Even the longest journey starts with one little step

By Francesco Cappai

Hello reader, let me introduce myself. I am Francesco Cappai, an Italian student currently pursuing a Ph. D. in the US at the University of Florida and a FFAR Fellow. I would like to share my story with special attention to our younger colleagues interested in pursuing a career in agricultural sciences who might find themselves wondering “Can my job make a difference?”.

I started studying plants about 10 years ago. Back then, I had absolutely no idea where my career would take me. Life seems to always surprise you if you are open to change. After obtaining my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Italy and the Netherlands, I was recruited by the University of Florida for my Ph. D During my studies, I realized how big of an impact our research can have on people’s lives. Academic research is a diverse spectrum in terms of applicability: some projects have immediate noticeable impact; some look more theoretical. I personally like to be involved in applied projects, but before I continue, I would like to point out how crucial fundamental (or theoretical) research is. Everyday, to advance my project, I need to fish from the pool of advanced technical knowledge in my field. This knowledge is the very foundation of my research, and I would not be able to make any progress if it did not exist.

The main goal of my Ph. D. is to improve berry firmness of blueberry, one of America’s most beloved and healthy fruits. As a consumer, you can probably imagine why berry firmness matters. Would you buy a clamshell full of wrinkly berries if it were sitting right next to one full of plump ones? Probably not, as most of us like to eat fruit with a crisp and fresh texture. However, the impact of firmness goes far beyond the enjoyability of your eating experience. In fact, the main reason we are interested in berry firmness is related to the process blueberries go through to finally land on your table.

A remarkable 50-80 percent of money spent producing blueberries goes into hand-harvesting berries. Manual labor costs vary from country to country. In the US they can be 10 times as high as they are in neighboring countries, a situation further exacerbated by growing limitations in labor import due to several factors, including the current political landscape. As you can imagine, harvest costs are a  major consideration for US-based growers as they are quickly outcompeted.

This is where berry firmness comes into play. Firmer berries can withstand intense handling and can be picked using mechanical harvesters, dramatically decreasing production costs. Also, firmer berries are less susceptible to decay and have longer shelf life, two traits deeply linked to decreasing waste along the supply chain.

When I started working on blueberries, I did not know that my research could make such a difference. This awareness can be a great motivation for many of us. For me it is. I like to feel that my work can directly contribute to improving the livelihood of farmers all over world. I would also like to highlight a trend that makes me proud of my generation, as I feel that farming is a noble occupation that has long been underappreciated. Awareness of the importance of farming is growing among my peers. More and more young men and women are returning to growing plants, in fields or in mini urban plots. This gives me hope that in the future we will have additional tools and support to tackle the increasing challenges posed by climate change, overpopulation and globalization.

Agriculture and plant sciences offer an expanding platform for your professional and personal ambitions. Opportunities are especially arising for those who like to engage both in “hard” science and outreach activities so start exploring the advantages of a multi-disciplinary education and approach to problem solving.

Overcoming Water Scarcity

Overcoming Water Scarcity

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Agriculture uses 70 percent of the world’s accessible freshwater. FFAR’s 2016-2018 Overcoming Water Scarcity Challenge Area addressed water use efficiency in agriculture by developing water conservation and reuse technologies, improving crop and livestock breeds, creating improved agronomic practices, increasing the social and economic tractability of conservation practices and enhancing the efficacy of Extension services.

FFAR’s Sustainable Water Management Challenge Area builds on earlier work to increase water availability and water efficiency for agricultural use, reduces agricultural water pollution and develops water reuse technologies.

Healthy Soils, Thriving Farms

Healthy Soils, Thriving Farms

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FFAR’s 2016-2018 Healthy Soils, Thriving Farms Challenge Area increased soil health by building knowledge, fueling innovation, and enabling adoption of existing or new innovative practices that improve soil health.

The Soil Health Challenge Area advances existing research and identifies linkages between farm productivity and soil health, while also addressing barriers to the adoption of soil health practices.

Protein Challenge

Protein Challenge

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FFAR’s 2016-2018 Protein Challenge Area sought to improve the environmental, economic and social sustainability of diverse proteins.

The Advance Animal Systems challenge area supports sustainable animal production through environmentally sound productions practices and advancement in animal health and welfare. Additionally, the Next Generation Crops Challenge Area develops non-traditional crops, including plant-based proteins, and creates new economic opportunities for conventional crops to increase future crop diversity and farm profitability.

Food Waste and Loss

Food Waste and Loss

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About 40 percent of food in the US, or $161 billion each year, is lost or wasted. FFAR’s 2016-2018 Food and Waste Loss Challenge Area addressed the social, economic and environmental impacts from food waste and loss through research that developed of novel uses for agricultural waste, improved storage and distribution, supported tracking and monitoring, minimized spoilage through pre- and post-harvest innovations and changed behaviors to reduce food waste

FFAR’s current Health-Agriculture Nexus Challenge Area addresses food waste and loss and supports innovative, systems-level approaches to reduce food and nutritional insecurity and improve human health in the US and globally.

Forging the Innovation Pathway to Sustainability

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Supporting innovation is necessary for sustainable results. Over the last 50 years, farmers have tripled global food production thanks to agricultural innovations. Forging the Innovation Pathway to Sustainability was a 2016-2018 Challenge Area that focused on understanding the barriers and processes that prevented the adoption of technology and research results into sustainable practices.

Urban Food Systems

Urban Food Systems

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The 2016-2018 Urban Food Systems Challenge Area addressed feeding urban populations through urban and peri-urban agriculture and augmenting the capabilities of our current food system.

The Urban Food Systems Challenge Area continues this work and enhances our ability to feed urban populations.

Making My Plate Your Plate

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FFAR’s 2016-2018 Making My Plate Your Plate Challenge Area focused on helping Americans meet the USDA 2015 Dietary Guideline recommendations for fruit and vegetable consumption, including research to both produce and provide access to nutritious fruits and vegetables.

FFAR’s current Health-Agriculture Nexus Challenge Area supports innovative, systems-level approaches to reduce food and nutritional insecurity and improve human health in the US and globally.