The main objective of this project was to develop vegetable varieties that are better adapted to regional and organic growing conditions and that meet farmers’ needs. We began this project by holding a series of regional organic breeding roundtable sessions in the fall of 2004 that brought together organic farmers, breeders, and seed companies throughout the Northeast from Maine to Pennsylvania. The growers and other attendees developed consensus identification of critical organic breeding needs that formed the foundation for collaborative on-farm organic breeding projects. Eight projects initially involving 17 growers and three breeders in New York and Maine were started in spring of 2005. After three field breeding seasons and three winter greenhouse generations we now have stable improved lines in pepper, cucumber, squash, and melon and improved and not fully stable populations of tomato and broccoli. One pepper variety (Peacework) and one potato variety (King Harry) are now newly available as a direct result of this project. Both are currently being sold as certified organic seed. Several other varieties are likely to be released in the next two years. Over the course of the project over 65 growers directly participated in the eight projects and over 1125 growers, researchers, and seed company representatives participated in 31 workshops and on-farm field days. These were held to educate and inform growers in plant breeding and to engage growers as active participants in the selection and breeding of the new varieties.
Plant varieties bred in and for organically managed systems have been the missing link in the organic production chain. Organic agriculture has historically relied on varieties bred, selected and trialed in conventionally managed production environments. These varieties are then tested informally and anecdotally by organic growers to find good performers. In recent years, due to a pronounced consolidation of the global seed industry, the range of variety choices have dwindled; thus some of the very best varieties for organic growers are no longer available. Many varieties bred under conventional management may perform poorly under organic growing conditions because organic growers are limited in what type and amount of inputs (pesticides, fertilizers, etc.) they are allowed to use and rely more on cultural methods. It has been demonstrated through millennia that farmers can be excellent breeders when given the resources and knowledge. By linking public plant breeders with organic growers and organic seed companies and doing collaborative on-farm breeding, selection and trialing, new organic varieties have been developed that are better adapted to regional and organic growing conditions and that meet farmers’ needs. This will lead to greater sustainability for the organic farming community in the Northeast and potentially beyond.
Our objective/performance target was to hold 3 variety roundtables involving a minimum of 6 growers, 3 regional seed companies, and 3 public breeders who would collaboratively develop a minimum of 6 advanced breeding populations that would meet growers’ variety needs and improve their long-term sustainability and viability. We met or exceeded our performance target in all cases. We held 4 variety round tables, have worked closely with 6 seed companies and four public breeders and have at least 23 advanced breeding populations available for growers and seed companies to trial. Two varieties have also been officially released and are commercially available as certified organic seed.
Our fundamental approach was to begin vegetable breeding projects that would directly benefit organic growers and in turn also benefit organic consumers and organic seed companies. It continues to be our belief that the best way to do this is to involve stakeholders in all aspects and stages of the project and do the actual breeding on organic farms. Our strategy utilized three key elements to develop and deliver new organic varieties to farmers; 1) researching the breeding objectives for organic systems, 2) establishing partnerships between growers, breeders, and regional companies and 3) conducting on-farm breeding and selection in partnership with growers, breeders, and regional companies.
We held breeding roundtables in the late fall and early winter of 2004 when growers had time to travel and attend meetings. These roundtables were held in Maine, New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont in order to get a broad picture of growers’ needs in the northeast. Organic grower groups included Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association/Restoring Our Seed (MOFGA/ROS), the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY), and the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture (PASA). Active involvement of these groups was crucial to the success of the roundtables and the project in general. Breeders and organic growers met at each location to discuss breeding objectives for organic systems. Results of the roundtables were compiled and made available to all participants, posted on-line (www.organicseedpartnership.org) and distributed widely at field days. We also continue to share the results with interested breeders and seed companies.
Based on the objectives chosen by farmers we began eight breeding projects. Critical to success of the projects was identifying growers who had the capacity and willingness to grow breeding material on their farms. Breeders and their staff worked closely with farmers to make selections in segregating populations and to evaluate finished varieties. There were site visits during the growing season, as well as farmer field days and twilight walks. These twilight walks engaged more farmers in the variety development process and provided the opportunity for training in selection and breeding techniques in a very practical and hands-on manner. As a result, farmers are better equipped to independently develop their own varieties suited to their specific needs and conditions. Also, in the process of farmers and breeders working together to develop new varieties, breeders became educated about organic farming, and thus more attuned to organic agriculture and growers’ needs.
