Vegetable research spans regions

Jim Myers, Oregon State University professor of horticulture, explains the fine points of broccoli breeding. Common Ground Farm in Olympia, Wash., held a workshop teaching on-farm plant breeding in June.

The Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC) brings together agricultural researchers from New York, Wisconsin, Oregon and Washington to create a national network to improve vegetable varieties for organic systems in the northern U.S. The collaborative includes colleges of agriculture at Cornell University’s Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics, the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s Department of Agronomy and Genetics, Oregon State University’s Department of Horticulture and Washington State University. The USDA-Agricultural Research Station (ARS) in Geneva, N.Y., and the nonprofit Organic Seed Alliance in the state of Washington are also partners.

The current collaboration has roots in the Organic Seed Partnership (OSP) in 2004 that brought many of today’s main players together. Molly Jahn from Cornell University was the project leader then. Jahn, now dean at the University of Wisconsin’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, was a professor of vegetable plant breeding at Cornell back in 2001. The well-regarded vegetable breeder began working with organic growers at a time when the Ivy League ag school was not yet friendly to organics. Jahn had vegetable varieties “sitting on the shelf” that would help the organic farming community. She felt the organic community was underserved and, under her leadership, Cornell began to serve it.

The northwest connection

Jim Myers, professor of horticulture at Oregon State University and the vegetable breeder there, leads the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative. At the beginning of summer, he said that the spring had been unusually cool and rainy in the Willamette Valley. The college has a 9-acre research farm that is certified organic.

Common Ground Farm focused on the organic broccoli project at the June 19-20 workshop in Olympia, Wash. Broccoli is one of the five crops being grown in five regional sites across the northern U.S. as part of the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC).

When asked how the organic farming community and Oregon State got together in the first place, Myers replied, “A lot of this came out of the Organic Seed Partnership. I was a subcontractor in that. Molly Jahn was the P.I. It funded the broccoli project that we currently work on. Through that project, and I’ve been working with the organic community for a while out here, I identified various growers who are interested in doing this kind of research; some just hosting trials, others actively being plant breeders as well.”

In all the states, NOVIC research partners are raising five vegetable crops: peas, broccoli, sweet corn, carrots and winter squash, plus one crop of their own. Their mission is to foster variety trialing by researchers and organic growers, participatory breeding programs involving growers, outreach activities, and workshops for growers and media.

The Oregon professor listed some advantages to participating in NOVIC. “I think it gives us a broad set of environments and many environments in one year for testing our breeding materials. That’s always a problem with breeders. It takes a lot of resources to run a trial. My rule of thumb is to have at least nine year-locations of data before I release a variety. That could be like three locations in three years, or one location in nine years or some combination. You need that multi-environment data to really understand how varieties behave.”

The collaborative focus on five crops gives researchers a snapshot of a variety performing in four regions of the country and multiple trials. Myers said, “We have these mother-daughter trial arrangements where we have the replicated trial on station at the hub location, and then three satellite trials on organic farms with these materials.”

Common Ground Farm in Olympia, Wash., held an on-farm plant breeding workshop in mid-June, with a focus on organic broccoli trials. Myers said, “At Common Ground farm, one of our farmer-breeders is Judy Puhich. That’s an important location. We have another breeder we’re working with on broccoli in southern Oregon; his name is Jonathan Spero, and his farm is Lupine Knoll.”

The Organic Seed Alliance in Port Townsend, Wash., is working on a good March harvest carrot for the Pacific Northwest. They are breeding a Nantes-type carrot at Nash Huber’s farm in Sequim, Wash. Myers thinks that the new carrot may work in a number of “maritime” environments, including northern California and Long Island.

Fans of NOVIC

Micaela Colley, director of research and education at the Organic Seed Alliance, has high praise for NOVIC. “Most research is not aimed toward fulfilling the agronomical and market needs of organic producers, so this project is unique in that it’s a collaboration of five institutions that are receiving input from organic producers on what they need in terms of qualities in vegetable crops, and then breeding in response to those needs.”

Both Oregon State and Cornell University are working on snap pea varieties this year. Vegetable seeds are developed at one research site, and then shared with others. Myers said, “The thing I’m very hopeful about in trial this year are those pea lines that we have: two snaps and one snow are on trial. These are fairly tall plants. They have excellent powdery mildew resistance and fusarium wilt resistance. In the Northwest, we need resistance to pea enation [mosaic virus] and red clover [mosaic] vein viruses, and they have these resistances as well.”

Both schools are perfecting a superior organic broccoli developed by Oregon State. Cornell University’s field manager for the organic breeding project, Michael Glos, says: the more collaborators, the better. At their research farm near Ithaca on a sunny day in June, Glos pointed at healthy broccoli plants and said, “We’re not broccoli breeders, but we’re trying to breed something for the Northeast. They [Oregon State] are breeding something for the Northwest. They did a bunch of initial crosses; we send them back seed.”

Glos waved at the corn patch nearby, where Cornell is evaluating a sweet corn variety for the University of Wisconsin research team that is working on sweet corn bred for organic systems. The Badger State crew, in turn, is evaluating winter squash strains from Cornell in their Midwest environment.

Professor Michael Mazourek, who leads the Cornell organic vegetable breeding effort, said, “There are different environments and different disease pressures as you cross the northern U.S., so, potentially, something developing on the West Coast might have different priorities grown on the East Coast in terms of disease resistance or temperature.”

Where’s the funding?

Trying to keep funding afloat is a challenge in every region. Glos described the importance of grants, large and small. Cornell’s organic breeders got a small grant eight years ago to start the pepper research. Once started, they leveraged that money and received a large amount from the USDA. “Then we did kind of the opposite,” Glos related. “We finished the government money and we had all these varieties, but we don’t have any seed.” So, they went back to the small grant folks to complete the project.

Myers is looking at the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative as a long-term project. Funding comes from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the USDA, and the Organic Research and Education Initiative. When current funding runs out, the collaborators will probably apply for another four-year round of funding and then another, since long-term projects are allowed up to 12 years total funding. “Up to 12 years is really what you need for a full cycle on a vegetable breeding program,” Myers stated before heading out to the Oregon test plots.

For more information, contact Micaela Colley at the Organic Seed Alliance, Jim Myers of NOVIC, or Michael Glos at Cornell

The author is a freelance contributor based in Brooktondale, N.Y. Comment or question? Visit and join in the discussions.