Researchers hope to develop tomato varieties with the taste of heirlooms but the disease resistance of hybrids.
Researchers hope to develop tomato varieties with the taste of heirlooms but the disease resistance of hybrids.

A multi-institutional group has received a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to breed new organic tomato varieties that will resist foliar diseases and still taste good.

The grant, awarded by the Organic Research and Extension Initiative, also will help researchers development management practices that reduce disease pressures while protecting soil and water quality, according to a news release.

The project will be headed by Lori Hoagland, an assistant professor of horticulture and West Lafayette, Ind.-based Purdue University.

Also involved with the project are researchers from North Carolina State University, North Carolina A&T University, Oregon State University, University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Organic Seed Alliance.

The project reflects increasing consumer interest in organics.

"Research like Dr. Hoagland's is helping farmers improve productivity and profitability in their organic and low-input systems so they can take advantage of the demand and meet the needs of this growing market," Jay Akridge, dean of Purdue agriculture, said in the release.

Among the diseases the researchers will target are early blight, late blight and Septoria leaf spot.

The diseases are especially troublesome in the Midwest and Southeast where warm, humid conditions produce conducive conditions.

Tomato growers frequently plant heirloom varieties instead of disease-resistant hybrids because of the heirlooms' better flavor. But they also tend to be highly susceptible to foliar disases.

Copper fungicides can help organic growers manage foliar diseases, but the fungicides also can kill beneficial soil microbes.

Growers might be able to forgo the copper if new resistant, tasty varieties were developed, according to the release.

Conventional growers also may benefit from the researcher because these varieties would reduce the amount of pesticides used, lowering their input costs.

The researchers will work on developing tomato varieties that can connect with the beneficial soil microbes in their roots to help fight diseases. They also will explore management practices that enhance beneficial soil microbes and identify new environmentally friendly fungicides.

Vegetable producers also will provide input into the four-year project.

"The growers will be intimately involved in all phases of the research, especially the breeding component," Hoagland said in the release. "The growers will help us identify key plant traits, and final selections will be conducted on working farms."