Variety Development – Buckeyes Edition

December 30, 2022 in Crops

Variety Development – Buckeyes Edition

Touchdowns and Tomatoes!

Over the decades, New Year’s Day has become somewhat synonymous with Ohio State University football. In recent history, since the inception of the four-team College Football Playoff format in 2014, the Buckeyes have been selected to participate four times by virtue of finishing the regular season as a nationally top-ranked team. Only the University of Alabama (7x) and Clemson University (6x) have made more appearances in that time span. Of particular note, the Buckeyes won the inaugural College Football Playoff championship in 2014 over the University of Oregon. Tomorrow they will once again compete for a chance to win a national championship in football, along with the University of Georgia, Texas Christian University, and OSU’s archrivals: the University of Michigan Wolverines. As a side note, if you are agnostic with respect to sports, or at least football, or are generally unaware of the rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan, just know that it is…ahem, fervent. It is in this spirit of competition that we focus our attention on THE Ohio State University (OSU) as the next stop on our tour of America’s land-grant universities (LGUs). 

OSU was founded on March 22, 1870 as the Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College. This was long after Ohio (sort of) became a state in 1803, but long before it was officially admitted to the Union in 1953–the 150-year delay was due to an administrative oversight by Congress. Not to worry, however, as the correction in 1953 was made retroactive to 1803. In any case, the Buckeye State was the 17th state that joined the United States, retroactively of course! 

All of this brings up a critical question: What exactly is a “buckeye”? After all, despite being poisonous, it serves as the state’s official nickname, the state tree, and the mascot of OSU. Here is the official explanation from the state’s website: 

The term buckeye has widely been used to describe residents of Ohio in general since the mid 1800s. It became popular when supporters of William Henry Harrison's successful presidential campaign carved souvenirs out of buckeye wood.

Personally, we prefer the Ohio State University explanation because any time it incorporates a “swashbuckling” guy with the name of Ebenezer, it’s gotta be good!

According to folklore, the Buckeye resembles the eye of a deer and carrying one brings good luck. “Buckeyes” has been the official Ohio State nickname since 1950, but it had been in common use for many years before. The first recorded use of the term Buckeye to refer to a resident of the area was in 1788, some 15 years before Ohio became a state. Col. Ebenezer Sproat, a 6’4″ man of large girth and swashbuckling mannerisms, led the legal delegation at the first court session of the Northwest Territory in Marietta. The Indians in attendance greeted him with shouts of “Hetuck, Hetuck” (the Indian word for buckeye), it is said because they were impressed by his stature and manner. He proudly carried the Buckeye nickname for the rest of his life and it gradually spread to his companions and to other local settlers. By the 1830s, writers were commonly referring to locals as “Buckeyes.” 

If Ebenezer was still around, he’d see that the Buckeye State is home to a quite respectable corn crop, valued at $3.5 billion in 2021 by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) which made it the second-most valuable crop in the state and the eighth most productive state in the U.S. for corn. If corn is number two, then you probably correctly guessed that soybeans would be the most valuable crop in the state, but just barely. In fact, USDA NASS valued Ohio soybeans at $3.6 billion in 2021, just edging out corn in the state and good enough for 7th in national production value. On a totally unrelated note, Michigan ranks behind Ohio in both corn (12th) and soybeans (13th). After these two heavyweight crops, there is a precipitous drop-off to hay production, valued at $458 million. Wheat ($278M) and oats ($5.8M) come in fourth and sixth, respectively. In between the two of them lies pumpkins, valued at $14.4 million, or just $584,000 less than the pumpkin production of that other state up north (pssst…it’s Michigan!)

Ohio has much more than traditional row crops, however, even if it can’t quite compete with Michigan’s specialty crop production (or can it?). The Ohio Secretary of State’s website summarizes Ohio’s contribution to national agriculture in this handy list, and notes that Ohio is the top producer of Swiss cheese in the nation. Meanwhile, the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Ohio Proud program links consumers with agricultural products produced in the Buckeye State. 

Ohio’s farms are diverse in more than just size. Poultry, cattle and calves, soybeans, corn, pork, and dairy top the state’s commodity list in terms of production value, but you’ll also find blueberries, strawberries, sweet corn, honeybees, chestnuts, sunflowers and more. In fact, the state’s farmers grow and raise more than 200 products, which explains why Ohio is a leader in more than 30 product sectors.

All of this agricultural production requires a lot of supporting research, which is where OSU’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) and the John W. Garland College of Engineering, Science, Technology, and Agriculture at Ohio’s 1890 LGU institution Central State University enter the conversation. Between the two of them, they provide research, education, and extension services to Ohio agriculture–the Buckeye State’s largest industry and valued at $124 billion. For the purposes of this post, we’ll focus our energy on scratching the surface of OSU’s agricultural research efforts.

Courtesy of CFAES

As an institution and regardless of the metric, OSU is one of the largest universities in the nation and boasts a total enrollment of nearly 68,000 students. The reach of CFAES in particular is enormous and exceeds the capacity of this post. CFAES itself is one of 16 different colleges within OSU. Ten departments and schools make up CFAES across seven different campuses within the state–including 988 acres in Columbus and 6,161 acres at the Wooster campus. More than 4,200 additional acres can be found across the state’s 88 extension offices and 11 research stations. It truly is an impressive and substantial operation.

Throughout our tour of the U.S. land grant system, it has become commonplace for us to uncover an agricultural tidbit that had previously been unknown to us. In the case of OSU, it is not surprising to find a robust variety testing program–called the Ohio Crop Performance Trials, or a top-shelf soybean breeding program, or even a winter malting barley breeding program. What we were not expecting to discover is a tomato breeding program, which of course speaks to the value of specialty crops to the Buckeye State.

Headquartered on the Wooster campus at the Ohio Agricultural Research & Development Center (OARDC), Dr. David Francis’ TomatoLab is one of just a handful of public tomato breeding programs in the country, joining Florida, North Carolina, New Jersey (Rutgers University), and of course, California. As is the case with many vegetable crops in the U.S., the public breeding programs are heavily augmented by, if not completely substituted for, private breeding programs. Upon learning about the TomatoLab, we became curious about where U.S. tomato production occurs so we dived into the most recent U.S. Ag Census data from USDA NASS. We were not surprised to see California and Florida at the top of the list as #1 and #2 respectively, but right after Tennessee we found Ohio, ranked 4th nationally by value with $48.6 million in tomato production. Interestingly, in terms of volume, Ohio dropped to 7th, with about 1.1 million hundredweight (CWT, or 100 lbs), indicating that the quality of tomatoes grown in Ohio fetches a higher premium.

All of this present-day tomato information makes sense in light of this light-hearted and entertaining tomato history lesson we stumbled across in our research. It turns out the U.S. tomato industry got its start in none other than the heart of Ohio by a native Ohioan named Alexander Livingston, who over a period of 40 years cultivated tomatoes, carefully selecting those that possessed desired traits each year. We won’t regurgitate the article and instead encourage you to make the worthwhile effort to read it for yourself. However, we will tease it by saying that you’ll learn about tomato juice and its role as the official state beverage, which we’ll admit we did not know was even a thing until today. You’ll also learn about the Reynoldsburg Tomato Festival, which annually and appropriately celebrates Mr. Livingston in his hometown.

So regardless of what team you find yourself rooting for tomorrow in the big game, remember that when you grab that ketchup bottle or go in for a dip of your favorite salsa, you have another reason to appreciate the Buckeye State.

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Thanks for reading and Happy New Year!

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