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Laying the Foundation for Local Food: How UW-Madison’s Seed to Kitchen Collaborative Supports & Informs Our Regional Foodshed, Part Two

by Dylan Bruce and Jenyne Loarca |

 Why a decentralized seed system with context-relevant data is so important

The process of selecting, breeding, and trialing a new vegetable variety is a substantial investment, often taking 8 -15 years before that variety is ready for release. Still, a plant breeder might not know how their variety will perform in the market until after it is released. Receiving feedback during the product development and trialing phase not only increases efficiency of resources, it also empowers farmers and chefs to advocate for the varieties with traits that reflect what they value most.

While people are familiar with the trend of consolidation in conglomerate agrochemical companies and seed businesses serving large commercial farms, this is giving way to an opposing trend: growing numbers of small, regionally-focused seed companies. Heirloom seeds preserve the genetic diversity that allows us to breed the new varieties necessary for resilient production in the face of a changing climate—a pressing issue here and now.

This monumental task requires an intricate chain of users cooperating to ensure the survival of those special varieties that are legacies of our heritage. We need breeders to improve the heirloom seed, organic seed producers and distributors to maintain the seed, farmers and gardeners to utilize it, and chefs that see its value. Collectively, they meet the unmet needs of the organic farming community – needs that go largely unaddressed as large seed companies chase more large-scale, lucrative markets. Some of the most well-known and productive heirlooms we have today were originally discoveries in backyard gardens or the result of a farmer or gardener’s breeding project. 

SeedLinked: Where Farmers Review Seeds

Enter SeedLinked, an exciting new project built in partnership with our Seed to Kitchen trialing program. SeedLinked fills that need for a review platform and search engine for place-adapted vegetable seed. Unlike a seed catalog, SeedLinked gives growers the access to the variety trialing analysis results: the good, the bad, and the ugly. This enables growers to have a complete picture about a variety’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as how it performed in space and time.

To say, for example, that a variety is disease or pest resistant is meaningless without knowing which disease or pest, and moreover whether that disease is problematic in a grower’s region. The crowdsourcing model enables us to reach even more growers, powering our decentralized breeding and trialing, and thus bringing regional adaptation and transparency into the seed system.

Similar to the goals of SKC, we hope it will give small, regional seed companies more visibility, incentivize regional focus and the maintenance of heirloom varieties, promote the development and adoption of new more productive and flavorful varieties, and help growers make informed decisions. The beauty of variety trialing platforms like Seed to Kitchen and SeedLinked is that they place power back in the hands of the gardeners and farmers, allowing us all to validate new varieties and rediscover old ones.

The Case of the Wisconsin Lakes Pepper

Take, for instance, the Wisconsin Lakes Pepper. At the 2018 Organic Seed Grower’s conference, Dylan met Erica Kempter and Mike Levine of Nature and Nurture Seeds, two veterans of the industry who run a small farm-based seed company out of Ann Arbor, Michigan, focused on varieties adapted to the Upper Midwest. 

At the time, Dylan was managing the Wisconsin site for a national variety trialing program focused on northern environments, the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC), now a part of SKC’s larger trialing network. Erica suggested Dylan try one of their favorites in our pepper trial: a red bell by the name of Wisconsin Lakes. “You’re going to love it,” she said. As we dug deeper into the pepper’s history, we learned it had actually been bred at UW Madison in the 1950s.

2018 NOVIC Bell Pepper Trials

To Dylan’s surprise (being used to trialing hybrids and new releases), the pepper performed well. Better, in some respects, than the commercial standard in the trial, Ace F1. Wisconsin Lakes met all our goals: early ripeness, thick walls, great flavor, and solid yields in the face of disease pressure. This pepper variety has now been in the Seed to Kitchen variety trials for two years. 

This year, Nature and Nurture Seeds contracted with Circadian Organics in Viroqua to grow and process the variety for seed that will now make its way to numerous farms and gardens in the Great Lakes and beyond. They were seeds bred in Wisconsin, grown in Wisconsin and sold by a regional company, keeping it local and adapted. It’s no wonder this delicious pepper does well on the farm and in our trials.

Building a Living Terroir

Photo Credit Jim Klousia/Edible Madison: WI Lakes Pepper seed grown by Circadian Organics for Nature and Nurture Seeds

It’s up to us, together—the growers, plant breeders, and the eaters—to ensure that the seed system of the future meets our needs and supports regional economies. With participatory trials like Seed to Kitchen offers, we hold the keys to maintaining beloved heirlooms and discovering new varieties that fit into our lives and evolve with our changing climate. It’s a process of collaboratively building a living terroir. 

Our history, especially in the face of an uncertain food, climate, and farming future, will always be one of seed stewards enabling a future with good food for all. It’s the whole story— not just farm to table, but also seed to plate – and we each have a part to play. 

See trial results from past years and sign up to participate next year at SeedToKitchen.horticulture.wisc.edu

Visit SeedLinked.com and be a part of assessing local adaptation in your garden.

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