Even the longest journey starts with one little step

  • Next Generation Crops

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.

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