The table beet is a biennial plant. That means, left to its own devices, a beet plant takes a full two growing seasons to complete its life cycle — from a seed planted to a new seed produced. Fortunately for Irwin Goldman, professor and chair in the horticulture department, there’s a low-tech way to go from seed to seed in a single year.
In the spring, Goldman and his lab members plant seeds in the field, an all-hands-on-deck activity. In late summer, they work together to harvest the roots. From there, the beetroots are put into cold storage for around 12 weeks, which “feels” like winter and makes the roots competent to flower.
Then, over the course of the winter, the roots that move forward in the breeding program get planted into pots, where they grow, flower, and are pollinated in a greenhouse. Seeds are collected in spring, ready for planting out in the field, and the next cycle begins. At this rate, it can take 10 to 15 years to develop a new beet variety.
“I often think of plant breeding as the slowest of the performing arts,” says Goldman. “And it really is. It’s glacial.”
Being a plant breeder involves long hours of monotonous, physical work during certain stretches of the year, particularly in the planting, harvesting, beet assessment, and pollination stages. For Goldman, these times correlate with extra loads of laundry — as well as good, solid sleep.
These also are days when lab members spend a lot of time together.
“It’s very much a team work effort,” says Katharina Wigg, a graduate student in plant breeding and plant genetics. “And we have lunch together on those days, and those are some of my favorite parts of the year because we get to reconnect.”
These group work days also provide an opportunity for graduate students to practice their leadership skills by directing the efforts of the whole team on their individual projects.
“On a daily basis, working with bright, enthusiastic students is a total and utter joy,” says Goldman. “They are just smart and interested and motivated, and they want to extract stuff from their time here. They give you hope for the future.”
Read the cover story, A Different Beet.