Collaborative Breeding for and in Organic Systems
Plant varieties bred in and for organically managed systems are the missing link in the organic production chain. Organic agriculture currently relies 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 are dwindling, 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 due to the fact that organic growers are limited in what type and amount of inputs (pesticides, fertilizers, etc.) that they are allowed to use. 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 will be developed that are better adapted to regional and organic growing conditions and meet farmers’ needs. This will lead to greater sustainability for the organic farming community in the northeast.
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 form the foundation for at least six collaborative on-farm organic breeding projects as required by our SARE proposal. Eight projects involving 17 growers and three breeders in New York and Maine were started in spring of 2005 and will culminate at the end of the grant with at least six advanced breeding populations for each major breeding project. In 2007 Seventy-five growers directly participated (by growing out seed) in the eight projects. Nine workshops and on-farm field days were held throughout the 2007 growing season involving at least 323 growers, researchers, and seed company representatives. 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.
Through 3 variety roundtables a minimum of 6 growers, 3 regional seed companies, and 3 public breeders will collaboratively develop a minimum of 6 advanced breeding populations that will meet growers’ variety needs and improve their long-term sustainability and viability.
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 need 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 rather than our predicted 60 but found having slightly smaller groups worked very well in the roundtable discussions. Results of the roundtable were sent to all participants and additionally 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 available on the Organic Seed Partnership (OSP) Website (www.plbr.cornell.edu/psi/OSPbreeding.htm). 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) continued breeding projects in organically managed environments as part this project. There were a total of 8 projects this year directly involving a minimum of 75 growers (45 in New York state).
Improved CMV Resistant Early Bell Pepper (Molly Jahn with Mark Hutton): This project builds 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. Building on a successful 2006 field season, peppers selections were screened for CMV tolerance over the winter and resistant lines were grown out for seed. In the spring (2007) these lines as well as seed saved from the 2006 season were screened for CMV tolerance and then planted in the field. In 2007 peppers were grown predominantly on organically managed sites with the remaining plants (less than 5% of total) grown at conventional sites managed by George Moriarty on research ground assigned to Jahn’s program (Cornell Department of Plant Breeding). About 1/2 acre of peppers were planted in total. Organically managed sites used in this program include: The Cornell University Freeville Organic Research Farm (certified organic), University of Maine Highmoor Farm (certified organic), 21 organic farms in New York State, and 8 additional farms throughout the country. One participating farm, Peacework Organic Farm, has been a cooperating farm since the beginning of this breeding project. The 2007 field season was the first one we had with “normal” weather- adequate moisture with only one period of very dry weather. Selections from the 2007 field season are currently being screened for CMV resistance in the greenhouse over the winter of 2007-08 and the F4 through F7 generations will be available for growers, researchers, and seed companies to trial (and select from) for 2007. We will utilize the same main sites and also include additional farmer participation. We have several lines 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.
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 squash. Building on the progress from the 2006 field season we grew out 36 F3-F5 generations from crosses originally made between Costata Romanesca and the Cornell University developed varieties PMR Caserta, Success PM, and Romulus PM. Squash was grown on predominately organic sites with the remaining grown at conventional sites managed by George Moriarty on research ground assigned to Jahn’s program (Cornell Department of Plant Breeding). Organically managed sites used in this program include: The Cornell University Freeville Organic Research Farm (certified organic) and 8 organic farms through a coordinated effort with NOFA-NY. Five additional farms throughout the country also trialed promising lines. Controlled pollinations were performed at both Cornell sites and selections were made, based on our original goals and input from the cooperating growers. We have selected out and are stabilizing several improved lines that look like Costata Romanesca as well as some with novel fruit colors. We are currently screened selections from the 2007 field season for tolerance to Powdery mildew. A few promising lines will be grown out to for a seed increase. Lines with high Powdery Mildew tolerance will be planted in Freeville in the 2008 field season. We will also send out up to 6 stabilized lines with comparison varieties for growers and seed companies to trial in 2008.
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. Building on the progress from the 2006 field season, in 2007 we grew out 37 Bc1F3 and F4 generations from crosses originally made between heirloom melons (Collective Farmwomen and Golden Gopher) that had been crossed with six Cornell disease resistant varieties including PMR Delicious 51. Five growers grew out, evaluated, and selected from F2-F4 populations as part of the spring 2007 OSP seed requests coordinated by NOFA-NY. Ten additional farms throughout the country also trialed promising lines. At the Freeville Organic Farm we made self-pollinations and fruit assessment on promising lines. We are currently screening the 2007 selections for PMR in the greenhouse. We will continue advancing these populations and making selections in 2008. We will also send out up to 6 stabilized lines with comparison varieties for growers and seed companies to trial in 2008.
Improved Heirloom Cucumbers (Molly Jahn with Mark Hutton): Our goal is to breed a more disease resistant Boothby’s Blonde cucumber. In 2007 we planted out 27 F4-F6 generations of Boothby’s Blonde Cucumber crossed with the Cornell developed, highly disease resistant, Marketmore 97 at the Cornell Freeville Organic Farm, conventional sites managed by George Moriarty on research ground assigned to Jahn’s program (Cornell Department of Plant Breeding), and at 5 cooperating organic farms. Controlled pollinations were performed at the both Cornell sites and selections were made, based on our original goals and input from the cooperating growers. Cucumber lines were also trailed at the Highmoor Farm in Maine but there was no fruit set due to heavy deer browsing. Nine additional farms throughout the country also trialed promising lines. We have selected out powdery mildew resistant lines that closely resemble Boothby’s as well as several new novel types. 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. We are currently continuing to screen all lines for Powdery Mildew resistance. In 2008 we will continue to evaluate our stable lines and send out the 3 lines with comparison varieties for growers and seed companies to trial in 2008.
