by Linda Halley | On the heels of Christmas catalogs come the seed catalogs. Farmers and gardeners alike love to pour over the colorful pages searching for old favorites and promising new varieties. But behind what might seem like a pleasant, winter wish-book is actually big business controlling what gets planted in 10,000 acre farms and backyard gardens. The seed industry is one of the most consolidated with just ten corporations controlling the vast majority of seeds sold worldwide. In the past two years, three of the top 5 seed and chemical companies merged. The famous Monsanto is no more, gobbled up by even larger Bayer Pharmaceutical. Monsanto products will live on, of course, as part of Bayer, which now controls fully one quarter of the seed/ag chemical industry.
While most of the mega-companies concentrate on bioengineered grain crops, consolidation is affecting the vegetable seed industry as well. Research and development has been funded by industry as government sources of support have diminished. Naturally, industry gets more bang for their buck if they develop varieties for their biggest markets: conventional, commercial scale farms in California and China. What is new and improved for those growing systems doesn’t always prove to be adapted for upper Midwest organics.
Fortunately for us, the University of Wisconsin is a respected leader in organic and conventional vegetable research. Wisconsin is especially strong in carrots, beets, potatoes, brassicas, and has even made important contributions in sweet corn. I had the fortune to have a front-row seat to year one of Dr. Bill Tracy’s sweet corn development when he rented a ½ acre on the organic farm I was managing. The plot was just a coin toss away from my office window so I observed what I could. Planted meticulously by hand on a grid pattern, the corn plants grew into a crazy array of shapes and sizes. Some were more like bushes, others had ears with huge kernels or with the tips poking way out of the husks.
On “tasting day” Dr. Tracy, his grad student, and the organic farmer who originally encouraged the idea, assembled out in the field. They munched their way across the field, recording characteristics on each variety but, especially noting the flavor. The following years, Dr. Tracy’s plot moved to a neighboring organic farm so I didn’t get to watch the process. I do know the outcome. After seven years of crossing and selecting, a cold-tolerant sweet corn was released and you, too, can buy the variety “Who Gets Kissed?”
Much research in Wisconsin is being done on organic farms, a true collaboration between farmers and scientists. I have undying respect for the process of seed breeding and variety development. Those new, promising varieties I search for each winter represent, often, a lifetime of study and dedication. Particularly important is that it is done with public money for the public good, helping out even the niche industry of organic farming in the Midwest. Follow these links to read more about the UW’s work in vegetables.
Linda Halley is the General Manager of Gwenyn Hill Farm, where we will, no doubt, try new, promising varieties every year.