Faces of Public Plant Breeding: Adrienne Shelton

Adrienne Shelton is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, earning a Master’s and PhD with Dr. Bill Tracy. Her research includes analyzing the inheritance of genetic traits that confer high planting density tolerance in sweet corn and developing an open-pollinated sweet corn variety for organic growers using participatory breeding methods. Before attending graduate school, Adrienne worked for ten years on numerous organic farms, including four years as the farm manager of Red Gate Farm Education Center in Buckland, Massachusetts.

Why is seed important to you?

Seed is important to me because it is the foundation of our agriculture, the food we eat, our health, and survival on this planet. Yet despite its central role in our lives, most of us never consider the seed. We need people who do pay attention to seed – preserving varieties that will otherwise be forgotten and lost, and developing new varieties that allow us to farm sustainably in the shifting landscape of climate change.

What led you to go into a career in plant breeding?

I was working as a farm manager on a small educational farm in western Massachusetts.  My job was quite varied – I did everything from taking care of the farm animals to teaching classes to kids, to writing grants, to growing vegetables. When I felt that it was time for me to start thinking about my next job, I considered all of the aspects of my current job and tried to identify what filled me with the most excitement. The answer came easily, because I was most passionate about the seed saving that I was doing and the community seed bank that I had developed. I considered trying to work as an intern at a small seed company or seed farm, but decided that I really wanted to understand the biological science of seed production and the genetics of variety improvement. So, 10 years after completing my undergraduate degree in a social science, I went to graduate school for plant breeding.

How would you characterize the importance of public plant breeders?

I think public plant breeders are a crucial part of the seed system. As a graduate student in a plant breeding program, there is obviously a constant buzz amongst my cohort of what jobs will be available when we graduate. It is clear that there is no lack of funding and opportunities to breed major conventional crops such as field corn and soybean. But for minor crops such as oats, or many vegetable crops, there is little market incentive for private companies to devote resources to breeding improved varieties. The work that public breeders do is crucial to maintain a diversity of crop varieties available to farmers.  In addition, public plant breeders can form collaborations with small and medium size seed companies who may not have the resources to do all of their own breeding. This keeps the seed industry vibrant and diverse, rather than enabling it to be dominated by a few large corporations.

Can you tell us about the projects you’re working on with OSA?

I am involved with the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC), which is a joint project with OSA, Oregon State University, Cornell and UW – Madison.  Particularly, I am working with organic farmer Martin Diffley to develop an open-pollinated sweet corn variety that thrives in organic systems.

What has been most exciting or surprising about this project?

The most exciting part of this project has been the wonderful mix of people participating in the breeding process. The unique skills of John Navazio, Martin Diffley, Bill Tracy, Jared Zystro, and myself complement each other so well. It is also really exciting to see the progress we have made over the last few years of developing the population, and we are really hopeful that we will soon have a variety that many farmers and eaters will enjoy.

What has been most challenging?

Certainly the most challenging has been coordinating schedules amongst the breeding team, as we have people living in Washington, California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. We still have managed to get together as a group every August to evaluate the sweet corn, which is the most important part of the process.

Why do you believe OSA’s work is important?

OSA’s work is crucial because as I mentioned before, people do not often think about the seed. Even many farmers do not think about the seed except when they are placing their seed orders in the winter. I was surprised during my years of apprenticing on organic farmers to realize that farmers who put so much thought and care into planning their crop rotations and weed management systems did not know much about where their seed was coming from. OSA does so much great work to educate farmers and consumers about the value of organic seed and the importance of breeding for the unique systems found on organic farms.

What do you see as the biggest challenge to managing and improving crop genetics today?

I think one of the biggest challenges to managing and improving crop genetics today is having the financial resources – both in the public and private sectors – to be able to pay skilled people who know how to do this work.

What do you find hopeful or inspiring in your work as a plant breeder?

I am really inspired by the momentum that I see in the organic seed movement. I think that more and more students, professors, farmers, and seeds people are recognizing that there is a huge new area to explore in developing varieties adapted to sustainable farming systems.

Where do you hope to land after you graduate? (What’s your dream job?)

I will be extremely happy to be able to find work after I graduate that allows me to continue to be involved with the organic seed system. I would love to be an organic breeder. While I do hope that new job opportunities are being created, I really have no idea of what exactly will be available when I graduate. I feel that I will have to be pretty broad in my job search, and hope that I am able to develop a wide spectrum of skills while in graduate school that allow me to keep many options open.

It’s the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and our land grant university system. What is USDA doing well? What can the agency do better?

USDA is funding my research assistantship through NOVIC, for which I am extremely grateful. I hope that USDA continues to set aside money for students to learn classical breeding methods.

I am excited to see land grant universities setting aside portions of their agricultural research stations for organic production. I think still more can be done to ensure that organic land is being managed using systems that are as sophisticated as those found on the best organic farms.

What is your advice to new plant breeding students?

Ask lots of questions!

Do you have a favorite plant variety? Why?

I love the diversity of seed coats that can be found in dry beans. But the cool thing about plant varieties is that you can find that level of diversity in so many different crops. So I do not really have a favorite for that reason, although I am definitely partial to plant varieties that taste delicious!

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