Peter Oudemans leads the PE Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research and Extension, a substation of the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station of Rutgers University located in Chatsworth, New Jersey's Burlington County. Photo: Peter Oudemans

Jul 20, 2021
Oudemans leads New Jersey’s blueberry, cranberry research

Peter Oudemans leads the PE Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research and Extension, a substation of the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station of Rutgers University located in Chatsworth, New Jersey’s Burlington County. Photo: Peter Oudeman

Where highbush blueberry plants first grew, a dedicated team of researchers and professionals still study the mysteries of cranberries and blueberries.

In May, plant pathologist Peter Oudemans was named the director of Rutgers’ PE Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research and Extension. He succeeds Nicholi Vorsa, a renowned breeder of cranberry varieties that are grown worldwide, who remains on the faculty.

In addition to leading the fruit pathology program, Oudemans has worked with growers on improved crop management methods and taught classes in agricultural technology and remote sensing. Fruit Growers News recently asked him to highlight the work going on at the research center.

Fruit Growers News: What distinguishes New Jersey blueberry growing from elsewhere in the industry?

Peter Oudemans: New Jersey is the birthplace of the highbush blueberry. The tradition of harvesting the wild blues was transcended through the work of Elizabeth White and Francis Colville to a cultivated, domesticated and now highly valued crop that is harvested 12 months of the year from somewhere on this earth. This work was, of course, originally conducted at Whites Bog in New Jersey. So, there is a lot of history with blueberries here in southern New Jersey, and it is also the state fruit. Our harvest typically begins in June and continues through July. This period coincides with lots of summer festivals and celebrations that include blueberries and, of course, everyone appreciates summertime treats like blueberry shakes, blueberry sundaes, blueberry custard, blueberry pie and straight-up New Jersey blueberries.

FGN: Tell me a bit about your academic history.

PO: I did my masters at the University of Guelph and Ph.D. at the University of California, Riverside. My research ranged from onions to avocados, and I was given a unique opportunity to work with really challenging pathogens on these crops. For my postdoctoral training, I was fortunate to work with Professors Antonovics and Miller-Alexander in North Carolina and Kansas, respectively. This experience opened my eyes to the world of ecology and evolution as it applies to plant pathogen interactions. It has left me with a fascination of the adaptability in the microbial world and an appreciation for the emerging principles of evolutionary based pathogen management.

FGN: What’s the center’s relationship with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service blueberry breeding program?

PO: The PE Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research and Extension is a multi-disciplinary, multi-institution facility. We are proud to host breeders, pathologists, entomologists, weed scientists, health researchers and more. Institutional boundaries are typically barely visible or palpable when you visit. From a breeder’s point of view, varieties like Duke and Legacy were released as a collaborative effort from our center. Of course, today the business of cultivars release combined with material transfer agreements, patents and royalties has added a new level of complexity for inter-institutional interactions. Luckily though, at the end of the day, our human interactions are collaborative and supportive and sometimes celebratory.

FGN: Nicholi Vorsa, your predecessor, once told me that highbush blueberry breeding was becoming difficult because of the plants’ self-pollination. Is there still a lot of work to be done?

PO: This is a big deal. As I understand it, breeding populations represent a highly diverse germplasm, whereas production areas are typically one to a few cultivars planted over a large area. A species like Vaccinium corymbosum that requires pollinators can suffer from self-incompatibility. Therefore, a variety may perform very well under high genetic diversity, but if it suffers from self-incompatibility will perform poorly in large commercial plantings. This may not be apparent until the field begins to produce (2-4 years after planting), at which point a considerable investment has already been made. Nick Vorsa has developed some very nice methods to evaluate this in single plants and recommends understanding this characteristic, especially with new cultivars.

FGN: Describe the relationship between blueberries and cranberries as far as the center is concerned. Is there a lot of crossover?

PO: Thanks for asking. As you may know, I am a plant pathologist and am often accused of treating plants as a substrate for pathogens to grow on. I came to Rutgers because of my passion for phytophthora, which was a problem on both blueberry and cranberry. Of course, both are members of the same genus (Vaccinium), and their native range falls well within the New Jersey growing area.

There are remarkable examples of crossover. For example, cranberry fruit worm is a problem on blueberries and cranberries. Interestingly, the weed problems differ because the cultural practices are so different. Cranberries are flooded in the winter making a unique situation for overwintering. On the other hand, both crops convey a nice spectrum of human and animal health benefits due to the unique biochemistry found in this genus of plants.

– Stephen Kloosterman is the associate editor of Fruit Growers News.

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