Helping Organic Farmers Breed the Seed They Need

Introduction_to_On-farm_Organic_Plant_Breeding_DRAFT-3-19-14 (dragged)

OSA is happy to announce today the release of four organic plant breeding manuals that walk farmers through the methods of breeding new crop varieties on their farm. They include an introduction to on-farm organic plant breeding and three crop-specific breeding manuals covering carrots, sweet corn, and tomatoes.

“One of our goals is to empower organic farmers to breed their own crop varieties,” says OSA Executive Director Micaela Colley. “The methods described in these manuals can immediately be adopted by farmers to improve their skills in plant breeding, and, ultimately, improve their operations through seed varieties that are well-suited to their farms.”

Introduction to On-farm Organic Plant Breeding provides farmers an overview of basic genetics, farm-based experimental design, and breeding techniques appropriate for organic farms, among other useful background and instruction. The introductory guide provides the scientific foundation for the crop-specific instruction provided in the other three guides: How to Breed Carrots for Organic Agriculture, How to Breed Sweet Corn for Organic Agriculture, and How to Breed Tomatoes for Organic Agriculture. Each crop-specific manual provides step-by-step instruction from identifying good breeding material to maintaining a new variety for quality and uniformity.

The manuals are published at a time when organic farms are rarely targeted as breeding environments in plant breeding programs. The vast majority of plant breeding continues to focus on developing varieties for high-input, conventional farms – varieties that depend on external chemical inputs to produce optimal yield and quality. Organic systems differ from conventional ones in a number of ways, including the timing of nutrient availability, the variability of field conditions, and the amount of insect, disease, and weed pressure.

With a limited number of options to combat production problems, organic farmers rely on prevention through crop rotation, soil management strategies, and the use of appropriate crop genetics. While progress has been made in developing best management practices, little has been done to develop varieties suited to organic systems – a strategy that could be equally important over time.

“To increase organic farmers’ success, we must increase the number of varieties bred for organic systems,” says Colley. “One of the groups best suited to do this breeding work is organic farmers themselves.”

The interest among organic farmers to practice plant breeding is growing. In response to a survey conducted with certified organic crop growers, 60% of respondents said they are interested in conducting on-farm crop improvement/breeding on their farm, especially if training and economic incentives are available. Furthermore, each year, demand for OSA’s plant breeding trainings and field days is overwhelming, with nearly 1,000 farmers attending these educational events in 2013 alone.

Many university and industry professionals are also interested in expanding their work with farmers. Since the manuals are geared toward farm-based projects, the methods also support formal breeders who already engage, or wish to engage, farmers in their plant breeding programs.

These publications were made possible thanks to the generous support from Organic Farming Research Foundation and Clif Bar Family Foundation’s Seed Matters initiative.

They are available for free download here.

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