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UMD Researcher Receives $300,000 USDA NIFA Grant to Solve Shelf Life Problems in Popular US Apple

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

Macarena Farcuh will study potential treatments to reduce cold storage damage in Honeycrisp apples. Soggy breakdown turns the snappy texture of Honeycrisp apples to brown mush.

Honeycrisp apples are among the most highly profitable apples for U.S. growers, with wholesale prices nearly triple that of other varieties. But the cold temperatures needed to maintain freshness on the journey between harvest and consumers can injure the sensitive fruits, turning that crisp, snappy texture to brown mush.

Macarena Farcuh, assistant professor of plant sciences and extension specialist at the University of Maryland, is investigating new methods to help farmers overcome the cold-sensitivity issues that can ruin up to 50% of a Honeycrisp crop during transportation and storage.

Farcuh received $300,000 from USDA/NIFA’s Critical Agricultural Research and Extension program, to study how the plant hormone ethylene affects ripening characteristics and cold sensitivity of Honeycrisp apples. Although harmless to humans, the gas ethylene is key to ripening in some fruit. Avocados and bananas emit ethylene after they’re picked, which is why putting them in a paper bag helps them to ripen, as the ethylene accumulates.

Farcuh will spray apple trees with different treatments that change the way the plants regulate ethylene to determine whether they can reduce the apples’ susceptibility to chilling damage, and delay ripening after harvest to allow for longer storage times.

Currently, farmers limit cold injuries in Honeycrisps by pre-cooling harvested apples to an intermediate temperature before fully chilling them. This is called pre-conditioning, but it can cause bitter pit, another type of problem in which brown pits form on the outside of the apple and reduce their desirability in the marketplace.

“The apple industry faces a dilemma: to condition and induce bitter pit expression or to not condition and risk fruit chilling injury; either choice leads to fruit losses,” Farcuh said. “If we can find a treatment that will prevent cold injury, that is not through conditioning, it would be a great help to apple growers.”

Part of the grant money will go toward extension work to immediately convey the team’s findings to farmers. So, if Farcuh’s treatments crack the cold injury quandary, farmers will be able to start using it right away.

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