Chicory flower in bloom.
photo courtesy of taliesin/morguefile.com.
In Portland, they're chanting, 'We want somebody to breed chicories!'" John Navazio is speaking tongue in cheek, of course, yet the success he alludes to is no joke.
Navazio is the senior scientist for the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) and a plant breeding and seed specialist for Washington State University Extension. In November 2012, on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, Navazio and his colleagues were harvesting radicchio from a field with no protection. After screening more than 50 varieties over a three-year period, Navazio and the farmers he works with via OSA's Participatory Plant Breeding program (PPB) are selecting varieties of chicory that can withstand temperatures as low as 15 degrees Fahrenheit. "We eat delicious chicories every month of the winter," he boasts.
Nearly a dozen farmers are growing and selling chicory quite successfully at farmers' markets in Washington and Oregon. While the numbers are fairly low now, Navazio says the demand for chicory is growing every year in several communities in the maritime northwest and in the neighboring state of Oregon.
Navazio credits the breeding, without which farmers might still be growing the tasteless, bitter hybrid radicchio varieties from northern Europe. Through PPB, farmers like Hanako Myers and Marko Colby of Midori Farm are growing varieties of radicchio chicory that have a full complex of flavors, including both sweet and bitter. The achievement with chicory is just one of many success stories of PPB. Farmers and breeders in the program have collaborated on a variety of vegetable crops, including tomatoes, spinach, broccoli, sweet corn, kale, arugula, winter squash and summer squash.
What is PPB?
Participatory Plant Breeding is a program run by OSA in which breeding experts and organic farmers collaborate in designing and conducting on-farm research to develop new varieties.
Many farmers are concerned about having a good, secure seed supply that they are not beholden to anybody to access or use. When a farmer knows what every player in their supply chain wants, and knows the environmental pressures on their farm, they can choose the most suitable varieties to meet their needs. When the most suitable varieties don't quite meet the farmer's needs, then there are two choices:
1. Grow what's available, hope for the best, and make do.
2. Develop varieties that will perform well in the environment on their particular farm.
Farmers who choose option number two are great candidates for PPB. "Those are the farmers we really love," says Navazio. "To get to the point of asking that question, identifying the problem, identifying the need, and realizing that it's not available - they're already at the top of the class. To know enough to ask that question, you have to be very knowledgeable and have looked at a lot of that crop to know that you're not getting what you need."
Navazio says the PPB collaboration works best when both farmer and breeder are equal partners in the choice of germplasm and in trait selection. The farmer and breeder will often prioritize the relative value of the traits and be able to interpret seasonal fluctuations of the environment on the expression of the phenotypic traits. Both participants record the data during the course of the project.
OSA works with 12 to 15 farmers at a time. Navazio reports that the most successful PPB projects use breeding methods that are farmer-friendly, require minimal hand manipulation of the crop, and have strong farmer-breeder involvement.
High-tech methods are a big part of plant breeding nowadays, but Navazio says complex fixes are often unnecessary. "A lot of the best breeding in the last hundred years that has gotten us so many of the wonderful benefits of increased disease resistance and yield and ability to withstand environment is just good old-fashioned plant breeding," boasts Navazio. "It really works!"
That's why, even though the university breeders affiliated with the PPB program have sophisticated genetic knowledge, they use classical plant breeding techniques. Using rudimentary tools, plant breeders can create varieties that are robust in the field and custom-tailored to what the farmers need for their clientele. "In a lot of cases, we can be competitive with regular conventional breeding programs that are using a lot more sophisticated tools and methodology," he says.
Read more about PPB in next month's column.
The author is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts and a monthly contributor to Growing.