University of Georgia blueberry breeder Scott NeSmith has been awarded the university’s prestigious Inventor’s Award for 2013.
NeSmith is a horticulture professor with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. CAES faculty have earned the award eight of the 13 years it has been presented by the UGA Research Foundation. The annual award is based on an invention's "originality, innovation and impact outside the university setting."
Plants for Georgia
NeSmith breeds new blueberry varieties that are specialized for Georgia’s climate and soils. He conducts most of his research on plots at the UGA campus in Griffin, Ga., and the UGA Tifton Campus Blueberry Research Farm near Alapaha, Ga.
Since becoming head of the UGA blueberry-breeding program in 1998, he has released and patented 10 new commercial blueberry varieties and two ornamental blueberry varieties. These include several southern highbush varieties such as Rebel, Southern Splendor and Suziblue, as well as Ochlockonee and Alapaha, rabbiteye blueberry varieties named after South Georgia Rivers.
For farmers' fields and gardeners' backyards
About 60 percent of blueberries grown in Georgia are the rabbiteye variety. The remaining 40 percent are the Southern highbush variety.
These varieties all have different traits ranging from when they produce fruit (early or late), the size and color of their berries and the environments in which they grow best. NeSmith once bred blueberry varieties specifically for commercial growers, but now splits the program between varieties that perform best for the commercial market and those that are best suited for backyard gardens.
In addition to the breeding program, NeSmith researches ways to protect the plants’ blooms from Georgia’s unpredictable late winter weather and early spring frosts. He also works with UGA plant pathologists and entomologists to address disease and insect problems Georgia blueberry growers face.
Research helps industry grow
“Professor NeSmith is one of the college’s most creative scientists,” said J. Scott Angle, CAES dean and director. “His deep understanding of quantitative genetics combined with his experience in practical cultivation make him one of the top fruit breeders in the world.”
Due in large part to NeSmith’s efforts, the blueberry has become Georgia's No. 1 fruit crop, surpassing the state’s namesake, the peach. Just 10 years ago, there were only about 5,000 acres of blueberry fields in the state, and the crop was only worth about $22 million. Today, Georgia farmers are using about 21,749 acres for blueberry production, and the farm gate value was more than $254 million in 2011, according to the Georgia Farm Gate Value Report.
Their popularity with casual gardeners and health-conscious consumers has grown in part from research proving the berry is an antioxidant-rich super food.
For more on UGA CAES blueberry research, visit the website at extension.uga.edu/agriculture/ag-fruits-vegetables/blueberries/.
(Sharon Dowdy is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)