Dec 22, 2020
New online decision tool supports Midwest specialty crop producers

Sam Wortman, associate professor of horticulture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Ali Loker, Doctor of Plant Health graduate student, have launched a new decision support tool for specialty crop producers and gardeners: the Vegetable Variety Navigator.

The tool provides guidance for specialty crop growers and gardeners as they look for high-yielding, high-quality vegetable varieties for their soil climate in the Midwest.

Nebraska’s Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, along with Nebraska Extension’s Katie King and John Porter, received a grant last year through the Nebraska Department of Agriculture and the United States Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, to support on-farm variety trials for peppers, cucumbers and broccoli in 2020 and into 2021.

Ali Loker

The trials were to be performed on five farms in Eastern and Central Nebraska. Researchers had begun work on the project, and the plants were ready to be transplanted into plots at the participating farms, but COVID-19 caused the team to change their plans.

Wortman had already hired Loker, who still had an interest in working on the project in some capacity, even in the absence of on-farm variety trials. The idea of performing a meta-analysis, which is extraction of data from many independent studies on a similar topic and drawing conclusions from a combined analysis of that data, seemed a good substitute. Loker dove into the scientific literature, and over the course of the summer she analyzed data from over 300 different studies with a goal of helping to answer questions about which vegetable varieties perform best and where. She then used the results of this meta-analysis to build an online tool to help growers visualize the data and make informed decisions about what varieties of specialty crops to plant.

After Loker had gathered the data needed to build the visual tool, Wortman was ready to hire a software engineer to do software and web programming. However, Loker mentioned a program called Tableau she had used previously to visualize data, volunteering to create the tool instead. Alas, the Vegetable Variety Navigator Tool began to take shape, with the final product far exceeding Wortman’s expectations.

“Just seeing her take ownership of the project and really far exceed my expectations is pretty rewarding as a mentor,” said Wortman.

Before the launch of the tool, growers would have to perform hours of research on vegetable varieties to see how they might perform in various conditions. The tool compiles that data and presents it in an easy-to-read visual format.

“We’re hoping to leverage all of the information out there to help growers in Nebraska and throughout the Midwest make better decisions,” said Wortman.

On-farm variety trials are expected to be performed beginning in 2021 to enhance the data in the Vegetable Variety Navigator. The Vegetable Variety Navigator tool will evolve based on on-farm variety trial research and other outside suggestions. A link on the page allows the public to submit comments or data to help improve the tool on an ongoing basis.

To learn more about the Vegetable Variety Navigator, visit

Chandra Spangler, Nebraska Extension

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