We Are All Plant Breeders Now
We Are All Plant Breeders Now

We Are All Plant Breeders Now

Five approaches to adaptive seed stewardship

by Petra Page-Mann of Naples, NY

They told you to order from the catalog. To plant in tilled soil. To get big or get out. To dig in, to fit in, to simply follow the instructions on the package.

They promised you yield and markets, profitability and prosperity, stability and security, if you would just do what you’re told.

They sold you big tractors with bigger debt and small, patented seeds, a certain social grace with less than a living wage.

Now we know: We reap what we sow.

In the last century, farmers and their communities have been uprooted from our ten-thousand-year legacy: The seeds themselves. As seeds have moved from commons to commodity, it is no longer common to find a farmer growing their own seed, much less involved in any breeding process. Yet we are. With every bite. Let’s get to work, Friends.

But first, let’s step back.

Let us remember: We all come from a great lineage of farmers, seed stewards and plant breeders. From ten thousand years to a century ago, to be a farmer was synonymous with being a seed saver, synonymous in turn with being a plant breeder. Keen observation, thoughtful selection and an appreciation for diversity across the millennia have surrounded us with all the agricultural crops we now know, love and depend on. As Joseph Lofthouse loves to remind, everything we think of as agricultural diversity is the genius vision of ten thousand years of indigenous farmers, patient and brilliant, illiterate only by modern standards. Countless generations and entire cultures were plant breeders before DNA was even described. Indeed, modernity has thoroughly rogued human interest from our food system. We’ve all heard the statistics: Over 80% of the agricultural diversity we cultivated a century ago is no longer cultivated because it is, in fact, gone. Extinct. The industrial revolution has kicked us out of our own Eden. There is good news and bad.

First, the good news: Even if we never sow a single seed, everything we eat becomes the statistics and funds that nourish the next generation of plant breeding. Every dish we prepare and every dollar we spend reinforces either the industrial or human scale. This is only bad news if we don’t activate and choose to nourish human-scale models. Indeed: We are all plant breeders now.

So! Let’s dig in.

Through the development of five varieties, we’ll explore collaborative approaches to adaptive seed saving and participatory plant breeding.

We Are All Plant Breeders Now

Heirloom Restoration: Kalibos Cabbage

Most heirlooms were selected for flavor and regional resilience before agriculture scaled for industrial interest. Pair this with ‘heirlooms’ trending and seed growers being paid for quantity rather than quality produced: It is no surprise farmers pass on open-pollinated (OP) heirlooms and have come to rely on the uniformity of F1 Hybrids.

Dozens of professional plant breeders across the years have confirmed that, with very few exceptions, there is no biological imperative making OPs less uniform or vigorous than F1 Hybrids. After all, the parent lines of most F1 Hybrids are simply meticulously maintained and often in-bred OPs. Finding better ways of creating economic opportunity for such selection will help amplify the genetic diversity we need as well as the productivity we crave.

Of the countless examples, Kalibos cabbage is perhaps my favorite.

Kalibos is a vivid purple cone-head cabbage, large and long-storing, sweet and remarkably tender. Robin and Lou of Blue Heron Farm here in the Finger Lakes had been growing several thousand plants over twenty years, slowly witnessing the erosion of this OP heirloom across the years.

By the time they asked us to collaborate on restoring Kalibos, less than 10% of her heads were cone-shaped and the brilliant purple was evident in no more than 80% of the population, though all were lusciously tender & remarkably sweet. Much selection and five generations later, she’s once again market-worthy on all accounts, with abundant genetic diversity and vigor with consistent, high-quality head production.

We Are All Plant Breeders Now

What did this look like?

Blue Heron Farm grew 2000+ heads of Kalibos each season, managing their growth as market farmers. Fruition came in fall to make selections, marked with flags, for strong cone shape and tight heads, for large head to leaf ratio, early maturity and rich color. Once our selections were flagged, Blue Heron was able to harvest all the cabbage heads, selections and all, to bring to market. This is because, as seed growers, we only need the roots and stalk of the cabbage, each one studded with auxillary buds waiting to burst into flower stalks in spring. These roots and stalks overwinter in our root cellar, to be planted again once the snows melt. Since the heads are important for selections but not necessary for seed production, Blue Heron was able to grow and market 100% of their crop, sacrificing none for seed production. Also, because we were able to grow the cabbage in its second summer for seed in Fruition’s high tunnel, we were able to harvest seed early enough to share the next generation with Blue Heron on an annual rather than biennial basis.

