Heirlooms of Tomorrow

Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) is often asked which seeds are appropriate for the new agricultural systems that many of us are developing: systems that foster conservation, diversity, resiliency, and true sustainability. This article aims to answer that question while clarifying the principles guiding our plant breeding work.

OSA has always believed that building a healthy, sustainable agriculture future requires farmer-centric seed systems at the regional level – where farmers and the communities they serve consciously choose which crop genetic resources they use and how they are controlled. In fact, the main goal of OSA’s Education and Research Programs is to empower farmers interested in creating these systems by teaching them how to produce the best quality seed to meet their farm needs and those of their communities.

We achieve this goal by teaching farmers how to 1) grow high quality seed of existing varieties and maintain variety integrity through selection, and 2) improve existing varieties through trait selection or by making crosses to breed new, better performing varieties. If a crop variety already exists that meets a farmer’s needs, we always encourage them to use that variety and learn how to maintain its valuable traits. When farmers are dissatisfied and believe they can improve a variety through selection and breeding, we encourage them to use a number of simple classical breeding methods that are appropriate for on-farm breeding.

What is “appropriate” on-farm breeding?

OSA fields a lot of questions about plant breeding and how it’s used in the modern world, in addition to questions about our own breeding work. At times we are asked why we focus on improving varieties rather than preserving heirloom or heritage varieties. Other times we hear views that imply plant breeding – not genetic engineering but classical plant breeding – is “messing” with nature. We must consider that almost all of the crop plants that humans use worldwide have been passed down for generations through the extensive selective breeding work of our agricultural ancestors.

We are very deliberate in our approach to plant breeding. All of our breeding work contributes to one of our core values: ensuring that farmers control the seed they use. That is, our breeding work gives farmers free access to genetic resources and the freedom to grow what they please, while supplying them with the knowledge and skills to both grow seed and improve the crop’s characteristics to best meet their needs.

Our breeding work is devoted to the needs of organic farmers, who too often must rely on seed bred in conventional, high-input agricultural systems because of the inadequate supply of organically bred and produced seed. We place a strong emphasis on breeding crops with the best-adapted germplasm (crop genetic resources) available, which often includes varieties used today, older commercial varieties, and heirloom varieties. We base our work equally on identifying the best germplasm that currently exists – including material identified independently by farmers – and material that OSA identifies in trials conducted on farms under the real life challenges of organic farming.

Farmers are pivotal in helping us identify the best-suited varieties to use in this breeding work. In many of the breeding projects farmers become full partners with OSA’s plant breeders in what is known as “participatory plant breeding” (PPB). A farmer’s role can involve all aspects of the breeding process, from setting the objectives, determining which traits to select, and performing the selection, to determining the final ideotype of the newly bred variety. Academic breeders in North America rarely do this type of PPB. Fortunately, this is starting to change. For example, OSA is a partner in the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC), which includes researchers from four universities who are partnering with organic farmers to breed new varieties, identify the best performing varieties for organic agriculture, and educate farmers on seed production and plant variety improvement.

As we identify the best crop material for regional, farmer-centric seed systems, we evaluate crop genetic resources from a number of different sources. Here are the four categories of plant genetic resources that we evaluate in on-farm trials and consider for use in our PPB work with farmers:

1) Heirloom or Heritage Varieties: This category includes family or community-based heirlooms as well as non-hybrid commercial crop varieties that were in existence before 1940. Heirlooms are open-pollinated (OP) varieties that were selected, adapted, and maintained over generations within families or agricultural communities. They were often uniquely adapted to the challenges of the soil, climate, and endemic diseases of a particular region. Commercial OP varieties from this period were either developed by one of the many regional seed companies or by plant breeders at one of the land grant agricultural colleges. While there were pioneering breeders at several influential seed companies and land grant colleges during the pre-World War II era, they were still in the early stages of developing systematic breeding programs and were limited in the number of new, unique varieties that they released.

In many cases, the new commercial varieties released during this period by regional seed companies were improved or refined heirloom varieties important to the region. These varieties were then made more widely available to farmers and gardeners across the region. There were also seed company innovators like W. Atlee Burpee, founder of the Burpee Seed Company, who combed the countryside of the Mid-Atlantic states looking for farmer breeders with new novel varieties that he thought would be popular across this region. This pre-war era was not as dynamic or productive in generating new, truly unique crop varieties as the Early Modern Period that was to follow. However, the focus at this time, on regional agricultural needs.by the land grant colleges and regional seed companies, is a model for the new farmer-centric seed systems we are developing today. Some authors classify the two categories of varieties that were prevalent during this era; the family heirlooms and pre-WWII commercial crop varieties as “Class 1″ and “Class 2″ heirlooms, respectively.

2) Early Modern Varieties This is my term for crop varieties developed by both regional seed companies and land grant colleges from the end of World War II until about 1980. Most of these varieties are not F1 hybrids, but are true OP varieties in cross-pollinated crops, and “pure line” varieties in self-pollinated crops.

Early Modern Varieties were derived directly or indirectly from heirloom and early commercial varieties. While there were some crops that had an increasing F1 hybrid presence during this era (largely corn and to some degree tomatoes, broccoli, summer squash, and a few others) we have evaluated many non-hybrid early modern varieties upon the recommendation of our best organic farmers and found them to be genetically resilient and well-adapted to the challenges of organic cropping systems.