We used several different techniques for starting our breeding projects. For the melon, cucumber, pepper, and squash programs we relied on heirloom varieties preferred by organic growers crossed with improved disease resistant varieties developed at Cornell. Over the course of the project we grew out and made selections at our organic research farm and on organic farmer’s fields. In some cases, growers did on-farm selection and pollinations and in other cases they just evaluated the lines and provided the breeders with input to better make research farm selections. In the winter we improved disease resistance by inoculating selections and used disease resistance ratings to either do a seed increase or determine which varieties to plant the following season. For potato we used two different techniques, but both were completed entirely on grower’s fields. The first was basically a three year variety trial approach to determine how finished but unreleased potato lines would work on an organic farm. The second technique involved doing the initial selection for new potato varieties on an organic Farm. For broccoli and tomato we relied on populations that had been started and selected for several years by other breeding groups from both within and outside the region.
Each year of the project we grew out material from each breeding project on our organic research farm and made selections. Each spring we also made seed available of most of the projects to growers and seed companies throughout the country. Both groups provided valuable input throughout the breeding process, and in some cases, returned their own selections. An annual update, including a list of what seed growers could request, was sent out each winter to a core group of growers that had participated in the roundtables.
Milestone 1: Sixty organic growers, 5 seed company representatives, and 5 public breeders attend 3 variety roundtables (20 growers/meeting) in Maine, New York and Pennsylvania to identify specific breeding objectives for priority vegetable crops.
In the fall of 2004 we held three roundtables in Maine, New York, and Pennsylvania. We also had a shorter brainstorming discussion at the Restoring Our Seed annual conference in Brattleboro, Vermont. A total of 56 farmers, 5 breeders, and 7 seed company representatives participated in these successful brainstorming sessions (see appendix). Fedco Seeds, Seeds of Change, Pine Tree Garden Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Harris Seeds, High Mowing Seeds and Turtle Tree seeds were all represented. The roundtables involved farmers, breeders, and seed companies coming together to discuss what new and improved vegetable varieties organic farmers need. This involved growers sharing how they make variety choices for their farms including what traits are important, what vegetables groups needed the most improvement and what their main challenges are for each important vegetable group. The growers then came up with three different lists of varieties that would help them. These included varieties that are no longer available but growers still want to use, varieties that are very good but need some improvement, and concepts for new varieties with unique characteristics that define new breeding goals.
We involved 56 growers, just a few short of the expected 60, in the roundtable discussions. Results of the roundtable were sent to all participants and additionally to Territorial Seeds, West Coast Seeds, and Genesis Seeds. The results were also given to the 75 participants of the 2005 Restoring our Seed Conference, were handed out at many of our events in 2005, and are also available on the Organic Seed Partnership (OSP) website (www.organicseedpartnership.org). We continue to solicit organic breeding needs from growers when we meet them at conferences, workshops, and on-farm twilight tours. There is also a link on the Organic Seed Partnership website where growers can email their requests.
Milestone 2: Three public plant breeders form partnerships with 6-10 organic farmers to begin collaborative breeding projects.
The three funded breeders (Molly Jahn, Walter De Jong, and Mark Hutton) started breeding projects in organically managed environments (certified organic in most cases) as part this project. There were a total of 8 projects that directly involved 65 growers over the course of the project.
