There are 18 research stations across the state, operated in partnership between the department, N.C. State University and N.C. A&T State University. The stations are strategically located to account for different soil types, climates, crops and livestock production. Department staff manage the day-to-day operations of the stations and the research field work, while researchers from the universities set up the parameters of the research. This month we are highlighting cucumber research at the Horticultural Crops Research Station in Clinton. This station is home to the largest and most comprehensive cucurbit and sweet potato breeding programs in the nation. The station sits on about 350 acres in Sampson County.
Late June in North Carolina is a produce-lovers dream. Farmers markets across the state are filled with squash, tomatoes, corn, beans, peaches, blueberries, melons, cucumbers and more. Home gardens, too, are beginning to bear fruit as baby cucumbers begin to appear on the vine and small green tomatoes weigh down tomato plants.
With research ongoing for many of these summertime crops, it’s pretty busy at the Horticultural Crops Research Station in Clinton. This station is home to the largest cucurbit breeding program in the nation. Cucurbits include squash, pumpkins, zucchini, watermelon, gourds and cucumbers.
“Research on the station is always looking for something better — better quality, taste, appearance, disease-resistance,” said Rodney Mozingo, research operations manager at the station. About 15 acres at the station are devoted to cucumber research. Station staff are planting and harvesting now. “Cucumbers are a labor-intensive crop,” Mozingo said, “usually the crop is harvested by hand, which involves bending and looking.” Larger commercial growers can use a machine to pick the cucumbers, but you can only “machine-pick” a field one time. You can pick by hand as the cucumbers continue to grow.
Some of the cucumbers at the station are growing through a no-till method. Workers use a crimper, which looks like a drum with steel plates, or similar to an old time tobacco stalk cutter, to crimp down and keep down rye. “No-till offers better weed suppression,” Mozingo said. “The thicker the cover, the better the weed suppression and the more moisture the soil retains. Weeds such as pig weed need light to germinate.”
Dr. Todd Wehner, a professor of horticulture science at NCSU, has been doing cucumber breeding research at the station for more than 25 years. He travels the world to collect seeds to add to the USDA collection. He currently has about 2,000 accessions of cucumber seeds. An accession refers to a seed sample, variety or population held in a gene bank or breeding program.
“We evaluate the accessions for what growers want from the seeds,” Wehner said. “Such as accession 197087 from India, which is resistant to downy mildew. This is a desirable trait to cross with other accessions. Growers want high yield and high quality.”
Dr. Wehner is in rare company. In the United States there are only three seed companies working on cucumber breeding, along with the USDA and N.C. State University. He’s been collecting seeds for cucumbers since 1979. In 1993, he took over the watermelon breeding at N.C. State and, even more recently, he’s begun work on stevia, a natural sweetener. His seed collection is stored in a temperature-and-humidity-controlled seed bank at NCSU in Raleigh. Seeds keep for about 10 years.
With 15 acres of cucumber plots at the station there’s a lot harvested this time of year. Some of the cucumbers must be destroyed if they are part of a pesticide or herbicide trial involving products that have not been released. Others are saved for seeds or donated to the Society of St. Andrew.