Despite all of the growth in American agriculture in the post-war era, the land grant colleges and seed companies were still regionally based and the breeding was specific to the needs of farmers and gardeners within the state or particular region where these institutions were based. Many of innovative, young plant breeders were farm boys who were trained on the GI Bill and knew what worked on real farms. The Early Modern Varieties were bred for the varied conditions of the region. The breeding of vegetables and other minor crops wasn’t usually done under optimum fertility or heavy sprays, as these breeders knew that farmers wouldn’t treat these varieties with kid gloves. Many of these varieties that are still used today have proven their worth as “workhorse varieties” and a number of the farmer breeders that we work with have chosen varieties out of this category for breeding stock. Many non-hybrid varieties released during this era are considered “Class 3″ heirlooms by some authors, which essentially means they are varieties derived from Class 1 or Class 2 heirlooms.

3) Modern Non-hybrids Many good non-hybrid varieties are still bred today by independent breeders at various seed companies (generally small- to medium-sized regional companies) and some wonderful public breeders at land grant universities. Some of these breeders include Stephen Jones and Kevin Murphy at Washington State University (wheat); Jim Meyers at Oregon State University (tomatoes, peas, and beans); and Phil Simon at University of Wisconsin – Madison (carrots), to name a few.

4) F1 Hybrid varieties Many of the organic farmers we work with use hybrid varieties in their commercial crop production. We are always interested in comparing the latest hybrid varieties that are important in the organic marketplace to the varieties that our growers are breeding and producing themselves. This is important, as we ultimately want to produce “on-farm seed” of varieties that are equal to or better than anything in the marketplace, including the latest hybrids.

In summary, OSA always screens crop varieties from a wide swath of the germplasm base for each crop that we work with and from all four of the above categories – and with great success. In a number of cases, we restored an existing heritage variety and returned it to farmers and gardeners. Two examples of this include the now popular ‘Dragon’ purple carrot, a farmer variety originally from Asia that I re-selected for stronger tops to better compete with weeds, and ‘Purple Olive Shaped Radish,’ an 18th century spring radish from England that is the earliest known purple radish.

We have a number of success stories in our work with farmers, where we have used early modern and modern non-hybrids to develop competitive varieties that are now grown and controlled by farmers. Some examples include:

– ‘Dark Star’ zucchini, an accidental cross between an heirloom, ‘Black Beauty,’ and the hybrid, ‘Raven,’ that farmer Bill Reynolds, in a participatory plant breeding project with OSA, selected for dryland farming conditions in Northern California. It has become the most hardy, drought-tolerant, best overall OP zucchini on the market today.

– ‘Nash’s Red Kale’ by Nash Huber of Nash’s Organic Produce, where he crossed several unusual red ‘Vates’ kale plants with a tall, well-adapted modern OP Brussels sprout variety.

– ‘Shiraz’ beets from my own backyard cross of two early modern OP beet varieties, ‘Crosby Greentop’ and ‘Greentop Bunching.’

Our farming ancestors never stopped breeding

We cannot forget that all of the heirloom crop varieties developed during the history of agriculture were produced from selections of existing crops that didn’t meet all the needs of our plant breeding ancestors. All good farmers who survived and flourished were plant breeders. They used observational skills to determine and select the best adapted, highest yielding, best tasting and most disease-resistant plants.

These ancestors were never fully satisfied with the crops they used. They wanted to improve the “farmer varieties” (sometimes called landraces) since it could mean the difference between life and death for their families and communities. Modern organic farmers who are choosing to produce, select, and breed crop varieties to flourish in their regional agro-ecosystems are rubbing shoulders with the best farmer breeders of the past who domesticated and continually improved our crop genetic resources.

There will always be a need to adapt new varieties to current challenges, such as climate change. Classical plant breeding (without the use of GMOs) should not be viewed as “messing” with nature. The principles of evolution show us that there is always variation in biological populations, environmental conditions always change (selection pressure), and no biological entity stays the same as it responds to selection pressure (“survival of the fittest”). No organism is ever static in nature – selection pressure and change over time are inevitable. We advocate for a co-evolutionary model that allows varieties we use to be a part of the evolving agricultural system that we are pioneering.

Returning farmers to their role as seed stewards

Our work at OSA is intended to empower farmers to again be part of the seed system that they have been divorced from for almost 100 years. OSA has realized that over the last decade we have not only lost valuable genetic diversity in modern agriculture, we have lost farmer knowledge of how to breed and steward the genetic resources that are most important to them and their communities. We believe that there is just as much important work to be done in training farmers to breed, maintain, and grow high quality seed crops adapted to the needs of low-input, agro-ecosystems as there is for preserving the genetic resources of the past. The best way for valuable genetic resources to become part of the fabric of agriculture is to get them into the hands of farmers who as skilled stewards will both adopt and further adapt the material to their most important needs.

All of this breeding work is done in agro-ecosystems, on-farm, and applying very sound classical plant breeding methodology. We emphasize building in genetic resilience and diversity into each crop population that we work with. One of our seminal programs for this work has been named “Heirlooms of Tomorrow,” to emphasize that we want to develop the kind of resilient, dynamic varieties for future generations that our ancestors gave to us.

We certainly regard the screening and evaluation of heirloom varieties as something researchers in this field should emphasize to identify superior germplasm from all possible sources. Still, we view crop improvement as a critical ongoing process in the evolution of organic agriculture.

OSA will continue to promote the stewardship of seed in a manner that fosters the adaptation of plant genetic resources to the ecological and market needs of farmers and the communities they feed. This includes helping farmers perform on-farm plant breeding in the same manner as our most innovative ancestors. To not encourage such improvements would be a disservice to eaters, farmers, the planet, and future generations.

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