The value of indoor agriculture is skyrocketing for both producers and consumers, and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is at the center of the innovation hotspot.
In partnership with the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, researchers in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences and the Department of Food Science and Technology are developing snacking pepper cultivars suitable for growing in controlled agriculture environments.
The controlled environment agriculture industry is growing rapidly in Virginia because it enables year-round planting in indoor spaces and uses fewer resources. Crops are grown vertically rather than in traditional, horizontal rows, which means more crops can be grown on fewer acres, increasing a farm's sustainability.
Bingyu Zhao, a professor at the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, and Yun Yin, an assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology, are the masterminds.
"Our work centers on making the plant compact and accelerating growth, all while maintaining the color, scent, nutrition, and sweetness," said Zhao, the principal investigator of the project and affiliated faculty member of the Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture. "The plants need to be able to grow in a crowded environment while maintaining high yield rates to ensure profitability."
The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences created the Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture to spearhead work on a changing agricultural landscape and to develop and evaluate needed modifications in agricultural production through informed scientific discovery and technology-driven innovation. This includes controlled environment agriculture.
In his lab, Zhao will develop the plant with guidance from Yin, whose expertise is food chemistry, and will develop protocols to measure and evaluate the pepper's flavor experience to ensure it is better than or equal to its outdoor counterpart.
"Flavor-important components will be evaluated and determined through instrumental and sensory combined techniques," Yin said. "We will also look into the nutritional value of cultivars suitable for controlled environment agriculture production."
Two graduate students will contribute to the research, Stephen Pietruszka in the Zhao Lab and a to-be-named graduate student in the Yin Lab.
Once the cultivars are optimized, seeds will be available for purchase by producers. Down the road, the principles and methods used to develop the indoor sweet snacking pepper could be applied to spicy pepper variants.
The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the United States Department of Agriculture is funding the research through the specialty crop block grant program that awarded a number of grants to the college.