“We farmers all need to reconnect with this part of our heritage,” says Marko Colby of Midori Farm in Port Townsend, Wash. Colby has been working with the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) for about five years, and has resurrected what he calls “the lost art and science of producing seed” on his own farm. “It is wonderful to be a part of that seasonal cycle,” says the farmer-turned-breeder. “It is essential for our future food security.”

Embracing farming’s heritage for a new market

Via the OSA’s Participatory Plant Breeding program, Colby and his partner, Hanako Myers, have conducted both variety trials and long-term breeding projects. Currently, the farming team is working on two breeding projects with the OSA. The first is a variety of savoyed spinach called ‘Abundant Bloomsdale’, which originated in Port Townsend. The second is an overwintering sprouting broccoli that is planted in late summer and starts its prolific bloom of purple florets around the spring equinox. “The recognition that we needed better varieties of both of these plants is what got us into the breeding work,” states Colby.

Their goal for the spinach is to develop a heavily savoyed (ruffled) leaf spinach that is disease-resistant, bolt-resistant, uniform in shape and resilient to the stresses in an organic farming system, with a deep green color and delicious taste.

Colby and Myers chose dark green leaves because they feel they are more appealing. They prefer the texture of savoyed leaves to flat leaves.

They’re also working to develop a variety of purple sprouting broccoli that is more cold-tolerant, since the plants have to overwinter. Other traits they’re working toward are more uniform and larger spears than what is currently available commercially, and the ability to thrive under organic conditions. Unlike “normal” broccoli that produces a big central head, sprouting broccoli generally produces a small central head and numerous small side shoots. To appeal to a broader customer base, they are selecting plants that produce larger side shoots that could be bunched more easily.

The OSA provided the parent cultivars from commercially available varieties and obtained some noncommercially available varieties from other plant breeders. Colby anticipates the market for the new varieties of spinach and broccoli will reach beyond their local area. “Spinach is a huge market. Direct-market growers and wholesale growers in all parts of the country and world grow spinach,” he says. “Because it is an overwintering plant, the purple sprouting broccoli will probably be more limited to areas with moderate winters.”

Although they’re enjoying the process, Colby and Myers have faced some minor challenges. As a direct-market vegetable farm, they have close to 100 varieties growing at the farm, all at different stages of growth. One of the challenges is to always be aware of any spinach or Brassica oleracea (cabbage and broccoli) crops that may be flowering and producing pollen at the same time as the plants they are trying to breed. To keep the genetic material of those plants from crossing with the ones they are trying to breed, the farmers have to be vigilant about pulling out any plants that may cross with the plants they are growing for seed.

Despite the challenges, the farmers report clear indications that the varieties are improving in health and vigor. The plants are still in the progeny grow-out phase, and the length of a breeding project depends on the type of seed and the breeding goals. This year, Colby and Myers are growing out their third generation of spinach and their second generation of the purple sprouting broccoli. They anticipate having a “finished” spinach ready for the seed market soon. He says, “We will find out this year when we look at what this next generation looks like. The spinach may be ready now, though it would take another full season to increase that seed. The sprouting broccoli is probably a few years away.”

Colby reports that working with the OSA in this capacity has inspired them to take up a few of their own breeding projects. They are now working on improving a variety of mustard green, called purple wave mustard, that went out of production. They are also working on a red chard, a cipollini onion, red core chantenay carrot and some radicchios.

“It is pretty empowering to realize that the farmer can influence the genetics of a plant and nudge them in the direction that works best in his or her specific growing system,” Colby says. “[You can consider] climate, soil, disease pressures, and even the needs of your customers.”

Is plant breeding right for you?

Considering the extra effort, why work to create better varieties at all when there are seeds already suited to the environmental conditions on your farm? Colby says in the end, it’s a victory to have two great varieties that were bred with the help of farmers and will be available for other farmers to use and continue to improve upon.

“Very few seed companies are working on creating better or improved open-pollinated varieties for organic systems. The industry is moving full speed ahead toward a hybrid seed system,” says Colby.

Though saving hybrid seeds is possible, there’s no guarantee the resultant plant will resemble the one from which the seeds were saved. This leaves the fate of the farm in the hands of a distant seed company. Colby worries about what would happen if a seed company suddenly dropped a variety a farmer depends on because it is not profitable enough. The farmer would be out of luck.

On the other hand, farmers can empower themselves by saving seed from open-pollinated varieties and replanting them with confidence that the same plant will grow in the next season. That’s one way to increase food security; the other is by creating resilient seed genetics that adapt to changes in the farm’s microclimate from season to season. Resilient plant varieties that adapt to climatic change may be the ultimate key to food security.

The author is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts and a monthly contributor to Growing.