Organic Plant Breeding Comes to UC Davis

It is a challenge for organic growers in California to find seed varieties that perform well in organic conditions, due to the fact that most plant breeding has been done for conventional production. This need for organic-specific vegetable varieties is being addressed by a new organic plant breeding project at the University of California, Davis, funded by a federal Organic Research and Extension Initiative grant.

The project will focus on developing organic tomato, bean, and pepper varieties. Cultivars will be developed on CCOF-certified organic land at UC Davis’s student farm. The plan is to trial some of the more promising selections on cooperating organic farms.

A secondary goal of the project is to train graduate students who are studying plant breeding in both cultivar development and organic breeding priorities. To initiate the program, a meeting was held in mid-November between the UC Davis breeders, students, staff, and members of the organic farming and organic seed communities. CCOF growers Andrew Brait from Full Belly Farm, Scott Park from Park Farming, and Zea Sonnabend from Fruitilicious Farm attended, as well as Jared Zystro and Steve Peters from the Organic Seed Alliance.

At the meeting, several students presented proposals for future organic breeding work to seek input from the organic seed community. Potential projects included beans that resist virus, heirloom strains of tomatoes that don't crack as much, and peppers that are paler in immature color to resist sun damage.

The group agreed that a short survey of organic vegetable growers would help identify traits needed for organic farms. Over the course of the four-year project, there will be several opportunities for growers to influence the future of plant breeding in California.

In future years, the Plant Breeding Center is hoping to expand the effort to other crops. They will be looking for farmer cooperators to be on their advisory committee and to host on-farm trials as the project progresses. If you are interested in being an advisory committee member or hosting an on-farm trial, contact Charlie Brummer, Plant Breeding Center, at ecbrummer@ucdavis.edu.

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