Jude Grosser: Giving Growers Better Options

Tacy CalliesBreeding


Jude Grosser

By Tacy Callies

Some people start young adulthood by following in their parents’ footsteps. Jude Grosser began by following the path of his oldest brother, Tim, instead. Both went to Thomas More College and majored in biology. After that, their education and careers took different turns.

Grosser thought he would work in wildlife or fisheries, but then had an opportunity to attend graduate school at Morehead State University. It was there that he first became interested in tissue culture techniques while working with algae.

After completing his doctorate at the University of Kentucky, Grosser was hired as assistant professor of plant cell genetics at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Citrus Research and Education Center (CREC). Grosser says he was hired to bring protoplast fusion/somatic hybridization technology to citrus. Over time, he was successful in adapting this technology to citrus, and now labs all over the world use techniques he developed. But it didn’t come easily.

“In 1984, I came into an empty lab of cobwebs and started from zilch with a very small budget,” Grosser recalls.

He became associate professor in 1989 and professor in 1994. He says one of the biggest personal changes he has experienced during his more than three decades at CREC is a shifting focus from lab work to field work. “Some younger people want to stay in the lab and not get their hands dirty,” he says. “But now I enjoy being in the field more than the lab. I like to have the ability to work in the lab, greenhouse and field.”

No matter where you find Grosser working, he’s never far from growers. Highlights of his collaborative field trial work include the relationships he built with the late citrus growers Orie Lee and Harold McTeer.

“They acted like they were learning from me, but the truth was that I was learning a lot more from them,” says Grosser. “Orie taught me about the economics of growing field trees. He let me have a place to plant propagations and work on early Valencias. The OLL (Orie Lee Late) oranges are somaclones we made from the original unstable OLL tree he discovered in his grove. Orie did collaborative work with USDA and University of Florida for 60 years. He was one of the most humble people I’ve ever known. His keen observational abilities were beyond what a normal person would see. In 1,000 trees, if one was doing something different, he would notice it.”

According to Grosser, McTeer had a 20-acre block dedicated to rootstock research, including sweet orange clones, but it was eventually lost to the canker eradication program. “Harold was also very observant. He found a sport (part of a plant that shows differences from the rest of the plant) on Ruby grapefruit that was sweeter and held on the tree longer. A somaclone I made from this sport is showing the best HLB tolerance of all the grapefruit selections in my program, and it’s sweeter than regular Ruby.”

Grosser says he is still meeting people invested in helping the industry. “It’s harder to find them, but they’re still out there.”

A common question growers ask Grosser is: What should I plant? Because circumstances can be so different from grove to grove, he tries not to be too specific when recommending what to plant. Instead, he advises growers to examine what’s available before planting.

“For example, Lee Jones (Gardinier Florida Citrus general manager) will ask me where he can see the trees he is interested in,” says Grosser. “He’ll look at five locations and discuss what he saw with me before making a final decision.”

Grosser’s current favorite picks are:

  • OLL-8 (a late-season sweet orange) on UFR-1, UFR-4, UFR-5, UFR-17, rough lemon or Swingle rootstock
  • Valencia B9-65 on UFR-1, UFR-4, UFR-5 or UFR-17
  • Valquarius or Vernia (mid-season juice oranges) on UFR-1, UFR-4, UFR-5 or UFR-17
  • Sugar Belle (the easiest thing to grow without fear of HLB) on any rootstock (UFR-5 is very good) except Cleo
  • Lemons because they “are easy and just need good nutrition”

For best performance of these varieties and rootstocks, Grosser recommends a modified nutrition program. He says nutrition strongly interacts with genetics to provide HLB tolerance.

BORN: Sept. 9, 1954, in Cincinnati, Ohio, and grew up in Kentucky

EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree in biology, Thomas More College, 1976; master of science degree in biology, Morehead State University, 1979; doctorate in agronomy/plant breeding and genetics, University of Kentucky, 1984

EARLY JOB: Worked in quality control in a meat-packing plant

BEST PARTS OF BEING A CITRUS BREEDER: “You are creating babies and you get to see them through. You can always improve. When you find something that works, it’s exciting and rewarding. If I am successful, I can give back to an industry that provides something positive to society.”

