Sole tart cherry breeder leads nationwide fruit project

Amy Iezzoni was director of RosBREED, a USDA project focused on developing modern DNA tests and breeding methods to deliver new cultivars in 22 U.S. breeding programs

Amy Iezzoni is the nation's only tart cheery breeder and professor in the MSU Department of Horticulture.
Amy Iezzoni is the nation's only tart cheery breeder and professor in the MSU Department of Horticulture.

Michigan State University’s Amy Iezzoni is the only tart cherry breeder in the United States.

“It makes sense that I am in Michigan, because we are the No. 1 tart cherry state,” said Iezzoni, a professor in the MSU Department of Horticulture.

Being the lone producer of a specialty crop can lead to unique challenges. Iezzoni has faced these with ingenuity and by developing partnerships that help growers and consumers across the nation and worldwide.

Iezzoni was the director of RosBREED: Combining Disease Resistance with Horticultural Quality in New Rosaceous Cultivars -- a USDA project focused on developing and applying modern DNA tests and related breeding methods to deliver new cultivars in 22 U.S. breeding programs. The research endeavor, which wrapped up last August, focused on eight crops: apple, blackberry, peach, pear, rose, strawberry, sweet cherry and tart cherry.

“When you are working with tart cherry, if you need to learn something, you have to do it yourself,” Iezzoni said. “Throughout my career, if I ran into a wall, I had to figure out how to solve it myself. There wasn't a community of people to help.

“That's one reason we created RosBREED. There aren't that many fruit breeders, yet we have a very collaborative community. This partnership allows us to speed up our research.”

RosBREED’s collective mission provided greater resources to breed specialty crops across the U.S. and delivered disease resistance and improved food quality.

“Fruit breeders are generally located in major production states. When you look at RosBREED, we had a lot of acreage covered with our stakeholders, who were the users of our varieties,” Iezzoni said. “The program was very impactful, because we could lift everybody up collectively. We know that new cultivars bred for stakeholders will ultimately make it into commerce.”

Like RosBREED, Iezzoni’s tart cherry breeding program also focuses on fruit quality and disease resistance. 

“My role is to breed varieties that will increase profitability and sustainability,” she said.

Cherry leaf spot, currently the most impactful disease for farmers, is taking up much of her time. She is also examining threats from climate change and major pest infestation such as spotted wing drosophila (SWD), which attacks fruit early during the ripening stage. Iezzoni is looking to breed cherries which bloom later and ripen earlier than current varieties to help lessen some of these challenges. 

Addressing diseases and pests, and adapting crops to climate change is always a moving target. Iezzoni said she has to be ready to face whatever issues fruit growers face in the future.

“Breeders have to anticipate needs and threats,” she said. “We have to be as nimble as possible. One key component is making sure breeding programs have the genetic diversity that's needed to address threats and challenges as they come up.” 

“When I began, I never dreamed there'd be SWD or that we'd have two major crop losses within 10 years (2002 and 2012). But, I began my career collecting germplasm to address present and future threats.”

Iezzoni remains focused on producing the best tart cherries possible with each new seedling she cultivates. It’s a passion she developed as an undergraduate student working a summer job with a peach breeder.

“I got to go to the peach orchard, and I got to see the genetic variability that the breeders had and the quality of the fruit. So, I thought, ‘Wow you can really make a huge difference in fruit quality, consumer enjoyment of the fruit and traits that are critical for growers and other supply chain members.’ I felt that there was a huge need out there for this kind of work.”

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