Organic Broadcaster

 

Kat Becker of Cattail Organics tests the SeedLinked online platform to see what other farmers think of specific tomato varieties. SeedLinked is one of the partners working to create a network to allow collaborators to track, share, and learn about regional seed and variety performance. Photo by SeedLinked

Network focuses on adapting vegetables to thrive in Upper Midwest

By Cathleen McCluskey, Organic Seed Alliance

This summer’s catastrophic derecho that tore through Iowa, last summer’s torrential rains that never seemed to stop coming—farmers in the Upper Midwest know all too well the challenges of weather patterns, which are seemingly more erratic every year. Many organic farmers in the region rely on vegetable varieties that are bred for conventional systems or for environments much different than the Upper Midwest. And not surprisingly, these varieties are showing weaknesses in the field that weren’t apparent under more stable weather patterns.

These challenges, along with the growth in local food markets and organic demand, are creating opportunities for farmers to grow varieties that thrive and have excellent quality in the Upper Midwest. There’s growing interest in adapting varieties that will flourish on organic farms in our region. That’s why the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Organic Seed Alliance, and SeedLinked recently launched a collaborative project to support and connect farmers and independent plant breeders throughout the region who want to help develop regionally adapted vegetable varieties for the Upper Midwest. Dr. Julie Dawson from the University of Wisconsin-Madison is leading the Upper Midwest Collaborative Plant Breeding Network project.

“There is a critical need for increased availability of organic seed for crop varieties bred to excel in organic systems,” Dawson explained. “In addition, as climate change becomes a reality, with more environmental variability, the current model of centralized testing is not able to provide the data needed by farmers and breeders.”

 

Community of Practice

The Upper Midwest Collaborative Plant Breeding Network project aims to equip organic plant breeders with the tools and techniques they need to succeed in serving organic farmers in the region now and into the future. The key tenant of the project is decentralized participation among farmers, gardeners, independent plant breeders, seed companies, and organic certifiers to build collaborative plant breeding and variety trialing capacity in the Upper Midwest.

“The Upper Midwest has a high concentration of organic specialty crop farms, very few organic seed companies, and unique climatic conditions,” Dawson shared. “We are hoping this project responds to the growing interest among farmers and independent breeders in regional variety development and seed systems.”

The project team is working to foster a community of practice that brings together anyone interested in improving or breeding new vegetable varieties on their farms or in their gardens. This includes bringing together new and experienced breeders and seed savers in the region to connect and learn from one another.

Farmer Kat Becker of Cattail Organics in Athens, Wisconsin has collaborated on similar variety trial projects in the past and is excited to participate in the new collaboration. “I have had a longtime interest in plant breeding for practical and political reasons, and have worked with Julie Dawson’s lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and SeedLinked on a variety of short- and long-term trials,” Becker said. “Joining the Upper Midwest Collaborative Plant Breeding Network is a logical next step to connecting with others as I do seed work on my farm and in supporting other farmers in building a more resilient food and seed system.”

As a community, project collaborators will explore new models of online collaboration that integrate social networking and decentralized farmer-to-farmer connections. Participants will learn from one another peer-to-peer and project coordinators will offer more formal trainings through instruction videos and interactive webinars.

Decentralized information-sharing is integral to building a network of on-farm and in-garden researchers participating in breeding trials, and project partner SeedLinked is helping make that a reality. Right now the online crowdsourcing platform allows growers to join, host, and share results from variety trials with others in their region and across the country. The platform combines smartphone technology with data analytics to create a tool anyone can use to track, share, and learn about regional seed and variety performance. By using this collaborative tool, growers, researchers, and seed providers can learn from and support each other simply and efficiently. As part of this project, SeedLinked is evolving and fine-tuning their tools for plant breeders to use it for conducting and tracking breeding trials.

Researcher Alex Lyon uses the platform in the University of British Columbia’s Canadian Organic Vegetable Improvement Project Variety Trial Network project. “SeedLinked made a dramatic difference in our ability to facilitate on-farm trials across a broader geographic region, efficiently capture farmers’ observations, and provide useful and timely trial results to our constituents,” Lyon said.

The Upper Midwest Collaborative Plant Breeding Network project will use the SeedLinked platform to empower farmers, breeders, and organic certifiers to effectively collect, share, and analyze data to support decentralized collaborative breeding and variety trialing. SeedLinked will also be working with organic certification organizations in the region to refine the platform, so it can help certifiers learn about new organic varieties and support farmers in improving organic seed usage.

“My husband and I ran a CSA for 25 years, and for many years the selection of certified organic seeds for growers was not very good,” said Dela Ends of Scotch Hill Farm/Innisfree Farmstay in Brodhead, Wisconsin. “Often, organic varieties were not as good as compared to some of the tried-and-true conventional cultivars. Now the seed selection for organic growers improves every year. In our final years as CSA growers almost my entire seed list was certified organic varieties. It has become so much easier to find organic varieties.”

Organic certifiers play an important role in building robust organic seed systems by helping farmers like the Ends find organic seed sources that will thrive on their farm and in their markets.

Project partners will be fostering the community of practice to breed new pepper and tomato varieties adapted to the region that organic farmers in the Upper Midwest can add to their market offerings. University of Wisconsin-Madison partners will collaborate with plant breeders Erica Kempter of Nature and Nurture Seeds in Michigan and Keith Mueller of KC Tomato in Missouri to breed new tomato and pepper varieties in partnership with trial hosts on farms and gardens throughout the region. The network will select varieties for flavor—a key requirement for organic tomatoes—as well as productivity on organic farms.

Collaborative breeding models like this one also offer an opportunity to explore new models of releasing varieties. As part of the project, partners will be experimenting with strategies for navigating the process of variety release and commercialization of collaboratively bred varieties. There’s a lot to navigate when it comes to releasing a new variety, and collaborators will work together to understand how to determine when a variety is ready for release, intellectual property options, how to decide between selling seed in-house versus licensing to a larger company, and how to connect and negotiate with seed companies.

These conversations around intellectual property right (IPR) models in seed are ongoing. Organic Seed Alliance, Vermont Law School, and the National Center for Appropriate Technology recently hosted a listening session with farmers, seed growers, seed companies, plant breeders, and other food and farming stakeholders about issues they face with IPR on seed. Find the post-event recording at seedalliance.org.

 

How to Get Involved

Andrew Adamski of Full Circle Community Farm in Seymour, Wisconsin is looking forward to being a part of the collaborative network. “Diversity is key to any thriving system,” Adamski said. “Not only do farmers need a diversity of human interaction, ecosystem dynamics, income streams, and a diverse diet, we need a diversity of plant genetics to thrive in our unique farm climate. The best way to do this is breeding plants on your farm with the help and support of others with knowledge and wisdom that you don’t have yet.”

Are you a farmer or gardener in the Upper Midwest who wants to help adapt key crops to your growing environment, while connecting and learning with other plant breeders and seed savers in the region? Sign up today to be part of the Upper Midwest Collaborative Plant Breeding Network. Visit seedalliance.org/2020/upper-midwest-collaborative-breeding-network.

Mark your calendar to join the collaborative for a roundtable at the virtual Growing Stronger conference this February and help prioritize regional needs for seed research, education, and resources!

By working together, collaborators throughout the region can build the diversity and resilience needed on farms and plates to respond to new climate realities.

Cathleen McCluskey is Outreach Director for the Organic Seed Alliance.

 

From the November | December 2020 Issue

 

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