A robust regional food system depends on plant breeders asking local farmers what they need to be successful.
Words, photos, and word clouds by Rachel Hultengren
Imagine you’re an organic farmer. You’re opening a seed catalogue in the depths of winter and planning your fields for the next season, deliberating between varieties of winter squash and deciding how many rows to dedicate to the new options you find.
Imagine going out to your delicata field next June and putting in the tiny seedlings that will, months later, bear fruit and signal to everyone the arrival of fall.
Now imagine going back to that field weeks later and finding the plants are covered in yellow and black beetles. Imagine watching the plants go from having vibrant green intact leaves to being defoliated stems over the course of a couple of weeks.
Imagine what it might feel like, talking with your regular customers at the farmers’ market, hearing them ask you why you don’t have any squash at your booth. You resolve to pore over catalogues until you find a variety that will withstand the onslaught of thousands of striped cucumber beetles next summer.
Imagine discovering that no such variety exists.
What would you do?
In order for farmers to be successful, they need access to seed of varieties that are appropriate to the growing conditions of their region, the production practices of their farm, and the markets in which they sell. If something grows well but no one wants it, it won’t sell. If something doesn’t grow well, there won’t be anything to buy.
This means farmers need to be able to buy seeds for vegetable varieties that not only appeal aesthetically to consumers but also thrive and produce. These plants must set fruit before the first frost in areas with short growing seasons or resist bolting (going to seed) before harvest in regions with hot summers. Each region has unique climatic conditions; the summers in central California, for example, are much hotter and drier than those of upstate New York, and their winters are far milder than ours. The diseases, soil type, and day length of a region are also factors that influence whether or not a plant will thrive. Often a variety that’s well-suited to one area isn’t as good in other climates.
In the breeding program at Cornell where I’m a master’s student, we work to develop regionally-adapted cultivars: varieties that produce well here in the Northeast. We want our work to be relevant, for the varieties we release to fit a well-defined need.
So we ask the farmers.
Last year, we conducted a survey of organic vegetable growers across the Northeast to ask them about the challenges they face and the improvements they would suggest on the varieties they grow. They listed traits like tolerance to striped cucumber beetles, increased storability, and cold hardiness. We shared these survey results with a working group and came up with a list of priorities for future breeding work in vegetable crops. That list appears in a recently released report: “Breeding Research and Education Needs Assessment for Organic Vegetable Growers in the Northeast.” The report amplifies the voices of Northeastern organic vegetable growers, giving breeders and others in the seed community a direction in which to focus our energies.
In addition to regional adaptation, another important consideration a grower makes in selecting cultivars to grow is whether those seeds are produced under or bred for organic management. The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) standards require that organically-certified growers use seed that is also organically produced; seeds need to come from plants grown without synthetic fertilizer or excluded pesticides, among other restrictions. Not all vegetable varieties are offered as organically certified, though, and this causes a problem: either growers can choose to grow seed of a variety that their customers want (but which isn’t suited to organic management), or they can grow a variety that is certified organic (but might not be what consumers look for at the farmers market).
The report shows that organic vegetable growers in the Northeast rely on conventionally produced seed for some of their most critical varieties, even though the majority of growers surveyed said that their ability to source organic seed was important to them.
To be able to produce seed organically, we need varieties that are adapted to organic conditions. Instead of relying on broad-spectrum persistent pesticides, organic growers need varieties with innate resistance to the insects and diseases that attack them. Instead of managing weeds through extensive tillage and herbicide application, organic growers need plants that grow vigorously early in the season, so that their canopies shade out weed seedlings. Organic varieties need to be able to efficiently obtain and use nutrients from soil whose fertility depends on compost and cover crops. Plant breeders can adapt a variety to organic management by selecting plants that do well without the inputs on which conventional growers rely.
Imagine a farmer’s field, five years from now, in mid-June. The striped cucumber beetles have arrived, but the squash plants are still there, green and growing.
A robust regional food system depends on farmers being able to access varieties that allow them to both follow ecologically sustainable practices and supply what their customers demand. For plant breeders to be successful, we need to hear from the farmers we support so that we can develop those varieties.
Rachel Hultengren is a master’s student at Cornell University in Dr. Michael Mazourek’s lab.
A native of the Pacific Northwest, she is passionate about strengthening regional agricultural systems. Her current work focuses on breeding bell peppers and high-quality, disease-resistant winter squash for organic production here in the Northeast.
You can contact her at email@example.com.