If you went by looks alone, this would be the Year of the Pepper for northern organic vegetable growers, with a colorful array of Capsicum annuum from High Mowing Organic Seeds (www.highmowingseeds.com) and Johnny’s Selected Seeds (www.johnnyseeds.com). High Mowing Organic Seeds named its Iko Iko peppers – bright as a Mardi Gras parade – for a Neville Brothers song, and Johnny’s Selected Seeds’ new Red Flame and Cupid pepper varieties are popular enough to be in short supply, back-ordered in late 2012.

Iron Lady tomato, the new variety from High Mowing Organic Seeds with triple resistance to late blight, early blight and Septoria leaf spot.
Photos courtesy of High Mowing Organic Seeds.

But in 2013, a rather ordinary-looking new tomato is the big news for growers, with its triple-threat defense against late blight, early blight and Septoria leaf spot. Iron Lady tomato from High Mowing Organic Seeds is the first tomato released with these qualities, and more are on the way. High Mowing Organic Seeds, based in Wolcott, Vt., has also developed two new sweet corn varieties, My Fair Lady and Bling, in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin, to fill a real need for sweet corn varieties that work for organic growers.

A new tomato is born

Dr. Martha Mutschler-Chu is a professor in plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. With her work in tomato and onion breeding, she strives to make plants naturally resistant to diseases or insects so they don’t need spraying. The Iron Lady tomato started with her work.

“The project that led up to Iron Lady was one that I was aiming at three fungal diseases that defoliate plants in the temperate climate: late blight, early blight and Septoria leaf spot,” Mutschler-Chu said. “The logic was that in order to eliminate the need for fungicide of any sort, be it organic or the ones conventional [farmers] use, the key was to control all three diseases genetically; that if you lacked control over any one of these, you would not eliminate the need for spraying, so they had to cover all three.”

Additional Information

Organic Seed Alliance: www.seedalliance.org Information on horticultural practices that will provide best total control of the three blights in using new varieties like Iron Lady: http://vegetablemdonline.ppath.cornell.edu

She collaborated with North Carolina State University tomato breeder Randy Gardner, who is now retired. She explained, “The Iron Lady is actually a cross between lines from the two institutions. One of the parents is one that I developed with control of all three diseases – late blight, early blight and Septoria leaf spot control – and the other parent is a North Carolina line that has late blight and early blight control.”

My Fair Lady sweet corn, a new bicolor from High Mowing Organic Seeds.

Collaboration is how you get things done, according to Mutschler-Chu, and the material that led up to Iron Lady has been tested by cooperating growers in West Virginia, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania and various places in New York state, proving its worth in a wide variety of climates. Iron Lady has the strongest possible late blight control, but for early blight, there is a tolerance, not a resistance. Use of good horticultural controls is still needed.

More on the way

More tomato varieties with these qualities will be coming out in the next few years. The Cornell tomato breeder said, “We actually have second-generation lines with experimental hybrids that are going to be tested for the first time this summer. We’re trying to push the envelope on fruit quality and size, plant type and maturity.

“We release our lines nonexclusively, which means any of the seed companies can ask for the material. They can experiment with it, breed with it, and then if they want to commercialize it, they come back and get a license,” Mutschler-Chu explained. “By releasing lines nonexclusively – and believe me, I’ve sent this material out to at least 25 seed companies – then they can all work on it.”

With this model, there is a good chance that some new varieties will emerge. Mutschler-Chu said, “If one company comes out with a variety with a trait, it raises the bar for the other companies, [so] they need to incorporate the trait too.”

Olivia, Faeterri and Erin husk a seed crop of Fisher’s Earliest sweet corn at High Mowing Organic Seeds.

Other new vegetables

Jodi Lew-Smith of High Mowing Organic Seeds said they found new sweet corn varieties through the Vegetable Breeding Institute, a collaboration of the University of Wisconsin and Cornell University. Dr. Bill Tracy, a Wisconsin corn breeder, usually worked on “processing” sweet corns, but he had a few strains on the fresh market side.

Lew-Smith said, “We were hungry for those. We had a few we’ve been able to buy, but we haven’t had any control over the genetics, and the supplies were dwindling quickly and we had very few varieties to choose from, so we were thrilled to collaborate with him.”

My Fair Lady is a bicolored variety and Bling is a yellow variety, both bred for flavor. Lew-Smith said that they expect huge sales of these sweet corn varieties because of the high quality.

High Mowing Organic Seeds is catching the carnival atmosphere with the Iko Iko pepper that was bred on the company’s farm. Cha-Ching, a hybrid zucchini, was also bred on the farm. It has a light color and is an easy-to-harvest glossy summer squash with high yields.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine has released a new Lunchbox series of small peppers in red, orange and yellow from its breeding program. The peppers are sweet and flavorful and yield well for snack-sized fruit.

Kaitlynn hand-pollinates squash in a breeding field at High Mowing Organic Seeds in Wolcott, Vt.

Collaboration rules

Almost everyone in organic plant breeding speaks highly of collaboration with others. Lew-Smith said, “We collaborate with a lot of universities who run a lot of trials and try to get a handle on how varieties are performing in different regions.”

Iko Iko peppers are new sweet peppers from High Mowing Organic Seeds.

Besides the Vegetable Breeding Institute that ties the University of Wisconsin with Cornell, the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collab-orative (NOVIC) brings together those two universities with their colleagues in Washington and Oregon. (See Growing magazine, March 2011, www.growingmagazine.com/article-6573.aspx, to read more about NOVIC.) The NOVIC website, http://eorganic.info/novic, includes an organic vegetable variety trial database, so anyone can get in on the fun.

The author is a freelance contributor based near Ithaca, N.Y., specializing in dairy and organics, but dabbling in all things agricultural.