Posted: August 22, 2017

Penn State Plant Geneticist Dr. Majid Foolad is developing new tomato varieties. He won a $75,000 research commercialization grant from the Entrepreneurship & Innovation Program at Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences to bring the new varieties to market.

Dr. Majid Foolad, Professor of Plant Genetics, began his tomato breeding program in 1998, and soon recognized a need for a tomato plant tailored to Pennsylvania growing conditions. While the state's tomato harvest is less than 5 percent of the national crop, it is the state's second-most valuable vegetable crop.

But Pennsylvania tomato growers plant varieties better-suited to California and Florida, which together supply about 95 percent of the U.S. tomato harvest.

Foolad's new varieties are aimed at improving yield for Pennsylvania growers, who may harvest 25-30 tons per acre, compared a typical harvest in California of 35-50 tons of tomatoes per acre.

Developing pure lines of parent tomato plants with desirable traits like high-lycopene or blight-resistance takes 10-15 years, said Foolad. He and his team then cross among those inbred parental lines with complementary characteristics to produce hybrids known as F1 . Next, they test the hybrids at the Penn State Research Farm and with the help of seed companies like Johnny's Selected Seeds to gather data on how they performed.

Once there is consensus on which hybrids performed the best, those varieties are further tested in many additional locations across Pennsylvania and other states. The very best hybrids will be licensed by seed companies to market to farmers and gardeners.

Resistance to early- and late- blight -- a disease that quickly turns ripening fruit to canker-riddled brown mush -- is one key characteristic of Foolad's tomatoes for Pennsylvania growers, which will be moving into the licensing phase. The RAIN grant will fund testing of those varieties in a range of field conditions in Pennsylvania and other Northeast states.