AURORA, Ore. — In considering the ideal vegetable, a farmer will often desire different attributes than a chef.
Yields and disease resistance are generally top of mind for the farmer, while the chef may focus on flavor and appearance.
The Culinary Breeding Network, managed by Oregon State University, aims to help plant breeders bridge this divide by getting farmers and chefs to communicate what they’re looking for in a vegetable.
“There’s a lot of power in bringing these people into the same room together,” said Lane Selman, an OSU agricultural researcher who helped start the network.
The network organizes events such as the upcoming vegetable variety showcase, scheduled for Sept. 28 in Portland, where the participants from various sectors of the food industry can compare notes on new cultivars.
“A lot of it is focused on flavor and culinary applications,” said Timothy Wastell, a chef who consults for the network.
The network was spawned in 2009, after breeder Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed released open-pollinated new pepper varieties to replace a popular hybrid cultivar that was discontinued.
Seed companies frequently drop hybrid vegetable varieties if they don’t generate enough sales, even if the cultivars are important to some growers, said Selman.
Open pollination allows farmers to save seed, as they’re not dependent on the two parent cultivars used to produce hybrids.
When Morton developed several new pepper varieties, chefs tended to prefer those without a sunken stem, as it eases cutting in a busy kitchen environment.
“These are things plant breeders don’t necessarily think about,” said Wastell.
The episode convinced breeders and OSU that chefs and retailers should be involved in the variety development in an organized manner.
“We started realizing, ‘Wow, this is something missing,’” Selman said. “We know what farmers want, but we don’t know what end users want.”
Breeders often focus on developing cultivars that are “true to type” — that fit the vegetables traditional characteristics — but these traits may not necessarily be important to buyers, she said.
By getting input from chefs and other end users, the breeders can incorporate information that wouldn’t otherwise be on their radar, Selman said.
Flavor and other attributes that are important to chefs don’t conflict with agronomic qualities because the Culinary Breeding Network doesn’t showcase varieties that would be unappealing to growers, she said. “I don’t bring the dogs in.”
Oregon State University is involved in other cooperative programs with seed producers.
The university is paid by several seed companies to grow out vegetable varieties at its North Willamette Research and Extension Center in Aurora, Ore.
The plots serve as a “learning farm” for new growers while providing breeders with information about how the cultivars perform at that location, said Nick Andrews, small farms extension agent at OSU.
Unlike a farmer, OSU doesn’t harvest the vegetables, which allows seed companies to see how well plants hold up in the field past maturity, he said.
Seed companies can also bring their customers to the location to demonstrate new varieties, Andrews said. “It’s a public location.”