awarded for research and extension to support American farmers. Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the grant awards in August.Research Associate Professor Jennifer Randall in the Department of Entomology, Plant Pathology and Weed Science in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences is the lead project investigator for the grant at NMSU, and her goal is to breed more productive pecan trees that will lead to improved yield of pecans.
“We’ll target four trees that have very different traits, and we’re going to look at their genomes,” Randall says. “We’re going to start pin-pointing genes that are important for disease resistance and salinity tolerance. We will also look at flowering and tree architecture.”
One tool that will be used is pecan rootstock cloning, a method developed by Randall. By using this method, rootstock best suited for a specific orchard area could be cloned for ideal growing conditions.
Pecan trees grown in commercial orchards have two main parts that are grafted together. The top part of the tree produces nuts and is genetically the same as other treetops in an orchard. The bottom part is called the rootstock, and each rootstock is genetically different. The research process, which began in late 2012, involves cloning rootstocks to make them genetically the same. The Randall Lab has cloned nearly 300 different pecan genotypes, or genetically different trees.
Randall, who has a doctorate in molecular biology from NMSU, said she and her team are trying to find the best genetic tree for specific environ mental needs.
“When we find one, having everything genetically uniform can make a lot of differences in an orchard,” Randall says.
What that means for growers is that rootstock best suited for a specific orchard area could be cloned for ideal growing conditions. The challenge in the Southwest is that the soil contains a large amount of salt. Randall said determining rootstocks that are able to grow in high salinity soils is advantageous, as the pecan tree can better survive and produce.
Identifying salinity tolerant and disease resistant rootstocks would be advantageous to pecan tree growers in the Southwest, as such trees may lead to more productive yields.
Although pecan is an international crop, Randall is looking forward to what the grant will help achieve in the United States. New Mexico now pro duces approximately 20 percent of the
U.S. pecan crop each year and, in 2006, New Mexico became the largest pecan producing state in the nation for the first time in history.
“I think this will help our U.S. growers, as pecan is grown in 25 states,” she says. “It’s one of our native trees to North America, and there’s a lot of genetic diversity that has not been described, and growers are not yet reaping the full benefits. Although pecan has been grown as an industry for over 100 years, it’s still in its infancy as far as a crop goes, as the trees differ very little from native pecan trees. There’s a lot of room for improvement that will help growers.”
The timing of the grant couldn’t be better. In May, the USDA announced that producers passed a Federal Marketing Order for pecans. The FMO is a self-help program funded by pecan revenue and administered by pecan stakeholders for the benefit of the industry and consumers. Collaborating with NMSU on the research project will be the Hudson Alpha Institute for Biotechnology; USDA in Texas, Georgia and Louisiana; the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation; and the University of Arizona. Much of the grant funding will be used for students, postdoctoral researchers, sequencing services, research and extension outreach. A website dedicated to pecan research will be available to inform growers about the advancements and new tools that will assist them in their farming practices.
“The grant will allow us to train our students and post-docs, who are our leaders for tomorrow, while accomplishing the research at the same time,” Randall says. “And hopefully we’ll have a new generation of plant scientists that will keep doing this work that is so important to the Mesilla Valley.”
DID YOU KNOW?
- New Mexico produces about 20 percent of the U.S. pecan crop each year
- About 70 percent of the state’s pecan acreage is in the Mesilla Valley
- NMSU’s pecan roots run deep: Fabian Garcia, the first director of the New Mexico Agricultural Experiment Station, planted some of New Mexico’s first pecan trees in the Mesilla Valley in 1913.
- Many of the original trees are still standing at New Mexico State University’s Fabian Garcia Horticultural Science Center.