Pacific Northwest Researchers and Farmers Collaborate on Organic Breeding Efforts

Kristina Hubbard, Director of Advocacy, Organic Seed Alliance and Micaela Colley, Executive Director, Organic Seed Alliance
Publish Date: 
Winter 2011
VolNo: 
Vol. VI No. 1

Washington State NOVIC field day, carrot and beet taste tests. Photo provided by Micaela Colley

The Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC) brings together researchers and organic farmers in Northern states to address seed and plant breeding needs. NOVIC includes researchers and educators from Organic Seed Alliance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and fourland grant universities: Washington State University, Oregon State University, University of Wisconsin – Madison, and Cornell University. NOVIC partners with organic farmers to breed new varieties, identify the best performing varieties for organic agriculture, and educate farmers on organic seed production and plant variety improvement.

The availability of plant varieties with regionally adapted productivity traits that perform under organic production challenges – be it weed competition, low-input fertility, and pest and disease pressure – is fundamental to the success of organic agriculture. Responses to a nationwide survey conducted by Organic Seed Alliance in 2010 indicate the organic sector is underserved in genetics specifically adapted to organic cropping systems, regions, and market niches. Many farmers are challenged by a lack of sufficient quantity and scarcity of information on performance under organic conditions for those varieties for which organic seed is available. Few breeding programs focus on varieties suitable for on organic production, even though the opportunities to address unique challenges and consumer demands are very great.

NOVIC collaborators work with farmers on regional breeding projects that focus on traits important for season extension, a breeding priority for organic farmers producing for regional markets. Breeding projects also focus on flavor and horticultural traits crucial to organic agriculture. All breeding is conducted under organic conditions.

Plant breeding projects are underway in five states – Minnesota, New York, Oregon, and Washington, Wisconsin – and focus on five vegetable crops. The breeding goals include broccoli (heat tolerance, marketable uniformity in an open-pollinated variety); carrot (cold-tolerant, weed-competitive, ‘Nantes’ type); snap pea (heat tolerant, disease resistant, stringless variety); sweet corn (good cold soil emergence in a sugar enhanced variety); winter squash (long term storability). Carrot, corn, broccoli, and snap pea breeding efforts are underway in Washington and Oregon with cooperating organic farms.

Collaborators work with farmers to conduct vegetable variety trials on certified organic ground, at research stations, and on cooperating organic farms. Trials include the five crops mentioned above in additional to crops chosen by regional farmers. For the 2010 season, farmers in Washington chose to conduct trials on table beets and farmers in Oregon chose bell and sweet peppers.

Frank Morton (left) of Wild Garden Seed and John Eveland (right) of Gathering Together Farm discuss pepper traits at the NOVIC Field Day. Photos by Lane SelmanNOVIC is committed to sharing resources and information with farmers, seed companies and research and education organizations nationally. To that end, a national database of organic variety trial results will be created in 2011 with a feedback forum for farmers to contribute their experience with variety performance on their farms. This information is also shared through field days and workshops.

Education is central to the purpose of NOVIC. Collaborators have hosted workshops at which farmers gain skills in seed production and plant variety improvement. Last July the first on-farm participatory breeding workshop was held at Common Ground Farm in Olympia, Washington. The workshop was co-taught by Jim Myers, OSU and John Navazio, WSU and drew over 40 participants, primarily farmers and students of sustainable agriculture. OSU held a farmer field day to view variety trials. Summer variety trial field days and tasting evaluations were also held in Oregon and Washington in 2010. NOVIC will publish guides on seed production, plant variety improvement, and participatory plant breeding throughout 2011-2013. Publications, event announcements, and a trial database will be created through eOrganic and shared with the public on www.eXtension.org. For more information about NOVIC activities planned for 2011in the Pacific Northwest visit www.seedalliance.org.

NOVIC benefits organic farmers and the communities they serve in a number of ways. First, farmers have access to shared knowledge and resources, including seed growing equipment, with the goals of developing varieties optimal for organic systems and safeguarding invaluable plant genetic resources. Second, the project assists organic farms in meeting compliance with organic regulations by helping farmers learn which organically certified varieties perform well in their region. And, third, access to on-farm seed production and plant variety improvement resources and educational events will help farmers achieve more success on their farms.

NOVIC is an effective working model that the organic community can emulate to collaboratively build infrastructure for developing and distributing organic seed.