March 8th, 2021
Read the interview below to hear about Kate's time working at University of Minnesota's Landscape Arboretum Horticultural Research Center.
Maddie: Hi Kate! Thanks for joining me today for Tea With Friends! This interview series is dedicated to young professionals in the various realms of the environmental and sustainability fields. Are you drinking tea right now?
Kate: Thanks for having me! And, yes, I am enjoying some good old chai tea.
Maddie: Yum! We love a good chai. I'm having some peppermint green tea over here. Well, let's jump right in! Kate, can you tell us a bit about the work they do at the Research Center?
Kate: Yes, the UMN system has a handful of agricultural research centers across the state of Minnesota. Each site specializes in different branches of agricultural research with some overlap. The Horticultural Research Center’s primary focus is on fruit breeding.
I mainly worked with apples and some days was invited to help out with other projects around the farm. There is also a big focus on wine and table grape varieties. Some smaller projects include cider apples, pears, cherries and kiwi berries just to name a few! Had no clue what kiwi berries were before this summer.
Climate has a huge influence on the breeding program. It is not uncommon to see temperatures dip below 0 degrees Fahrenheit during the coldest parts of winter. Any new cultivar first and foremost needs to be able to withstand the harsh winters. A hundred years ago, when the program first started, this was a top concern. Now with cold-hardy genes in the pool there is more opportunity to select for more desirable traits such as flavor!
Maddie: I didn't know what kiwi berries were until right now. It is definitely interesting to think about how much climate impacts our fruit and vegetables and how people are able to modify species to make them more versatile. Can you tell us more about what your day to day was like?
Kate: Day to days had some predictability but focused on the life cycle of the plant. Apple trees in Minnesota produce one crop during the year, which is not ready for harvest until mid-August at the earliest. When the snow melts every day is spent preparing for harvest.
This year, I learned the ins and outs of pruning, grafting trees and what it takes for an apple to make the cut for market release. There were also days doing less desirable tasks like mowing the lawn or pulling weeds. When we made it to harvest season we spent full days tasting the new apple crosses. During peak season 300 new apple trees would be tasted and evaluated in a week.
Only a select few will be selected to move on to a second round of testing. I think right now, 1 in every 10,000 new trees is released commercially. With that said there is a high return on trees being grown, cared for and then discarded once they reach maturity.
Maddie: This is definitely a side of food production that I feel like I know very little about. I don't often think about the massive amounts of research and work that go into testing fruit and trees to prepare for market release, so it's really interesting for me to hear what goes into it. You mentioned not enjoying mowing, but did you have a favorite part of the job?
Kate: Trying new fruits! I spent many days snacking on the fruits of the original Sweetango apple tree. Sweetango is a child of the Honeycrisp and I would say it exceeds it in flavor. Would recommend giving it a try if you ever happen across it.
Maddie: Can you bring me a sweetango? That sounds really good! Tell me, did your time at Research Center teach you anything new about the environment and sustainability? Has it impacted your personal philsophies about the environment and how you interact with it?
Kate: Food is a common language everyone speaks! With growing population and changing climate, food security is a conversation every being on earth should have a say in. How can we use breeding to better select for traits that can withstand climate variability and pest resistance. Right now the University is putting a huge emphasis on looking for disease resistance genes in apples. This overall would yield a greater harvest and reduce the need for PESTICIDES!
Within the past year or so I have definitely become more thoughtful of where I source my food from. I’m beginning to realize/connect how many small farms there are in my local area. There are faces behind these farms that are REAL people (not corporations) that are all making an honest buck and share similar ideologies in regards to food. Great resources I have found are through the state department of agriculture as well as local extension sites. Facebook is also a great way to connect with your local farmer.
Maddie: I completely agree that food is really the only thing everyone has in common and I think it is great advice to encourage people to connect with local farmers. Can you tell us a bit about how your undergrad experience prepared you to pursue a job like this?
Kate: I really enjoyed my genetics and cell biology courses during my undergrad. These courses, along with many of the core biology courses I took, primarily focused on the human body. I was amused by the basic building blocks of cells, but never ever EVER have seen myself working in health care.
When I studied in South Africa (this is where I met THEE Incredible Maddie Beller), I “casually” picked up a couple of courses in the viticulture and horticulture departments. I had no clue what I was getting myself into and there was a massive learning curve. I underestimated the science behind where our food comes from, but was totally sold on getting in on this. So there are a lot of moving pieces which influenced where I am at now.
Maddie: You probably recall that I also casually picked up an oenology course and was in way over my head making wine in the campus cellar. So I think we are well on our way to starting Kate + Maddie Vineyard. That's my dream job, do you have one?
Kate: Super long term, I would love to revamp my family’s farm. Definitely dreaming but would love to have a space to educate others (kiddos) on where food comes from. Invite people to get their hands dirty. Maybe try my own hand at breeding. Can coffee beans withstand Minnesota’s climate?? Stay tuned.
Maddie: That sounds like a great idea! I vote for hops. And my last question for today, what advice would you give to other people just starting their professional journey in the environmental sector?
Kate: Don’t be afraid to ask for guidance/ a hand. I’m really bad at this, so also advice for myself.
Maddie: It isn't easy to ask for help so that's honestly great advice. Well thanks so much for spilling the tea with us today! I am now starting my quest to find sweetango apples and kiwi berries.
Kate: Thanks for having me!