FAMILY: Married to Donna for 30 years and has three daughters. Melinda is doing post-doc work in molecular microbiology. Molly is an art therapist. Heidi recently graduated with a degree in psychology and is preparing for graduate school in holistic nutrition.

LONG-STANDING TRADITION: In the first week of June every year since 1979, he has fished at Ghost River Lodges of Ontario, Canada, with family and friends.

HOBBIES: Fishing, swimming, bicycling, hiking and basketball

MAKING MUSIC: “My first source of income was playing the organ in church. I later took up the banjo while getting my Ph.D.”

WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT HIM: He once choreographed a fake wrestling match to help raise money for children with Down syndrome.

Grosser believes growers will one day have access to HLB-resistant trees, both from conventional breeding and genetic engineering. “We have identified one gene for resistance, NPR-1, which came from genetic engineering with a mustard plant. However, if a mutation in the HLB bacterium overcomes NPR-1, a second gene is needed as a backup,” he explains.

As for conventional breeding, Grosser says, “I think we will find some better selections. Maybe it is already in the field. But it would only be one tree at this point. We are looking for a needle in a haystack.” He doesn’t believe genetic engineering solutions will come any faster than what conventional breeding can deliver.

“Nurseries are in the process of building infrastructure to speed the process of tree production once we have an HLB-resistant tree,” says Grosser. “But if a silver bullet is found, it could take four to five years to get fruit off the trees.”

Grosser considers his biggest scientific accomplishment to be the adaptation of somatic fusion techniques to citrus. “The technology is contributing to seedlessness and development of new rootstocks,” he says.

Other accomplishments include new variety releases from his breeding program:

  • Sweet oranges (Valquarius, OLLs and early Valencias)
  • The first cybrid release of any fruit (Summer Gold grapefruit)
  • The first seedless triploid mandarin fathered by a somatic hybrid (C4-15-19, known as Kids Favorite)

Professor Fred Gmitter, who works closely with Grosser at CREC, says, “Jude has provided the Florida citrus industry with new, high-quality OJ variety options that can raise the bar for the juice industry far above past limitations. He has released new rootstock varieties that may provide growers a path forward out of the HLB decline.”

Gmitter thinks Grosser’s greatest characteristics are focus, grit and determination. “Jude sets goals, devises a plan to achieve those goals, and doesn’t quit until he gets to the end point, in spite of unforeseen obstacles.”

Fishy Business

Fellow citrus researcher Fred Gmitter tells a memorable story about his friend, Jude Grosser:

“While traveling abroad with Jude, we were near a rather polluted local river. Though he is an avid fisherman, he looked into the river and commented to me how he wouldn’t be fishing or eating anything out of this river.

“That evening our hosts, knowing full well of Jude’s penchant for fishing but unaware of his thoughts on local water quality, took us to a special restaurant so he might sample the ‘seven famous fish dishes’ of the region. After the first two dishes came and went untasted by Jude, the host pointed out how special this fish restaurant was, and that they brought him here specifically to taste the ‘famous seven.’

“Jude, without skipping a beat, replied: ‘No thanks, I don’t like fish! Fred, can I have some of your tofu?’

“I nearly fell out of my chair and wished I had a video recording to share this statement with all of Jude’s many fishing buddies.”

With at least five more years before retirement, Grosser says he still has several goals he wants to reach. “I want to solve the early-season, sweet orange fruit-drop problem. I want to solve the problems of canker and HLB on grapefruit to bring that industry back. And I want to contribute at least one seedless tangerine that helps Florida compete with the Cutie/Halo market. Bingo is our first one, but we need three more to last through the season.”

Jones of Gardinier Florida Citrus believes one of Grosser’s best traits is his enthusiasm to find solutions to HLB. “As a researcher, he is probably one of the best listeners that I’ve ever met,” says Jones. “He has never failed to return a phone call and has always had that special ability to lift heavy spirits in a room. He has truly been a pleasure to work with and one of the best examples of a production/university partnership that I can recall.”

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About the Author

Tacy Callies

Editor of Citrus Industry magazine