Improved CMV Resistant Early Bell Pepper (Molly Jahn with Mark Hutton): This project built on two years of breeding we had already begun before the initiation of this award. With this support, we have continued toward the goal of a CMV resistant, early, great tasting bell pepper. In 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 peppers selections were screened for CMV tolerance over the winter and resistant lines were grown out for seed. In the spring of each year these lines as well as seed saved from the previous field season was screened for CMV tolerance and then planted in the field. Peppers were grown predominantly on organically managed sites with the remaining plants (less than 5% of total) grown on conventional sites. Organically managed sites used in this program included the Cornell University Freeville Organic Research Farm (certified organic), University of Maine Highmoor Farm (certified organic), Turtle Tree Seeds (certified organic) and over 25 organic farms. One participating farm, Peacework Organic Farm, has been a cooperating farm since the beginning of this breeding project. We have several stable lines including one that is registered with the USDA and is currently available from Fedco Seeds as “Peacework.” This line with be available from at least one more seed company in 2008 and one additional line is in the process of being named and licensed. In the spring of 2008 we sent promising lines to 6 seed companies and 12 farms for further evaluation and potential commercialization.
Improved Costata Romanesca Squash (Molly Jahn): This project builds on initial squash crosses that were performed at Cornell in the winter of 2003-4 at the request of organic farmers. The goal of this project is to produce a Costata Romanesca type squash with improved disease resistance and compact bush plant habit that retains the original taste of the heirloom parent. In 2005 we grew our early generation (F2 and F3) of crosses between Costata Romanesca and the Cornell University developed varieties PMR Caserta, Success PM, and Romulus PM at the Cornell University Freeville Organic Research Farm and two cooperating organic farms. Growers also requested and trialed seed from these early generation crosses. With input from the two on-farm grow-outs and field day participants we made selections and self-pollinations at the Freeville site. Each subsequent year (2006 and 2007) we continued to make selections and self pollinations in the field. Plants were evaluated for powdery mildew resistance each winter. The squash populations were grown predominantly on organically managed sites with the remaining plants (less than 5% of total) grown at conventional sites. Organically managed sites used in this program included the Cornell University Freeville Organic Research Farm (certified organic) 2 organic farms in New York State, and 20 additional farms throughout the country. Two farms made their own selections (self-pollinations) and returned seed to be grown at Cornell and redistributed. We have selected out and continue to stabilize several lines that look like Costata Romanesca with improved resistance to powdery mildew, as well as some lines with novel fruit colors. In the spring of 2008 we sent promising lines to seed companies and 16 farms for further evaluation and potential commercialization.
Improved Heirloom Melons (Molly Jahn): Our goal is to produce a more disease resistant, high yielding melon while maintaining the best traits of the heirloom parents. This project builds on initial melon crosses that were performed at Cornell in the winter of 2003-4, at the request of organic farmers. In 2005 we grew our early generation (F2 and F3) crosses originally made between heirloom melons (Collective Farmwomen and Golden Gopher) and six Cornell disease resistant varieties, including PMR Delicious 51, at the Cornell University Freeville Organic Research Farm. Growers also requested and trialed seed from these early generation crosses. With input from the on-farm trials and field day participants we made selections and self-pollinations at the Freeville site. Each subsequent year (2006 and 2007) we continued to make selections and self pollinations at the Freeville site. Fruit was evaluated for powdery mildew resistance each winter. Melons were grown predominantly on organically managed sites with the remaining plants (less than 5% of total) grown at conventional sites. Organically managed sites used in this program included the Cornell University Freeville Organic Research Farm (certified organic) and 12 organic farms. One farm made their own selections (self-pollinations) and returned seed to be grown at Cornell and redistributed. We have selected out and continue to stabilize several improved lines (both cantaloupe and honeydew types) that retain the flavor and appearance of their heirloom parents with added powdery mildew resistance. In the spring of 2008 we sent promising lines to six seed companies and eight farms for further evaluation and potential commercialization.
