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Grant awarded: Scott Brainard receives USDA-NIFA funding for breeding higher yielding chestnut varieties

Scott Brainard, postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Horticulture, received $225,000 for his project “Leveraging seedling chestnut orchards to rapidly breed higher yielding varieties using drone-based aerial imagery and genomic prediction” through NIFA’s Plant Breeding for Agricultural Production program within the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative. It was among 32 projects sharing $16.2 million in funding.

Project summary (from CRIS website): Farmers in the Midwestern and Eastern U.S. are adopting perennial crops as a method for sequestering carbon, diversifying farm incomes, and reducing the effects of soil erosion and fertilizer run-off. Specifically, chestnuts are increasingly being planted to accomplish these goals. Industry stakeholders recognize that continued expansion of chestnut plantings will require the development of varieties with improved yield density. However, breeding for this trait has historically been constrained by technical challenges associated with calculating yields, as well as chestnuts’ lengthy time to maturity and their substantial acreage requirements. This post-doctoral fellowship proposal overcomes these challenges by leveraging existing on-farm genetic resources. In Aim 1, I will implement machine-learning methods for estimating yield density on an individual tree-basis, using drone-acquired aerial imagery of mature chestnut orchards. Aim 2 of this project will combine this phenotypic data with molecular markers to produce genomic predictions of trees’ breeding values, allowing for the selection of parental trees with optimum yield densities to use in subsequent crosses. This research proposal is aligned with the first and second aims of the AFRI-EWD post-doctoral fellowship program – sustainable agricultural intensification, and agricultural climate adaptation – as well as addressing the AFRI-FAS Program Area “PHPPP”, with a particular focus within the Priority Area “1e. Plant Breeding for Agricultural Production” (Program Code: A1141). By providing critical mentorship and professional development for the post-doctoral fellow, Dr. Scott Brainard, this proposal also achieves the fourth goal of the AFRI EWD program: to advance science by supporting postgraduate education in the agricultural disciplines.