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Organic Farmers Using Heirloom Seeds to Produce Superior Crops

<> San Francisco Chronicle

Seed crossings bring back old traits for organic farmers
Today's altered varieties grow poorly in natural soils

By Deborah K. Rich
August 28, 2004

What if organic gardeners and farmers could plant fruits and vegetables
suited for life without chemicals? What if organic growers had access to
varieties naturally resistant to diseases, to varieties with cold tolerance
and with large leaf canopies to shade out weeds?

For 50 years, American plant breeders, both public and private, have bred
prima donna varieties that are capable of spectacular performances when the
stage is properly set -- the soil ripped and tilled, the nitrates ready and
waiting, the weeds, fungi and insects chemically cordoned off -- but that
falter under the environmental pressures of organic management.

"Seeds are always a reflection of the agricultural system they are born
in," says John Navazio, director of education and research for the Organic
Seed Alliance. Seed from plants that thrive in cultivated soils will likely
be ill-prepared for no-till and compost-covered fields. Varieties bred to
respond to chemical pest protection won't hone their natural defense
mechanisms. Seed with the genetics to flourish in monoculture farming will
produce different leaf canopies and root structures than what is optimal for
the layered multispecies plant groupings of organic farming regimes.

Ironic, isn't it, that a nation would craft a germplasm base best suited
for an unsustainable agricultural system? The United States has done so
largely as the result of historical coincidence. Modern plant breeding,
defined as the controlled crossing of plant varieties to transfer desirable
traits, blossomed after World War II. At the same time, the nation embraced
the use of increasingly available synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and

"The breeders were working with the most progressive farmers, and the most
progressive farmers were using chemicals," says Navazio.

Concurrently, and cementing the fate of American germplasm -- seed material
-- more and more private companies hired university-trained plant breeders
and developed in-house breeding programs in the postwar era. The role of the
U.S. Department of Agriculture and the land grant universities in breeding
and releasing plant varieties lessened, and germplasm improvement
increasingly became a function of the private rather than the public sector.

"Research tends to follow the money," says Rob Johnston, founder and owner
of Johnny's Selected Seeds. Since the late 1940s, the profits of seed
companies in America have largely depended upon conventional farmers. No
surprise, then, that breeding programs have focused upon maximizing the
performance of seed used in conventional farming systems.

Today, as the numbers and financial strength of organic growers increase, a
handful of small seed companies and the occasional university researcher are
responding to the need for varieties bred not only to withstand but also to
flourish in organic gardens and fields.

Many organic breeding efforts begin by screening material developed between
1930 and 1960, before chemically farmed fields became the proving ground for
new plant varieties. In 2000, Molly Jahn of Cornell University launched the
Public Seed Initiative, a plant variety development-and-release program
dedicated to better serving regional growers, many of whom farm organically.

"First we looked on our shelves for existing varieties of value for local
areas," says Jahn. "Then we got in touch with nonprofit groups, which had
networks of organic growers who could take the varieties and evaluate them
under organic conditions. We found a huge variation in performance; some
were day-and-night different under organic." A favorite find of Jahn's is
'Hannah's Choice,' a cantaloupe variety that Jahn says is too delicate to
make a "western shipper," but which has incredible flavor when grown under
organic conditions and which thrives in the organic environment, beating out
any conventionally bred cantaloupe on the market.

After screening existing varieties to find those best suited for organic
production, organic breeders develop a crossing and selection strategy to
encourage the expression of traits of special advantage to organic growers.
Frank Morton, organic farmer, self-trained breeder and owner of Wild Garden
Seeds in Philomath, Ore., may be furthest along among the small group of
breeders focusing on organic agriculture.

"Organic growers need disease resistance built into the seed," says Morton.
"And the way you arrive at this is by taking as many varieties as you can
find, planting them, and stressing them with common diseases. I call our
lettuce testing ground 'hell's half-acre,' because by purposely growing the
lettuce on the same ground year after year, and by inoculating the varieties
in the test with diseases, I've created a very stressful environment. I
cross the varieties that survive hell's half-acre to create new varieties
with the genetics that convey disease resistance."

Morton has developed four lettuce varieties with superior disease
resistance: 'Outredgeous,' 'Hyper Red Rumple Wave,' 'Outstanding,' and
'Better Devil.' The Organic Farmers Research Foundation recently provided a
grant to Morton to further his lettuce screening and breeding efforts.

Morton also breeds kale. When he began producing kale seed, he felt that
the popular 'Lacinato' variety, though attractive and flavorful, was weak
and disease-prone, possibly as a result of inbreeding depression. "To
reverse inbreeding depression, one needs to introduce unrelated genetics to
the depressed strain," says Morton. "I wasn't sure that any other strains of
'Lacinato' available would be unrelated to my own material, so I went with
my intuition and used an old reddish Savoy cabbage as a source of genetic
novelty. There was only one crossing event, then I started backpedaling
toward all the 'Lacinato' traits of the original type, but bigger, more
productive, more vigorous, more fecund, more disease-resistant, more
cold-tolerant, and a bit darker on average."

Morton's revitalized 'Lacinato' recently topped a trial conducted by
Navazio for Mother Earth News, consistently producing high yields and
proving to be the most frost-tolerant.

In Pullman, Wash., Stephen Jones, winter wheat breeder at Washington State
University, initiated a wheat breeding program dedicated to organic growers
four years ago.

"Our thought was that for the past 50 years, all wheat breeders have been
selecting under high chemical input situations. So, we have probably lost
beneficial genes in our new varieties for systems that see little or no
inputs, genes that confer traits like competitiveness and the ability to
thrive in low fertility fields," says Jones.

Jones' approach was to go back and grow out 162 wheat varieties, all the
wheats that were grown in the Pacific Northwest from 1842 to 1950. Jones
then crossed the old lines to Washington State's modern lines to add in the
traits that have improved since the 1950s. To replicate the organic
environment for his selection program, Jones had 11 acres of the university
research farm certified organic.

From his screening of the old wheat varieties, Jones' program has already
identified, and makes available to the public, varieties that consistently
produce higher yields for Washington's organic wheat growers than any of the
varieties selected under conventional farming regimes. It will take another
five years or so before progeny of the old material crossed with modern
varieties will be ready for release.

At Seeds of Change, Steve Peters reports that they have begun crossing
summer squash varieties and selecting for desirable traits. "We took
zucchini that was vigorous but grew so dense it was difficult for growers to
harvest, and crossed it with a conventional variety that was more open but
not as vigorous. We're hoping to get the best of each. We're testing the
progeny this year." In 2005, Peters plans to begin selecting for varieties
capable of withstanding the big swings in weather. "We need varieties that
are real workhorses, that can take us through tough times. We're looking for
reliable yield, rather than the top yield under the best circumstances, and
we don't want to forget flavor at the expense of other traits."

Deborah K. Rich is a Monterey writer and olive rancher. E-mail her at

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