October 20, 2020 – Most modern crop cultivars have been bred and selected to perform well in conventional farming systems over wide geographic ranges. As a result, organic farmers have relatively few options for purchasing regionally adapted cultivars suited to organic production. When OFRF conducted a national survey of organic producers for their 2016 National Organic Research Agenda, respondents commonly stated the need for increased on-farm plant breeding and variety improvement for organic seeds. In response, OFRF has awarded four new grants to support researcher/farmer collaborations in the areas of crop breeding and organic seed development.
The first grant to Sarah Hargreaves at the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario supports three breeding projects focused on providing best practices for adapting to climate change with vegetable varieties that are locally adapted to low-input organic systems for southern Ontario and the Northeast U.S. By supporting farmer-led breeding efforts for organic production, this project contributes to an emerging but critically under-researched area of vegetable farming. Ultimately, the research team hopes to release three varieties of early ripening, blocky, and flavorful bell peppers: a mass-selected population of red peppers, and uniform populations of red and yellow peppers using progeny lines. They also aim to breed an open pollinated broccoli variety that is heat tolerant and adapted to organic systems, as well as an open pollinated seedless English cucumber with excellent flavor and good yield that is adapted to organic greenhouse conditions.
The second grant to Helen Jensen at Seed Change supports the evaluation of selection methods and efficacy in on-farm breeding of organic wheat and oat varieties. Participatory plant breeding (PPB) is internationally recognized as a methodology that works collaboratively with organic farmers to minimize environmental impacts and adapt to climate change. This project will document how farmer-selectors have contributed to genetic improvement for organic production of wheat and oats and share that information with existing and prospective PPB participants across the country. The researchers hope to improve knowledge of selection practices for all of the stakeholders in the program, as well as improve methodologies and increased adoption of PPB by a broader range of organic farmers.
The third grant was awarded to Carol Deppe at Fertile Valley Seeds to breed disease-resistant heirloom-quality tomatoes, especially those resistant to late blight and a number of other diseases. The project aims to enable the wide distribution of seeds that allow organic farmers and gardeners to easily develop their own heirloom-quality tomato varieties with resistance to common diseases.
The fourth grant to Lee-Ann Hill at Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance will look beyond the marketability of heritage grains to explore their impact on soil health, climate adaptivity, weed pressure, and insect pressure through farmer-driven, participatory research. Research data collected from this project will be published in the Heritage Grain Trials Handbook, freely distributed online, and disseminated to grain trialists and interested growers to increase and enhance knowledge about these unique varieties. With this project, the research team expects to increase the availability of 20 unique heritage grain seed varieties.
These grants are four of 13 OFRF is awarding this year to help address the top challenges facing organic farmers and ranchers. As a result of OFRF’s research, education, and outreach efforts, thousands of farmers have received pertinent research and training information. Results from all OFRF-funded projects are available to access for free in our online database.