USDA-NIFA Awards Organic Agriculture Research Grant to PBC and Student Farm

New organic plant breeding effort will produce new crop varieties and train new plant breeders

 

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For organic growers in California, the challenge of finding seeds that meet the needs of an organic farm can have a serious impact on a farm’s bottom line. Seeds bred to account for the difference between growing organically and conventionally can improve farm yields and marketing potential for produce. Yet organic seeds available to farmers are rarely developed with these organic management considerations in mind.

UC Davis is launching a breeding effort to help fill that gap by developing organic tomato, bean, pepper and possibly other crop cultivars that are bred in direct response to growers’ needs and will become commercially available to California growers.

The project, funded at just under a million dollars by the Organic Research and Extension Initiative of the USDA, will be run by Plant Breeding Center Director Charlie Brummer. Cultivars will be developed on certified organic land at the Student Farm at UC Davis and the breeding programs will be led by graduate students as part of their hands-on training to be plant breeders. The Student Farm is a program of the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis.

“When we started the Plant Breeding Center in 2014, we wanted to give our plant breeding students experience with real cultivar development projects that would result in products growers and seed producers would want. This project lets us put those pieces together in a very meaningful and exciting way,” says Charlie Brummer.

There are myriad genetic traits that apply specifically to organic agriculture. Because organic farmers tend to rely on non-chemical methods to control pests and supply nutrients, natural resistance to pests and adaptation to organic soil conditions is important to crops grown organically. And increasingly, organic growers are in need of crops developed to meet market niches that clearly differentiate their product from others.

Studies show that plant varieties developed under organic conditions tend to out-perform those developed under conventional conditions.

UC Davis has a long history of plant breeding projects, but few have focused on organic seed or vegetable production until now.

“I see this as a real opportunity to build bridges between UC Davis breeding programs and organic farmers that I anticipate will grow well beyond this project,” says Jared Zystro, Assistant Director of Research and Education at Organic Seed Alliance, an industry partner on the project. “One of the great things about partnership with the university is the expertise breeders bring in their particular crops. That expertise is coupled with the thinking about how to efficiently execute the breeding process.”

That breeding process will be taught to graduate students at UC Davis to help prepare them for plant breeding careers. Students will work directly to develop cultivars at the Student Farm and collaborate with farmers and the organic seed industry to understand specific breeding needs and to conduct on-farm trials to determine if potential cultivars have merit.

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“This project is exciting because of its focus on actually trying to release cultivars,” says Zystro, a plant breeder himself. “That’s an experience that graduate students rarely get in their educations.”

“In addition to directly training for graduates students, hundreds of students will be exposed to the project every year,” said Mark Van Horn, Director at the Student Farm, a farm-scale facility on campus with 35 years of field-based teaching and research on organic farming. “Over the course of the project’s four years, thousands of grade school students will visit the Student Farm and be exposed to the importance of organic crop breeding.”

 

 

Media Contacts:

Amanda Pietras, Program Representative, Plant Breeding Center, 530-752-2159, ampietras@ucdavis.edu

Charles Brummer, Director, Plant Breeding Center, ecbrummer@ucdavis.edu

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