Stories from the Field: Breeding Seeds of Success
Due to Congressional inaction, the 2008 Farm Bill has expired without a new bill or extension to take its place. In the absence of a farm bill, numerous innovative programs that invest in sustainable agriculture systems are shut down and left without funding.
Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed at Gathering Together Farm, who grows certified organic seeds in the heart of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, says that retail sales of his organic pepper seeds went up three to four times as a result of organic field research trials and taste testing conducted by Oregon State University.
This research project was supported with funding from USDA’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI). Thanks to this farm bill research program, organic farmers like Morton are reaping the benefits and he now has the tools and resources to support on-farm work of selecting vegetable varieties that do well in the cool conditions of the Pacific Northwest.
Jim Myers, a vegetable breeder with Oregon State University, recently reported the results of the summer trials in Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin and New York to a group of organic farmers participating in the OREI field trials.
“It was a complete surprise, when Jim put the results up on the screen,” says Morton. “The pepper I had been selecting on my own farm out-performed the standard variety in multiple test sites. It was clear that my on-farm breeding had paid off.”
A decade ago, Morton and his farming partner feared the loss of a pepper variety that was well adapted to growing in the cool, wet climate of the Pacific Northwest. As certified organic producers, they are only able to plant seeds that have not been pre-treated with pesticides, and the seed company who had been supplying the pepper seed for many years abruptly made the decision to no longer offer untreated seed.
Faced with the loss of an important late season cash crop, Morton and his farming partner began a breeding program on their own farm to develop a pepper to meet their specific growing conditions. Seed adapted to local conditions, such as the cool weather of the Pacific Northwest, is even more important for organic producers who rely heavily on preventative methods of disease control instead of spraying with conventional fungicides.
“This is about increased seed security for organic farmers,” says Morton. “It can be really difficult to find untreated seeds that do well in organic conditions.”
Within a few years, they had some promising varieties. But with a farm to run, there was no time to test the new varieties under different conditions across the country. It was because of their successful OREI grant with Oregon State University that they were able to launch these peppers onto the national organic seed scene.
With the farm bill funding, Myers – who had previously been working with growers in the Pacific Northwest to develop regionally-adapted vegetable varieties – was able to partner with 30 farms and researchers across the country from Cornell University, University of Wisconsin, Washington State University and the Organic Seed Alliance.
“This project is a good example of regional plant breeding and the collaboration between farmers and extension,” says Morton. “I couldn’t have done this without the expertise of Jim Myers and his network of researchers across the country. It got my peppers out there.”
And national seed companies were watching the results of Myers’ trials. Now these companies are selling Morton’s pepper seeds.
“I have chefs from Portland requesting these peppers,” says Morton. “Jim Myers and his team put my pepper in front of chefs. All the peppers scored high on taste, but the chefs were particularly interested in the Stocky Red Roaster. It has a smooth skin and is great for roasting.”
This is just one success coming from the breeding program.
Morton says that as an organic farmer, he has to do much of the work himself.
“The organic sector has never been served by private industry and only rarely by the few university extension programs,” says Morton. “But OREI is meeting the needs of organic farmers by providing regionally-adapted seeds grown under organic conditions.”
Congress’ failure to pass a Farm Bill means that programs like OREI disappear. With them go all of the help and research assistance they offer, and the successful organic farming innovations they produce.
The Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides is a member of NSAC based out of Eugene, Oregon, and together with NSAC, advocates for Farm Bill Programs such as OREI that provide real results for farmers.