In remote villages and rural towns from Guatemala to Costa Rica, horticulture professor James Nienhuis and his former grad student Erick Gutiérrez MS’17 are improving countless lives, one tomato seedling at a time. Their goal is to combat the region’s agricultural afflictions (viruses and soil pathogens) to ease the hardships of growing food and earning a living. They’re doing this with a technique older than the ruins of Tikal.
The roots of the initiative go back about eight years when Nienhuis established Seeds of Hope with a USAID grant. His goal was to combat the whitefly-transmitted geminivirus in Central America by developing genetically resistant cultivars that are still beautiful and flavorful.
Nienhuis produced the cultivars he needed to withstand the virus, but other soil pathogens — fungal, bacterial, and parasitic — continued to spoil tomato crops, slashing yields and decreasing the income and nutrition levels among the rural poor.
“Ralstonia (a bacterial wilt) kills the plant once symptoms develop. It causes serious yield losses,” says Gutiérrez, a native of Honduras. “It is very hard to eradicate.”
Matthew Kleinhenz PhD ’96, Nienhuis’ former student, asked if he had tried grafting as a possible solution. Seeing merit in the idea, Nienhuis shifted focus and launched a new program called Seedlings of Hope. The idea was to unite the upper portions (scions) of his virus-resistant cultivars with soil pathogen-resistant rootstocks. Solanum habrochaites, a wild tomato plant that thrives in diseased soil, was a prime candidate to serve as the rootstock.
The grafting process works like this: In the late-seedling stage, a cleft is cut into the stem of the rootstock; then the scion (shaved to a point) is inserted. They are held with a plastic clip or rubber tube. It sounds tedious, but dozens can be done in an hour by a pair of practiced hands. The most critical step is the plants’ recovery period as they meld their vascular structures at the graft junction.
“If you don’t give the plants high relative humidity and keep the temperature constant and reduce light, the grafting won’t be successful,” says Gutiérrez. Part of the challenge is teaching growers how to make affordable “healing chambers” with local materials.
The strategy has proven to be a game-changer. With grafted tomato plants, growers are seeing 100 percent increases in their yields, and selling the fruit is no longer the only profitable endeavor. Women’s cooperatives, for example, can do the grafting and sell a resistant plant to a grower at three times the price.
Despite the higher cost, Nienhuis hears from growers — some buying as many as 10,000 grafted seedlings a month — that they are saving money by not using pesticides. Better yet, their families and farmworkers aren’t exposed.
As word spread of the benefits, training became more in demand. Gutiérrez continued to teach grafting to farmers and womens’ cooperatives. Eight students from Nicaragua’s Universidad Nacional Agraria fundraised for months to afford travel to Madison to learn about grafting and agriculture for nine days in August 2017. They are now partners in ongoing grafting experiments.
Gutiérrez now teaches soil conservation and agricultural practices in steep lands at Universidad Zamorano outside Tegucigalpa, Honduras. He also once assisted in the development of a biofortified bean with increased iron and zinc content — two common areas of nutritional deficiency in the developing world. He says he has been changed by seeing the fruits of his labor:
“It is really amazing to see how the adoption of a small technique, something simple like grafting, can mean a lot to poor families and improve the lifestyles of a lot of people.”
Seedlings of Hope is supported by the Horticulture Innovation Lab, with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, as part of the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative called Feed the Future.