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This grad has a passion for peaches

Desmond-Layne

­­An apple a day keeps the doctor away, but peaches are good for you too.
“Peaches are a great source of nutrition,” says Desmond Layne, peach specialist and associate professor of pomology (fruit science) at Clemson University in South Carolina. Peaches contain fibre, vitamin C and antioxidants, which determine the peach’s skin colour. Red-skinned peaches contain anthocyanins while yellow-skinned peaches contain carotenoids.
How did Layne, B.Sc. (Agr.) ’86, become an expert on the fuzzy fruit? While growing up in Harrow, Ont., a small town south of Windsor, his father worked as a peach tree breeder for Agr­iculture Canada, and the peach doesn’t fall far from the tree. As a teenager, Layne spent his summers working on peach farms. After graduating from the University of Guelph, he went on to study pomology at Michigan State University, where he earned an M.Sc. and PhD.
“My undergraduate degree whetted my appetite for research,” says Layne, adding that the hands-on experience he gained through lab work, field trips and summer positions with Agriculture Canada influenced his future career path.
Peach education was the inspiration behind Layne’s website, Everything About Peaches (www.clemson.edu/extension/peach/), a “one-stop shop” for commercial fruit growers, backyard growers and the peach-eating public.
“There’s a lot of information on our site that people growing peaches anywhere in North America would find beneficial,” says Layne, adding that the website has received almost 7,000 hits from around the world since it was launched last summer. The website’s YouTube videos, which are being considered for use as training materials for Afghan farmers, explain how to determine a peach’s ripeness, how to pick the perfect peach and the difference between various types of peaches.
Layne’s research focuses on advising farmers on orchard management practices and which cultivars to grow. Before he can recommend a particular cultivar, it must first be evaluated for its fruit production as well as its resistance to pests and diseases over a five-year period.
Since peaches aren’t native to North America (they have been cultivated in China for more than 3,000 years), commercial peach growers need to use fungicides and pesticides to keep their crops healthy.
“In order for those chemicals to do any good, they have to be on the surface of the fruit,” says Layne. When peaches are picked, they are taken to a packing facility where they are washed and brushed. A wax containing a fungicide is applied to the surface of the fruit to prevent it from rotting during transportation.
Layne assures peach consumers that these chemicals, which are only available to licensed commercial growers, are used in safe concentrations.
“All of these products have been tested and approved by the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency,” he says. “As long as the grower is utilizing them at the appropriate rate following the label guidelines, they do not present any health risk to the consumer.”
In fact, you’d have to eat a lot of peaches to ingest enough pesticide to cause illness. “Nobody’s going to eat 10,000 peaches in one sitting,” says Layne, adding that even organic peaches are not exactly chemical-free. A recent University of Guelph study showed that organic pesticides are less effective than conventional pesticides and must be applied in higher quantities. Organic pesticides that contain mineral oil are particularly harmful because they also kill beneficial insects like ladybugs.
The future of peaches could see genetic modifications that increase their nutritional value, help them tolerate colder temperatures and resist insects and diseases, says Layne. Stone fruits like peaches can also be made into hybrids with other stone fruits. Plumcots, for example, are a cross between plums and apricots.
Layne is part of a research team that recently received a $2-million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crops Research Initiative. Unlike wheat, corn and soybeans, which are staples of the human diet, more research is needed on fruits and vegetables, says Layne, adding that these crops aren’t grown on a massive scale.
“Having healthy food choices and promoting fruits and vegetables to the people of America is a good investment of taxpayer dollars.”
Story by Susan Bubak

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