Four organic breeding guides: An Introduction to Organic Breeding; and Organic Breeding for Sweet Corn, Carrots, and Tomatoes


Coordinator: Micaela Colley, Organic Seed Alliance, Port Townsend, WA
Project locations: Washington, Wisconsin, Oregon, Minnesota

Fundamental to the success of organic agriculture is the use of plant varieties most suitable to organic production challenges. With a limited number of certified inputs to combat production problems, organic farmers rely on prevention via crop rotation, soil management strategies, and the use of appropriate crop genetics. While progress has been made in developing best management practices, little has been done to develop varieties suited to organic systems - a strategy that could, over time, be equally important.

Photo of Project collaborator John Navazio evaluating carrot varieties

Less than 5% of organic acreage is planted with certified organic seed, and of this, almost none of it has been bred specifically for organic systems. Within major and minor crops combined, there are currently under 30 known commercial cultivars that have been bred for organic systems. Public and private sector breeding research has been slow to respond to the needs of organic farming for a number of reasons, including the difficulty of addressing the complex and diverse needs of fresh market producers. This is compounded by the fact that breeding in minor crops as a whole continues to decline, particularly in regions that are not in the large agricultural vegetable production regions of California, Arizona, Texas or Florida.

To increase organic farmers’ success, we must increase the number of varieties bred for organic systems. One of the groups best suited to do this breeding work is organic farmers themselves. There are a rapidly growing number of organic farmers who are interested in on-farm plant breeding and variety improvement. The objectives of this project are to educate these organic farmers on methods of on-farm organic breeding, and to empower them to breed their own crop varieties. To accomplish this objective, we propose to develop four organic breeding manuals. One manual will be an introduction to fundamental organic breeding concepts and techniques, and the three other manuals will address crop specific, on farm organic breeding techniques for sweet corn, carrots, and tomato.

Our primary objective is to educate organic farmers on methods of on-farm organic breeding, and to empower organic farmers to breed their own crop varieties.

This project will have a three-fold positive impact on organic farming. First, farmers will have greater success in improving germplasm to meet the conditions of organic systems, resulting in more variety choices for producers. Second, farmers will be able to control the seed of their favorite varieties, maintaining them even if seed companies discontinue the varieties. Third, they will gain skills that improve their ability to participate in breeding projects with public and private breeders, opening new business opportunities and increasing farmers’ influence on all organic seed development.

Ultimately, by helping farmers breed in organic systems, we intend to give them an important tool that they can use to succeed in their farm enterprises.

A final report describing the results of this project will be posted when complete.