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By Eric Branch, edited by Erin Rodger
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  • Cornell AgriTech
  • School of Integrative Plant Science
  • Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology Section

Growing up on his family’s vegetable farm in central Minnesota, Eric Branch had many positive interactions with extension programs, and this eventually led him to pursue extension as a career. Drawn by Cornell AgriTech’s long history of supporting the agriculture industry and its strong connection to Cornell Cooperative Extension, Eric is now a graduate student in the lab of Sarah Pethybridge, associate professor of plant pathology and plant microbe-biology, where he has had the opportunity not only to perform agricultural research, but to work with area farms via extension. It’s a bonus that table beets, which he researches in the Pethybridge lab, have always been one of his favorite vegetables.

What’s something that most people wouldn’t know about New York state table beets?

New York state is the nation’s second-leading producer of table beets – the red beets that we eat canned, pickled and fresh. One special beet variety grown in New York is even used to produce a deep red dye for food and other uses.

What challenges affecting this crop does your research address?

My research focuses on management and biology of a soilborne fungal pathogen, Rhizoctonia solani. This pathogen can survive in the soil for several years, as well as infect other vegetable and legume crops. In table beets, R. solani causes damping off of seeds and seedlings in the spring, and Rhizoctonia root rot affects developing and mature roots. In-furrow fungicides are applied each year to ensure a harvestable crop. In this system, I am interested in learning how the microbiome in the table beet rhizosphere – the zone of chemical, biological and physical influence generated by root growth and activity and surrounding soil – is impacted by both the pathogen and the fungicide. Soil sampling, DNA extractions and next-generation sequencing have helped me identify how these factors affect the composition and structure of bacterial and fungal communities.

What are some of your most successful research findings?

For my current project, I am associating certain characteristics of the microbial community with Rhizoctonia disease development. I’m also proud of the large collection I’ve made of table beet root pathogens and microbiome samples from table beet rhizospheres, leaf tissue and soil samples.

What do you ultimately hope the outcomes will be for the beet industry?

I would like to see a productive and profitable table beet industry in New York for many years to come. Better insights about plant pathogens, microbial communities and soil can lead to more effective and sustainable decisions made by table beet growers and processors.

What do you love most about student life at Cornell AgriTech?

Cornell AgriTech is such a collaborative environment for everyone. Even though we represent several different graduate fields, we all have opportunities to learn about each other’s projects.

What’s your favorite moment from your time on the Geneva campus?

Everyone in the Pethybridge program helps out during field trial season. Despite my best efforts, we eat a lot more ice cream than beets!

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