ATHENS, Ga. — Two faculty members in the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and UGA Cooperative Extension were named to the Fruit and Vegetable 40 under 40 Class of 2023.
The list honors 40 outstanding early-career agricultural professionals for their exemplary accomplishments and impact as the next generation of leaders in agriculture.
Growing production and perception of native Georgia blueberries
Rachel Itle is an assistant research scientist who established the Fruit Production and Genetics Program in the Department of Horticulture at CAES. Her research and Extension program focuses on perennial fruit crops, such as blueberries, concentrating on physicochemical fruit quality traits and their genetics. Itle’s research program also collaborates on projects examining various freeze protection strategies, biostimulant applications and trellising systems. The main goal, she said, is to help the perennial fruit industries in the Southeast increase their profitability.
“The thing I’ve been most proud of in my research program is that we have done more work than any institution to raise the reputation of southern highbush and rabbiteye blueberries — the two main blueberry types grown in Georgia — through years of fruit quality research,” said Itle.
Of the three main commercial blueberry types, northern highbush blueberries are grown in Northern states with cooler climates and account for approximately 70% of the market share. The northern highbush has garnered a reputation as the “best quality” blueberry, she said. “This has sometimes led to reduced prices for rabbiteye cultivars and even cultivar exclusion in extreme cases, resulting in lowered prices for Georgia growers. However, there really isn’t much information that supports this reputation,” she explained.
“Now our industry can use our research to support that the texture and taste traits, such as sweetness, acidity and flavor, of these blueberry types are either equal to, or better, than northern highbush blueberries,” said Itle.
The newest research area in Itle’s program examines novel freeze protection strategies in blueberry. Late spring freezes can potentially wipe out a crop completely, and current methods limit protection ability. “Nanocellulose is a new freeze protection method that sprays very small particles of cellulose pulp on plants. This pulp is often made from paper processing, for example, and spraying it on the plant is similar to a person putting on a heavy winter coat to go outside. This technology has begun to be used on cherry in the Pacific Northwest, and I believe that our lab is the first to look at this method for blueberry,” Itle said. “So far, we see some promising results, and while we aren’t yet ready to provide recommendations to growers, I am hopeful our research will provide our industry with a method that could better protect blueberry from freezes in the near future.”
Improving vegetable production and pest management
Ty Torrance is the Agriculture and Natural Resources agent for UGA Extension in Tift, Colquitt, and Worth counties, where total vegetable production among the three counties has an annual farm gate value of $360 million. During the past eight years, Torrance has worked extensively to improve pest management, with a focus on viruses transmitted by diamondback moth caterpillars and whiteflies. With considerable vegetable production experience, he was appointed the tri-county vegetable agent in 2020.
Torrance, who received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from CAES, is currently involved in several nationally funded research projects with CAES faculty and has conducted more than 55 on-farm vegetable research trials to provide direct answers to grower questions.
“There are a lot of accomplishments I’m proud of, but ultimately I consider success working directly with the farmers I serve,” said Torrance. “I take their concerns to specialists and we immediately start problem-solving because, for the farmers, their entire livelihood is on the line. In my opinion, that kind of directed work leads to the greatest impact.”
Torrance also serves in leadership roles on the Georgia Association of County Agricultural Agents Board, the National Association of County Agricultural Agents Publication Review Board, the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Commodity Commission Research Review Board, and the Southeast Regional Fruit and Vegetable Conference Educational Session Committee.
AgBiome Innovations, Miller Chemical, Stokes Seeds and Huma sponsor the recognition program.
View the full list of 2023 honorees on the Fruit Growers News website.