Farmers and consumers can benefit from a more drought-tolerant peanut, and scientists from the University of Florida and Georgia Institute of Technology will soon begin research to develop a more resilient crop. With it, growers would be able to produce more market-ready peanuts, and consumers can get more of the protein-filled legume.
UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences agronomists Barry Tillman and Diane Rowland will work with other UF researchers — along with scientists at the Atlanta university — on two USDA grants that combined, total nearly $1 million. With this initial research, they hope to lay the groundwork for the new peanut type.
“These projects are tackling one of the unifying themes in agriculture worldwide — water scarcity,” said Rowland, a UF/IFAS agronomy professor and director of the UF/IFAS Center for Stress Resilient Agriculture (CSRA). “These projects truly embody what the new center is about — making agriculture sustainable from production, environmental and societal standpoints with the ultimate goal of improving human health and nutrition.”
The CSRA tries to approach agricultural issues across disciplines – in this case, agronomy and engineering — to help solve complex problems such as water-deprived peanuts.
About 1.67 million acres of peanuts were harvested in the U.S. in 2017, according to the USDA – 160,000 in Florida and 850,000 in Georgia.
“More than half of peanut acreage is not irrigated and therefore, it’s at risk of losses during and after droughts,” said Tillman, an associate professor of agronomy at the UF/IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center in Marianna, Florida. “Since scientists breed peanuts using water, the traits needed to tolerate more drought-like conditions may be overlooked.”
“Peanuts are already a very safe and nutritious food, and the industry strives to make them an even safer food and more environmentally sustainable crop,” Tillman said. “Developing drought-resistant peanut varieties will help farmers produce more with the same, or less, water.”
“We expect that varieties with appropriate traits for the environment will be less likely to suffer losses when it’s dry for a period of time,” he said.
Among their experiments, researchers will measure the plants’ responses to stress, Tillman said. For example, they will use cameras to measure temperature as an indicator of the severity of water stress.
The CSRA was instrumental in helping secure grant funding for the project, Tillman said. The National Peanut Board and the Peanut Foundation helped fund the research, along with the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, an arm of the USDA.
Also on the UF team are Kati Migliaccio, a UF/IFAS professor of agricultural and biological engineering and Zachary Brym, a UF/IFAS assistant professor of agroecology and Alina Zare, an associate professor in UF’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. Doug Britton, a senior research engineer, and Wayne Daley, a principal research engineer, are leading Georgia Tech’s portion of the project.
Georgia Tech scientists say they hope to learn how to sense the plants’ responses to drought by monitoring organic compounds that the plants produce.
“This would be desirable as it would provide a picture of what is actually happening with the plant to better guide farm-management decisions,” Daley said.
For the engineering component, scientists will investigate and develop computer vision and machine-learning methods to uncover various peanut varieties’ responses to water stress, which is information that will be used to develop a more drought-tolerant peanut variety, Zare said.
“This project requires that all researchers learn about each others’ areas of research across disciplines,” she said.