Organic Broadcaster

OSA’s Jared Zystro helps a Washington farmer evaluate an on-farm variety trial of endives.

On-farm trials help growers find varieties best suited to farm’s unique setting

By Organic Seed Alliance

Farming can be a risky endeavor. This is especially true for organic growers who have fewer “quick fix” agrochemical tools than their conventional counterparts to mitigate crop stresses. One way to manage risk in an organic farm system is to use crop genetics well-suited to one’s environment, production system, and markets. A grower’s seed source and variety choice are just as critical to farm management as selecting the right implement to work the field or irrigate a crop.

On-farm variety trials are an important tool for identifying varieties that thrive in a grower’s unique circumstance. That’s why Organic Seed Alliance—in partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Oregon State University, MOSES, and USDA’s Risk Management Agency —has released an updated guide that walks growers through the steps for designing, planting, and evaluating a successful on-farm trial.

Get this 55-page guide. 

Use the complementary online tool for planning and tracking your trial.


eOrganic Webinars: March 20 & April 11


Reasons to Conduct Variety Trials
There are a number of reasons organic growers should consider variety trials on their farm. Variety trials can help organic growers:

1. Optimize organic systems
Organic producers have fewer allowable inputs for mitigating crop stresses than their conventional counterparts and instead rely on agroecological practices. Crop genetics well-suited to organic production systems are therefore even more crucial for success. A growing body of research suggests that varieties that perform best on organic farms may not be the same as on conventional farms, and that organic farmers may benefit from using varieties bred specifically for organic systems.

Variety trials are particularly useful for farmers transitioning to organic production, seeking varieties for low-input operations, or looking to replace conventional varieties or seed sources.

2. Fill market niches or seasonal needs
Identifying novel, interesting crops—or varieties of a crop you already produce—can be a way to differentiate yourself in the marketplace and attract new customers. Farmers market customers, chefs, and specialty distributors are intrigued by unusual or exceptional varieties, varieties with a story, superior flavor, unique colors, and varieties available early or late in the season.

Conducting an on-farm trial prior to expanding production of new, unknown varieties prevents the difficult lesson of losing a crop. Many colored carrots, for example, evolved in climates with milder winters than farmers encounter in most of the U.S. Therefore, some varieties may bolt readily if planted too soon under cool spring conditions. Likewise, a head lettuce that performs exceptionally in May may be the first variety to succumb to disease in a late-summer planting. Testing new varieties in trials throughout the season can ensure they are adapted to your growing conditions and seasonal needs.

3. Meet organic certification requirements
In order to maintain organic certification, growers must be in compliance with the National Organic Program’s organic seed rule, which requires producers to use organically grown seeds, seedlings, and planting stock when commercially available.

As the diversity, quality, and quantity of commercially available organic seed increases, some organic certifiers are increasing scrutiny of non-organic seed use on certified organic farms.

Variety trials can help ensure compliance by identifying organic varieties that are equivalent in quality, productivity, and purpose to conventional varieties in a grower’s system. Even a variety trial indicating no suitable organic alternative to a non-organic variety indicates a market gap and demonstrates that the farmer is acting in good faith to comply with certification requirements.

Besides fulfilling a regulatory requirement, trialing and using organic seed also supports investments in organic seed systems.

4. Address climatic challenges
Individual plants and crop varieties vary in their response to environmental stresses. On-farm trials can highlight varieties able to withstand stresses on your farm. Sometimes these stresses are regional in nature. A cherished tomato variety, for example, may be tolerant to the disease Septoria in the Mid-Atlantic (where the seed is marketed) but susceptible to the pathogen races or the timing of infection commonly experienced in the Upper Midwest.

Unpredictable weather patterns due to global climate change may present growers with new environmental challenges, rendering old varieties less reliable than they once were. Conducting variety trials as part of your annual farm plan can help your operation adapt to more extreme conditions by helping you find varieties well-suited to the changing climate of your particular area.

One Farmer’s Success
Here in the Midwest, many organic farmers rely on seed companies based on the coasts, especially for vegetables and herbs. These companies often take care to conduct trials in our region, but their focus is naturally more on their own regions. Relatively little organic plant breeding and trialing work is conducted in the Midwest, placing more of the onus on farmers to do their own trials and find varieties that perform well in their unique circumstances.

Take Kat Becker, who runs Cattail Organics in Athens, Wis. Becker’s farm produces wholesale vegetables and also sells through a CSA. She integrates variety trials into her long-term farm plan to ensure that she is always discovering the best varieties for her farm and markets, and to indulge her curiosity about the diversity available within common crops.

Becker provides the following tips for farmers who are planning a variety trial for the first time:

1) Talk to your seed company representatives. You’ll be impressed by how willing they are to suggest trial varieties from other companies,
or pre-release varieties, when appropriate.

2) Don’t do a variety trial on a crop you’ve never grown before. Learning how to manage a new crop is a project in itself. Give yourself the benefit of growing only a well-known, reliable variety or two in your first season of trying a new crop. Save the variety trials for subsequent years, when you have a better understanding of how the crop generally performs in your system.

3) Conduct multi-window trials for crops that are planted in succession or heavily influenced by seasonal changes. This can help highlight varieties that work well in certain times of the season, but not in others. If you only trial lettuce in the spring, for example, you may miss observing an important disease resistance or susceptibility that is not apparent until July.

4) Trial goals can be very simple. One of Becker’s most successful trials had the simple goal of finding a tomato that tasted as good and was as productive as Sungold. “I discovered ‘Yellow Mini’ and never looked back,” she said.

5) Trial things for fun…within reason. “My kids and I have made some wonderful discoveries trialing weird varieties we weren’t sure would be commercially viable, like various ‘Bull’s Horn’ peppers and ‘Papa Cacho’ potatoes,” she said. But focusing too much time and energy on experimenting with novel varieties can distract from more immediate trial priorities.

New Tools and Resources
Variety trials can be easily incorporated into an annual farm plan. They can be as complex and scientific as you like, or as simple as strategically placing plots of two or three new varieties and writing down observations over the course of the season. The Grower’s Guide to Conducting On-farm Variety Trials includes how-to instruction for conducting variety trials of any crop, and also provides trial design examples, resources for seed sourcing, and sample worksheets for trial planning and data collection.

Readers will find that the guide presents scientific principles in an accessible way. This tool is useful for farmers, but also research, Extension, and nonprofit programs looking to train farmers as co-researchers—variety trials need not be a solo endeavor. Partnering with universities, developing a trial collective in your area that shares results, or engaging CSA members, local chefs or other community members in evaluating your trials—for example, hosting a variety tasting to collect feedback that compares taste and texture and other characteristics—can magnify their impact.

In addition to this guide, OSA has developed an online resource called the Variety Trial Tool to make it easier for farmers and researchers to conduct trials. Following the steps on the webpage will allow you to: design a trial to fit your needs, create data sheets and maps based on your design, visualize your trial results online or through a downloadable report, share your results with others, and see the results of other people’s trials.

The tool is still under development so questions and feedback are appreciated and can be directed to A video tutorial will be available soon on the eOrganic YouTube Channel.


From the March | April  2018 Issue


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