Improved Heirloom Cucumbers (Molly Jahn with Mark Hutton): Our goal is to breed a more disease resistant Boothby’s Blonde cucumber. This project builds on initial crosses made between heirloom variety Boothby’s Blonde and Cornell developed Marketmore 97 performed at Cornell in the winter at the request of an organic farmer. Growers also requested and trialed seed from these early generation crosses. With input from the on-farm trials and field day participants we made selections and self-pollinations at the Freeville site. Each subsequent year (2006 and 2007) we continued to make selections and self pollinations at the Freeville site. Fruit was evaluated for powdery mildew resistance each winter. Cucumbers were grown predominantly on organically managed sites with the remaining plants (less than 5% of total) grown at conventional sites. Organically managed sites used in this program included the Cornell University Freeville Organic Research Farm (certified organic) and 18 organic farms. One farm made their own selections (self-pollinations) and returned seed to be grown at Cornell and redistributed. We have three stable selections, one that is just like Boothby’s Blonde, but has resistance to powdery mildew, one that is long and PM resistant like Marketmore 97, but is white with white spines, and a third that is a multipurpose white PM resistant cucumber with white skin and white spines. One variety, named “Platinum”, is registered with the USDA and at least two companies are planning on producing seed for 2008 or 2009 seed catalogs. In the spring of 2008 we sent promising lines to 6 seed companies and 12 farms for further evaluation and potential commercialization.
Improved Prudens Purple Tomato (Mark Hutton): This is a continuation of a project started by the Restoring Our Seed Project (USDA- NESARE funded). The goal is to develop and select a more disease resistant great tasting Prudens Purple type tomato. Selections were made in 2005 at the University of Maine Highmoor Farm. Seed of the 2005 selections were distributed to 6 organic vegetable growers in New England and one organic seed company. The seed company is now using the improved selection as a catalog offering starting in 2007. No generation advancement was made in the tomato breeding program at Highmoor Farm in 2007 due heavy browsing by deer.
A Superior Organic Broccoli (Mark Hutton, Mark Farnum, Jim Myers, Molly Jahn): The goal of this project is to select a broccoli that does well under organic conditions and meets the needs of organic growers. We started with seed that originally came from three years of field crossing many Oregon State processing broccoli lines with a number of hybrid and OP varieties preferred by organic growers. The seed had then been selected for two generations. It was then evaluated in Maine and New York and mass selections were made in 2006. In 2007, in addition to breeding populations in Oregon, we had 6 sub populations derived from 2 main populations planted at the Freeville Organic Research Farm. Additionally, 3 growers in New York State also grew out and evaluated the broccoli. A location at the USDA-PGRU farm in Geneva, NY was used as a backup site to grow out seed in case any of our locations failed. A highly successful field day in August of 2007 at the Freeville Organic Research Farm allowed growers to evaluate broccoli plants that were at an optimum stage for rouging. This included developing a list of preferred broccoli traits. Seed was saved from the PGRU and Freeville sites. Half the seed was sent back to Oregon and the other half was distributed to 5 growers and is being further evaluated and selected at the Freeville Organic Research Farm in the current field season (2008).
Early generation selection of potato clones under organic conditions (Walter De Jong). This project sought to determine whether it is more efficient to identify potato clones adapted for organic production by conducting all evaluations – not just replicated yield, on an organic farm. It is a well-known breeding maxim that the best way to identify a clone adapted for a particular environment is to select it in that environment. Nevertheless, a significant practical difficulty with potato breeding is that clones need to be multiplied for many years before a decision can be made about release. During this time there are many opportunities for clones to become infected with viruses, reducing yield, or other more serious pests such as late blight, that can wipe out limited seed stocks and preclude further evaluation. Which issue ultimately proves dominant – the advantage of selecting in the target environment, or the risk of serious disease – remains to be seen.
In 2005 and 2006, we planted a total of ≈1400 clones at an upstate New York organic farm and selected clones at harvest each year for re-evaluation the following year. Nineteen surviving clones, as well as approximately 100 new clones, were planted in 2007. None of the clones were deemed superior than check varieties planted in the same field, and thus none were saved for future evaluation in 2008. The primary lessons we learned from conducting three years of early-generation selection on an organic operation were: 1) the best-performing varieties, as assessed by a visual evaluation of appearance and yield, were invariably existing varieties, which had been developed under non-organic conditions. 2) Although this will come as no surprise to organic growers… weed control was much more difficult on an organic potato operation than it is in our (herbicide-treated) potato plots at Cornell. Especially for early generations, uniform, effective weed control is crucial if clones are to be meaningfully compared with each other. Combining points 1 and 2, it is our view that the most efficient use of (limited resources) for developing potato varieties suitable for organic growers is to conduct all early-generation selection at a well-maintained central breeding site, such as Cornell, and to only begin evaluating clones for specific adaptation on organic operations after 4-5 years of evaluation has eliminated all the “junk” that results from any potato cross.
