Farm Raised Varieties

Spring 2008
Breeding Better Varieties for Northeast Organic Growers

by Sue Smith-Heavenrich

Chris Awald didn’t set out to breed a new pumpkin variety; he just wanted a stronger handle for his jack-o-lanterns. Sixteen years ago, with the ink barely dry on his degree in land surveying, Awald returned to the family homestead near Buffalo, New York.

“My heart is in farming,” Awald explained. His father raised blueberries and raspberries, along with a variety of other crops – including an acre or so of ‘Connecticut Field’ pumpkins that he sold at their on-farm market. During harvest that year, Awald started thinking about traits that make a good pumpkin. Watching children grab pumpkins by their stems, he realized that a sturdy handle was a must. A stronger stem would also hold up better in shipping, he realized.

Awald set aside 10 of his nicest pumpkins before sending the rest to market. He catalogued the width, height and weight of each pumpkin he kept, scooped out the seeds to save, and saved the labeled stems for later reference. The following spring, Awald grew 3 acres of pumpkins from the saved seeds.

As the pumpkins matured, he scouted them for good color and fat stems. At harvest, he put aside 30 or 40 of the best, again cataloging their traits and tossing the stems in a box for reference. He cleaned and dried the seeds, and used them to plant an even larger pumpkin patch the following year – 8 acres.

By his fourth year, Awald was growing close to 15 acres of pumpkins and selling them at grocery stores as well as his on-farm market. During that harvest he noticed something different about his pumpkins: The stems were noticeably larger, some nearly as thick as his forearm. Awald knew he had something – perhaps a new variety – and figured he would just keep saving seed and growing it out.

When friends and farmers began asking for seed, Awald realized he had something of value. He contacted pumpkin breeders at Cornell, who referred him to Rob Johnston of Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

Commercially Viable

“We liked the strength and size of the handle,” says Steve Bellavia, a vegetable product manager at Johnny’s. Bellavia, who works with the squashes and pumpkins, asked Awald for a sample to grow out.

“For every variety we consider, we look at commercial viability,” Bellavia explains. “The variety has to appeal to both the home gardener and commercial grower as well.” The problem with pumpkins, Bellavia explains, is size.

“People want huge jack-o-lanterns, so a thicker handle is important – especially in a U-pick situation where children are hauling the pumpkins around by the stems.” Bellavia notes that Awald’s pumpkin had many of the traits growers want. Not only did they have a sturdy handle, but they sized up nicely around 25 pounds, with good color and good ribbing. After the initial trial, Johnny’s decided to do a production grow-out, and Awald soon found his pumpkin on the pages of Johnny’s catalog listed under the variety name ‘Wolf.’

Awald, pleased that his selection made it to market, expanded his pumpkin patch to 55 acres. Thirty-five of those are devoted to raising ‘Wolf’ for seed. At the same time, Awald keeps an eye out for the unusual.

“On such a large scale, it’s easy to select for new variations,” he explains. All it takes is a trained eye – and to keep your focus on the one or two traits you want to emphasize.

“Growers need to choose an old, standard variety as a parent,” Awald points out, adding that selecting for change takes time. “If you’re working on a small scale, don’t expect to see results quickly,” he says.

Alternative Breeding Programs

Awald isn’t the only farmer to have his farm-raised variety make it into the pages of a Johnny’s catalog. Bellavia notes that Johnny’s customers have sent in ‘Bright Lights’ chard and a number of heirloom tomatoes. The research department maintains good contact with growers, Bellavia says, and they pay attention to grower feedback about varieties that work better on farms in the Northeast.

For organic growers in the Northeast, varieties that work better on their farms are those that do well in a cropping system that incorporates compost and green manures for fertility. They include varieties that work well in a rotation and withstand some competition from weeds. Few breeders, however, consider these traits when developing commercial varieties. Organic growers, frustrated by this lack of attention to their needs, began looking for alternative breeding programs a few years back.

In 2005, the Organic Seed Partnership (OSP) was formed to extend the work started by the Public Seed Initiative. Like the Public Seed Initiative, the OSP set up a national trialing network consisting of hubs, with each hub supporting a farmer-based trialing network.

The difference was that the OSP dealt exclusively with the needs of organic systems. The first year, around 80 organic growers in New York and Pennsylvania participated. Fedco, High Mowing, Johnny’s, Rupp, Seeds of Change, Seeds by Design, Territorial, and Turtle Tree seed companies offered growers over 165 varieties to test in their gardens and fields.  

