New Tools for Organic Farmers Teach DIY Plant Breeding!

Karen Adler's picture

Organic farmers are always on the lookout for better ways to combat weeds, insects, and disease, and produce an abundance of the healthiest and best-tasting crops. Having plant varieties that are suited for organic systems may be key to producing higher yields and better quality crops, and could play an important role in increasing organic farmers’ success. However, few plant breeders are working on varieties specifically targeted for organic systems, and there are almost no such varieties available. How to fill this void? One of the groups best suited to do organic breeding work is organic farmers themselves.

Four new resources from Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), developed and produced with funding from OFRF and Clif Bar Family Foundation’s Seed Matters initiative, provide a wealth of information for farmers who want to learn the art and craft of plant breeding. The comprehensive manuals walk farmers through the methods of breeding new crop varieties on the farm.

Introduction to On-farm Organic Plant Breeding provides farmers with an overview of basic genetics, farm-based experimental design, and breeding techniques appropriate for organic farms. This guide lays the scientific foundation for the instruction provided in the three crop-specific 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 manual provides step-by-step instruction, from identifying good breeding material to maintaining a new variety for quality and uniformity.

“To increase organic farmers’ success, we must increase the number of varieties bred for organic systems,” says Organic Seed Alliance Executive Director Micaela Colley. “One of our goals is to empower organic farmers to breed their own crop varieties. 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.”

Breeding work that was once mostly done in farmers’ fields is now conducted almost exclusively by large seed companies and on state-run agricultural experiment stations, and breeders focus their attention on the big seed markets, developing varieties for high-input, conventional farms. These are varieties that depend on external chemical inputs, which are not used in organic agriculture, to produce optimal yield and quality. Organic systems differ from conventional in many ways, including the timing of nutrient availability, the variability of field conditions, and the degree of insect, disease, and weed pressure.

The manuals support a growing number of organic farmers want to bring plant breeding back to the farm. Sixty percent of certified organic farmers who participated in OSA’s national organic farmer seed survey said they are interested in conducting on-farm crop improvement and breeding, especially if training and economic incentives are available. Many university and industry professionals would also like to expand their work with farmers. Since the manuals are geared toward farm-based projects, the methods also support formal breeders who are looking to engage farmers in their plant breeding programs.

Download the guides to learn about on-farm organic plant breeding:
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