Organic breeders push for tougher plants, longer season
Farmers, universities work together to develop seeds
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Organic crops, unlike their conventional counterparts, can't depend on synthetic chemicals for protection.
For that reason, some organic growers suspect that seeds produced by conventional breeders may be ill-equipped for the challenge of thriving on their farms.
"When they breed, they control all the insects and diseases," said John Eveland, an organic farmer near Philomath, Ore. "That isn't our deal."
A collaborative, four-year project between farmers and university researchers is aiming to fill that gap by breeding crops specifically for organic systems.
The Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative, funded with a $2.3 million grant from USDA, will focus on broccoli, carrots, sweet corn, snap peas, winter squash and peppers.
These crops were chosen because they represent a common portfolio for organic growers, and because they're seen as needing improvement, said Jim Myers, a horticulture professor at Oregon State University and the project's director.
The USDA, Washington State University, the University of Wisconsin, Cornell University and the Organic Seed Alliance trade group are also participating in the NOVIC project.
Apart from breeding crops to withstand pressure from pests and disease, the project aims to enhance the farmer's marketing opportunities, he said.
"One of the overall themes for NOVIC is season extension," Myers said.
The idea is to push cold-season crops, like peas and broccoli, to continue yielding as temperatures rise in spring and summer. The goal also is to allow farmers to plant warm-weather crops earlier in the season.
By selling crops before or after their regular harvest season, growers may benefit from higher prices and a longer, more diverse marketing year, said Myers.
They can also save money by avoiding more costly season-extending methods, such as starting corn in a greenhouse.
"Right now, growers use transplants, which are expensive and time-consuming," he said.
Most of the cultivars developed under the NOVIC project will probably be open-pollinated instead of hybrids -- cultivars generated by crossing two in-bred lines, Myers said.
While hybrid seeds produce more uniform plants, open-pollinated crops have their own advantages. Farmers can more easily save seeds from open-pollinated crops, since seeds collected from hybrid crops would not generate predictable traits.
Also, open-pollinated seeds are more genetically diverse, so farmers have a larger "buffer" against adverse conditions -- due to the variability in the population, at least some plants are likely to survive unpredictable fluctuations in temperature, for example.
Seed producer Frank Morton of Philomath, Ore., likened the NOVIC project to the "open source" movement in computer technology, in which programmers freely cooperate to develop non-proprietary software.
Seed development should be similarly collaborative, which is why Morton decided to participate in the NOVIC breeding effort, he said.
"I'm not afraid of competition in the seed world. I believe information should be free, especially in food systems," he said. "It would be a big compliment to have one of my varieties stolen by a big seed company. I've got no interest in sitting on a variety I created five years ago."
The popularity of organically grown seed has been increasing in recent years, spurred by regulatory considerations as well as agricultural ones, said Stephen Woodward, field sales representative for the Seeds of Change company.
The USDA's National Organic Program, which regulates materials used in organic farming, requires growers to use organic seed -- unless they can't find suitable cultivars.