This summer I had the opportunity to work as an intern for the pathology department at the UMass Amherst Cranberry Research Station. As a biology student with an interest in plant pathology, farming, and food production, I have always wanted to experience a cranberry bog. This plant pathology internship made that weird dream of mine come true, while giving me experience with field work and lab work. Cranberry fruit quality and fruit rot are the most critical challenges for cranberry growers in Massachusetts. Due to lack of knowledge on risk factors associated with fruit rot incidence or fruit rot forecast systems, growers currently apply 3-5 fungicides to ensure marketability of the produce at the end of the season. Costs of fungicides, along with low fruit selling prices, put cranberry growers at a major economic disadvantage. Apart from the economic stress of fungicide applications, growers face a new challenge of losing the most commonly used chemicals and fungicides. The more sustainable approach is to reduce overreliance on chemicals and diversify the fruit rot management tool kit with eco-friendly and cost-effective cultural control measures. The goal of the research project I worked on this summer was to collect data on weather variables (temperature, relative humidity, soil tension), cultural practices (pruning, late water implementation), field level microclimatic factors (vine density, water management, nutrition), and yield and fruit quality from Massachusetts cranberry farms, for three years. The project will identify factors that impact fruit quality and use the data collected to develop sustainable, low input, easy-to-adopt, best management strategies.
My focus throughout this internship consisted mainly of field work. I was responsible for field visits to 25 different cranberry bogs located across Southeastern Massachusetts. I went to cranberry bog sites regularly and recorded bloom counts, took samples of cranberry uprights for tissue testing and analysis, collected light penetration data, calculated ratios of vegetative vs. reproductive uprights, and more. I maintained organized files of data, communicated with growers, and did lab work including pure culturing of fungal isolates, as well as some other techniques used in cranberry pathology labs. I learned about the importance of diversifying existing fruit rot management practices and took part in the evaluation of novel fungicides for fruit rot control. The research projects I worked on will continue for two more years and the data collected will be used in formulating easy-to-adapt, data-driven, best management strategies that will improve fruit quality and reduce inputs. These practices will also be more sustainable in terms of cranberry production, and thus improve Massachusetts cranberry production as a whole.