3) The most beneficial aspect of conducting early generation selection was developing a sense of what the participating farmer most wanted in a new potato variety.
Potato breeding always involves compromises; every potato has a unique combination of strengths and weaknesses. Long-term interactions with growers are essential for developing a sense of what “trait compromises” growers are, and are not, willing to make. It has become clear to us that we need to develop and maintain long-term relationships with several organic growers, if we are to genuinely understand what the organic community wants in new potato varieties. At present, our view is that this will be better achieved through trialing advanced clones on organic farms, rather than continuing with early-generation selection.
A Leafhopper Resistant Potato for Organic Systems (Walter De Jong): The goal is to evaluate leafhopper resistant potato clones under organic conditions. The clones were developed and selected at Cornell University in previous seasons under conventional conditions. Because potatoes are clones, breeding in potatoes consists mostly of evaluating the variety under many different seasons and locations rather than stabilizing a variety like in most other vegetable plant breeding. Fifteen clones, many of them with resistance to leafhoppers, were evaluated in a replicated yield trial at Starflower Farms in Candor, NY. The best performing yellow-fleshed clone was Keuka Gold, a yellow-fleshed variety previously developed at Cornell. At 392 cwt/acre, it yielded 55% more than Yukon Gold (253 cwt/acre). This is the third year running where Keuka Gold has handily beaten Yukon Gold in yield, and is consistent with many trials we have conducted under non-organic conditions. The second-best yielding white clone (347 cwt/acre) was King Harry (formerly known as NY131). King Harry is an early-maturing clone with some resistance to potato leafhoppers. Based on its performance in the Starflower Farm trials, Jim Gerritsen’s experience in growing it in Maine, and our experience in non-organic trials at Cornell, the “King Harry” was officially released in fall of 2006. Organic seed of King Harry became available from Wood Prairie Farms beginning in spring of 2007.
Milestone 3: A total of 80 farmers and 3 seed company representatives attend on-farm field days (6-10) for each year at each breeding site and learn breeding and selection techniques and make early generation selections in collaboratively produced breeding populations.
Over the course of the project a total of over 1125 growers and 20 seed companies participated in 31 workshops and on-farm field days.
Milestone 4: Each breeding collaborative will develop a minimum of 6 advanced breeding populations that will meet growers’ variety needs and improve their long-term sustainability and viability.
Between the eight projects we have a total of 23 advanced breeding populations. This includes 6 lines of pepper, 2 lines of broccoli, 3 lines of cucumbers, 5 lines of squash, 1 line of tomato, and 6 lines of melon. Additionally we have one named variety of pepper and one named variety of potato.
Through out the project we had field days, twilight tours, on-farms workshops, conference workshops, and conference presentations. These all helped inform growers of the project and facilitated their participation in the breeding efforts. Involving growers was very successful especially when it involved tastings and one-on-one discussions. The website, www.organicseedpartnership.org was kept up to date throughout the project and a variety release article on Peacework pepper is currently being reviewed for Hort Science.
Impacts of Results/Outcomes
Over 65 growers directly participated in the breeding projects with over 1125 participating in field days and workshops. These growers now have a better sense of how breeding works and are equipped to independently implement breeding projects on their own farms. They have communicated their needs to university breeders and seed companies ensuring that breeding projects address the most pertinent challenges being faced. The network between growers, breeders and seed companies established through this project will provide a mechanism for communication of grower needs well beyond the termination of this award. There are also now improved varieties available for growers to purchase in seed catalogs and many additional varieties in the variety pipeline for future release.
Feedback from two seed companies indicate that the two released varieties, Peacework pepper and King Harry potato, are proving to be popular with growers.
Areas needing additional study
From our breeding roundtable discussion there are clearly additional breeding projects that should be undertaken to meet the needs of organic growers. This could include: breeding cucurbits with resistance to downy mildew and bacterial wilt. Also, several additional years are needed to fully complete the breeding started in the eight projects.