“Growers were involved in everything from developing varieties to running variety trials,” says Elizabeth Dyck, OSP coordinator. Through surveys and discussions, growers contributed valuable input on how each variety could be improved. In addition to seeds, the project offered breeding material and invited growers to create varieties adapted to their unique growing conditions.

One collaborative breeding project that has borne fruit was the development of an open-pollinated, early, red, sweet bell pepper. “Toss in disease resistance and that’s a lot of parameters to be selecting for,” says Michael Glos, who headed the pepper project and works at Cornell under the breeding program directed by Molly Jahn and George Moriarty. Since 2002 they have been developing a disease-resistant red bell pepper that suits organic culture in the Northeast.

Some hybrid varieties meet many of these needs, Glos admits, but open-pollinated seed is cheaper. Also, he believes that a variety needs to be cultured in the environment for which it’s being bred. Just as you wouldn’t try to breed a pepper for the Northeast in a desert, you need to develop a variety that does well under organic conditions on an organic farm, Glos explains. So having organic growers collaborate in the project, growing out seeds on their farms, was essential.

“We started with ‘King of the North’; it’s sweet, early and yields well in the region,” says Glos. But it wasn’t early enough, and it lacked the disease resistance that farmers wanted. So the breeders crossed ‘King of the North’ with some cucumber mosaic-resistant parent lines. The F1 hybrid seeds resulting from this cross were planted on the student organic farm at Cornell and at Elizabeth Henderson’s Peacework Organic Farm in Newark, New York.

While the first seeds produced pretty uniform hybrids, the F2 generation produced diverse plants, with peppers ranging from green to yellow to red. This is where the farmers became indispensable: They selected plants that did best on their farms and sent the seed back to Glos at Cornell.

“Farmers look at whether the fruit is easy to harvest, whether the peppers ripen gradually or all at once, the earliness of maturity, plant vigor and color,” Glos points out. Over the winter the breeders at Cornell grew the peppers in greenhouses, inoculating them with diseases and selecting those that survived. During the summer, the growers tested them in the field and at their market stands. Now, after six years of grower-breeder collaboration, the seeds are available to gardeners who want to add early color to their market basket.
At the 2007 NOFA-NY conference, both CR Lawn of Fedco Seeds and Mark Hutton, a crop breeder at the University of Maine, spoke to the importance of farmer involvement in variety development.

“If you want regionally adapted varieties, it’s going to have to come from you guys,” Hutton told the growers. It’s easier to teach a farmer to become a breeder than to teach a geneticist how to grow the crops, he joked.

But the commitment of Fedco and other small seed companies to the needs of their growers is no joke. Lawn emphasized that it is important to have farmers involved in developing their own varieties. In turn, he supports these growers by offering their varieties in his catalog. Flip to page 58 of the newest Fedco Seeds catalog and you’ll find ‘Peacework,’ an early red pepper named after the farm where most of the trials took place.


Available in bookstores and through Fedco Seeds:

Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener’s and Farmer’s Guide to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving, by Carol Deppe, 2000. Advice on how to do variety trials and inspiration for the curious would-be breeder.

The Wisdom of Plant Heritage, Organic Seed Production and Saving, by Bryan Connolly with CR Lawn, 2004. A how-to for the small producer, offering the most successful propagation techniques and tips for harvesting, preparing and storing the seed you’ve saved. Connolly is a Connecticut seed grower for Fedco and Baker Creek Seeds and an heirloom cucurbit and corn seed grower. He has worked at locating heirloom varieties for seed sales. Lawn is founder of Fedco Seeds and heads Restoring Our Seed, which sponsors conferences and creates printed materials about saving endangered seed.

Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners, by Suzanne Ashworth and Kent Whealy, 2002. Detailed instructions on seed-saving techniques, isolation distances and more.

In Press:

Creating Your Own Vegetable Varieties: A Practical Guide to Breeding for Farmers and Gardeners, by Rowen White and Brian Connolly. If you’ve read Deppe’s book and are looking for a how-to-get-started manual, then you’ll want this resource. Should be available summer 2008 from NOFA-NY. For more information, contact Elizabeth Dyck, Organic Seed Partnership Coordinator, [email protected]; 607-895-6913.

About the author: Sue Smith-Heavenrich is a freelance writer living in New York.

Scroll to Top
Sign up to receive our weekly newsletter of happenings at MOFGA.