Participants at a NOVIC-sponsored chicory trial field day at Finnriver Farm in Chimacum, Wash., in November 2012.
Photos courtesy of Organic Seed Alliance unless otherwise noted.
Farmers and their supporters are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of seeds and genetic diversity in agricultural seed banks. The Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) in Port Townsend, Wash., reports that interest in agriculture seed issues is moving beyond farmers and small seed companies to the organic food industry itself.
2012 was a busy year for OSA, an organization that combines research, education and advocacy in a unique way, tapping into a movement. It is expanding beyond its native Northwest with collaborations across the northern tier of the country, as well as a strong focus on California. Organic growers looking for improvements in spinach and carrot varieties can look to OSA's participation in the Carrot Improvement for Organic Agriculture (CIOA) project and its own development of a new spinach variety from the Heirlooms of Tomorrow initiative.
Red chard at Midori Farm in Port Townsend, Wash.
Last winter's Organic Seed Growers Conference drew 300 people to Port Townsend on the Olympic peninsula, and another 200 people participated in live webinars. The conference kicked off with a tour of fields and seed businesses in Washington's Skagit Valley and featured 50 speakers dealing with organic plant breeding, seed production, harvesting, enterprise development and policy. A biennial event, the next conference is scheduled for January 30 through February 1, 2014, in Corvallis, Ore.
Kristina Hubbard, advocacy and communications director at OSA, said, "It's such a neat event because it brings together the diverse stakeholders, including members of the organic food industry, who are really starting to get that it all starts with seed."
OSA also has a new tool, an organic seed database called Organic Seed Finder, available at www.organicseedfinder.org. It was launched by the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies to help provide farmers with reliable information on available organic seed. The "Participatory Plant Breeding Toolkit" is a publication that gives farmers highly effective on-farm breeding methods and encourages close collaboration between farmers and researchers to increase the availability and quality of organic seed. It is available for free download at www.seedalliance.org/Publications.
Hubbard noted that farmers are learning to save seeds, and some are taking it to the next level and participating in breeding trials. "We are also seeing a number of small regional seed companies sprouting up, and it's pretty exciting to see this momentum from the ground up," she added.
Midori Farm in Port Townsend has taken up the challenge of helping to develop a new spinach variety, 'Abundant Bloomsdale', for Heirlooms of Tomorrow. The initiative seeks to breed new varieties and restore older varieties for the needs of organic farmers and gardeners. They favor varieties that need no synthetic inputs and stand up over time under organic conditions.
OSA Executive Director Micaela Colley and Phil Simon work in a research field for the Carrot Improvement for Organic Agriculture project in eastern Washington state in summer 2012. Simon is a leading carrot researcher from USDA-ARS and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
At Midori Farm, Marko Colby and his wife and farming partner, Hanako Myers, grow about 5 acres of mixed organic vegetables and seed crops annually. Colby said, "We got involved in the 'Abundant Bloomsdale' project because we had grown this variety from some seed a friend had given us and we really loved it. So we asked Micaela [Colley], the [executive] director of OSA, if they had any seed we could grow out for use on the farm."
Be careful what you ask for - next thing they knew, the couple was asked to help finish the breeding work on the variety.
"Hanako and I were already interested in seed growing and growing some of our own seed for use on the farm, so it seemed like a really interesting project to be involved in. Plus, we are getting to select this already great variety of spinach for its ability to thrive on our farm. It will be better suited to our system than any other spinach out there," Colby explained.
'Abundant Bloomsdale' spinach started with an original cross between the classic open-pollinated (OP) variety 'Winter Bloomsdale' and 'Evergreen', a variety that is resistant to multiple diseases. The late Dr. Teddy Morelock bred 'Evergreen', which was publicly released by the University of Arkansas in 2005.
The goal was to select the most desirable ideotype of vigorous spring spinach, featuring a dark green color, fully crinkled leaves, sweet flavor and good resistance to endemic diseases. Starting with maximum genetic diversity from both of the OP parents, the diverse population was grown over five years by local farms to mix traits into new combinations. The only selection at that time was to eliminate obvious flaws, poor vigor, disease, etc.
Researchers handle carrots in a field at the research farm in eastern Washington in summer 2012.
At that point, Midori Farm became the finishing school for 'Abundant Bloomsdale'. In 2011, they selected repeatedly for good spinach plants and identified 130 plants to openly pollinate after clearing the fields of all other plants. As spinach is a dioecious species, with half female and half male populations, they harvested seed from 67 selected female plants into separate family bags.
Colby and Myers planted 60 families in 2012, with individual progeny rows for each family, and monitored each plant from baby stage through maturity. From these, they selected five superfamilies, marketed the produce from the other 55 families, and let the "super five" reproduce. With any luck, the very first seed will have limited release in the fall of 2013.
Assistant Field Manager J.J. Oconnar in a field of greens at Midori Farm.
Photo courtesy of Midori Farm.
Many people in agriculture are concerned about patents on genetic material and restrictions on seed ownership and seed saving. Hubbard said, "We believe our work is really important because the seed industry in general has become highly consolidated, and as the industry became more consolidated, we lost some seed companies forever who had an interest in serving the organic sector, serving the organic community."
Hubbard continued, "I'm not just talking about the concentration of market power among companies, but I'm also talking about the concentrated ownership of plant genetic resources. This has impacted not just organic plant breeding, but public plant breeding, plant breeding projects at public universities that deliver publicly held cultivars."
The Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC) is a collaboration of land-grant universities across the northern U.S. working on new and improved varieties for organic growers. OSA is partnering with NOVIC, as well as working on the carrot project with a different set of partners.
The long-term breeding project started in 2012 to address the critical needs of organic carrot farmers by developing orange and novel color carrots with improved disease and nematode resistance, improved weed competitiveness, and improved nutritional value and flavor.
Besides spinach, Midori Farm is also working with its neighbors at OSA on breeding a better overwintered sprouting broccoli, an improved red chard and cold-hardy radicchios. Colby said, "It is truly a great gift to get to work with OSA each year. We get to work directly with some of the country's best organic plant breeders, which is an amazing opportunity for on-the-job learning."
A good year for 'Abundant Bloomsdale' spinach at Midori Farm may result in the first limited availability of seed this fall, just in time for OSA to celebrate its 10th anniversary.
The author is a freelance contributor based near Ithaca, N.Y., specializing in dairy and organics, but dabbling in all things agricultural. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.