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. Seed of the 2005 selections were distributed to 6 organic vegetable growers in New England and one organic seed company. The seed company is using the improved University of Maine Improved Pruden’s Purple as a catalog offering 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 is to select a broccoli that does well under organic conditions and meets the needs of organic growers. The OP broccoli program made good progress in 2007. In addition to breeding in Oregon we had 6 populations of 2 subpopulations, planted at the Freeville Organic Farm. Additionally 3 growers in New York State also grew out and evaluated the broccoli. A location at the USDA-PGRU in Geneva New York was used as a backup site to grow out seed in case any of our locations failed. A highly successful field day in August at the Freeville Organic Farm allowed growers to evaluate broccoli plant 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 will be distributed to growers and further evaluated at the Freeville Organic Farm in 2008.
At Highmoor Farm in Maine work also continued on the OP broccoli project. In 2006, the study was expanded to include a trial with material provided by Seeds of Change. In this study side-by-side fields one organic and one conventional were planted with 24 varieties including hybrids, OP’s and di-haploid breeding lines. The entire planting was made in both the spring (for summer harvest) and summer (for fall harvest) the object of the study was to evaluate multiple traits in an effort to identify key traits for selection in organic systems.
Early generation selection of potato clones under organic conditions (Walter De Jong) This project seeks to determine whether it is more efficient to identify potato clones adapted for organic production by conducting all evaluation – 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 Sabol farms in Ovid, NY, and in conjunction with Richard Sabol, 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 Richard Sabol 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.
For 2007 At least 323 people, including at least 50% farmers, participated in 9 separate workshops and on-farm field days. Seventeen seed companies were represented. Each event included a walk through of the on-farm breeding projects, a description of breeding techniques, and the opportunity for participants to provide input into the breeding process. Most of the events provided the opportunity for growers to learn and practice on-farm breeding techniques.
On February 24th, 2007 Michael Glos presented a workshop with John Navazio (Organic Seed Alliance) entitled “On-Farm Creation of Improved Vegetable Varieties” at the 17th Annual Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference in LaCrosse Wisconsin. Over 60 people attended the workshop. Additionally Michael Glos presented a poster that highlighted many of the SARE funded breeding projects.
On July 23rd. 2007 32 peopled attended a workshop on organic breeding, variety evaluation, and seed cleaning at the Cornell University Freeville Organic Farm. Participants helped with selection criteria on the OP broccoli project, learned pollination techniques, and walked the breeding populations of melons, cucumbers, peppers, and squash.
On July 24th, 2007 40 farmers people attended a three hour workshop on organic vegetable variety selection at Flanders Bay Farm in Flanders, NY. Farm Breeder-host Ken Ettlinger walked his breeding plots with growers and the assistance of OSU breeder Jim Myers and Cornell Breeder George Moriarty.
On August 21st, 2007 Thirty-five people attended a workshop at Highmoor Farm in Maine that focused on seed saving and on-farm breeding. Attendees included representatives of four Maine seed companies, several Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association interns and other Maine farmers interested in on-farm breeding and seed saving.
On August 27th, 2007 23 people representing 14 seed companies toured our organic breeding plots at the Freeville Organic Farm. This was part of the Vegetable Breeding Institute’s Annual Seedsmens’ Field Days. The Vegetable Breeding Institute is a unique industry consortium with 33 member seed companies that include all the large and medium size companies and many small companies located all over the world. Many of the seed companies, although currently not marketing to organic farmers, expressed interest in breeding and marketing varieties for organic markets and the potential the organic markets may hold for their businesses
On September 4th, 2007 29 people participated in an on-farm tasting, selection, and seed production workshop at Crimson Clover Farm in Bainbridge, NY. Participants tasted and evaluated potatoes and melons from our breeding projects.
On September 12th, 2007 28 members of the Maine Vegetable and Small Fruit Growers Association attended a workshop at Highmoor Farm as part of the summer twilight meeting series. This included a walkthrough of the breeding plots.
On September 21st- 23rd, 2007 Michael Glos attended the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association Common Ground Country Fair in Unity Maine. With staff from the USDA-PGRU he helped farmers and gardeners clean seed and answered on-farm breeding questions.
On November 7th, 2007 Walter De Jong presented his annual “Potato Show & Tell” at the Cornell Department of Plant Breeding Field House. This annual event attracted over 70 participants (mostly conventional seed potato and table stock producers) to hear the annuals results of potato breeding and trailing results from the current year. Walter presented the results from the SARE funded breeding projects.
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 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.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
We have successfully determined specific breeding needs from organic growers and seed companies that enabled us to begin the work to meet their needs. We have met or exceeded all milestones involved with the project and are well on our way towards delivering the specific outputs required by this award.
As a result of continued trialing under organic conditions and networking with a seed company one of the potato lines that we have been extensively trialing as part of this project was named and is now being produced as organic seed under the name “King Harry” by Wood Prairie Seed Company in Maine. The project allowed Cornell Breeder Walter De Jong to visit Wood Prairie owner Jim Gerritsen and better understand organic potato tablestock and seed potato production. As part the project we were able to provide Wood Prairie with conclusive results from trials on organic farms of our breeding lines so they could make the best decision of what new variety to carry.
As a partial result of his continued involvement in potato trials as part of a previous project (the Public Seed Initiative) and this SARE funded project, Andy Leed of Starflower Farm in Candor, NY has started producing double certified (certified organic and NY State Blue-Tag certified) seed potatoes. With his 2007 organic seed potato offering he was the first grower to produce double certified seed potatoes in New York and this is an important step in expanding the availability of organic seed potatoes.
As a result of our breeding efforts we have several stable pepper 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.