Key Challenge: Building diversity while refining genetic expression in every generation.

Key Opportunity: With large population sizes and scrupulous selection for at least three concurrent traits, it is possible to ‘restore’ heirlooms quickly. Biennials optimize the capacity for market farmers and seed producers to collaborate, allowing each to focus on their forte.

Kalibos’ heirloom restoration project started with a hesitant but hopeful question, “We love this cabbage but it’s not what it used to be, can you help?”

What small question can you ask today? You may just change the world.

We Are All Plant Breeders Now

Crossing Heirlooms, OPs & Hybrids

Say you’ve got two watermelons you love: One is early and delicious, the other is more compact, disease-resistant and delicious. Why not cross them? See what you find? Why not, indeed!

This is how Fruition developed August Ambrosia watermelon. The beginning of August Ambrosia, truly, is Michael Mazourek (organic plant breeder at Cornell) making the first cross. He loved two OP watermelon varieties (with the qualities above) and wondered if there could be a best of both worlds.

The parent lines you choose can be OP and even heirloom. They also can be F1 Hybrid, though this unleashes diversity you’d never see in the F1 generation, quickly becoming a project with a longer time horizon. (But what else are we waiting for?)

Once Michael decided his parent lines, he sowed and saved seed from that first cross, from a total of 18 watermelons. He then tucked 18 hand-written packets into our hands, each one full of seed from each watermelon.

After we planted & labeled the 18 lines, we ate a lot of watermelon. Early on, when making selections for the next generation, it’s important to look at entire lines rather than individual plants. It’s like looking at the whole of a baseball team rather than individual players. A few generations later we’ll look for the superstars, but early on, amplifying diversity within the ballpark is the game. From those original 18, we selected the best fruits from six lines to become the foundation of the next generation.

Three generations later, we began selecting the best fruit from the three top ‘progeny rows,’ trusting that we’d expanded the genetic diversity significantly and now could hone in on the traits we loved and rogue ruthlessly.

Another lesson in plant breeding is this: Begin with the end in mind, as Stephen Covey so famously wrote, but don’t be attached. If life is what happens when you’re busy making plans, new varieties are what happens while you’re busy breeding another variety.

For example, I so dearly dreamed of a small, round watermelon (early of course with thin rind, delectable flavor and small, delightfully crunchy and relatively sparse seeds, more compact vines…!) but August Ambrosia just tended — very strongly — toward oblong. So she is.

We released August Ambrosia in her sixth generation, which is generally regarded as the minimum years expected before a stable, uniform ‘variety’ begins to emerge. Like all OPs, we’re continuing to refine her with each generation, though there is certainly value in maintaining her as a diverse ‘population.’ Let me not get ahead of myself. More on populations to come.

Key Challenge: Begin with parent lines that reflect your long-term vision. Resist bottle-necking the population in the first three generations to build genetic diversity and resilience as you maintain the level of uniformity you vision. Don’t be attached to the outcome: Your new variety will most likely be better when you see what is being expressed instead of simply looking for what you want.

Key Opportunity: Many if not all of the traits you desire may already exist, so this is an approach to lean into existing diversity and recombine them without re-inventing the wheel. Also, love to eat what you’re breeding — you’ ll likely be eating a lot of it!

We Are All Plant Breeders Now

Untangling: The Dream (Myth) of De-hybridization

Nathaniel Thompson grows one hundred acres of biodynamic vegetables in the Finger Lakes. He is uncomfortable, to say the least, relying on so many conventional F1 Hybrid seeds for Remembrance Farm. Across the seasons, Fruition has collaborated with him to select a Red Russian kale more cold-tolerant and frilled as well as develop a new multi-colored, copiously petaled calendula. Each season he grows about 7 acres of carrots and the day he asked if we could de-hybridize Bolero, we blinked and swallowed hard. We said yes.

Here’s the thing about de-hybridization: No matter the scruples of your process, most likely the traits you’re able to stabilize will be quite different from those of the Hybrid you started with. You’re really not making an OP ‘copy’ of an F1 Hybrid, you’re making an OP that has its own unique characteristics; this is why many plant breeders refer to this process as ‘untangling’ rather than ‘de-hybridizing.’

Driving home from Remembrance Farm that day, we called our dear friend and mentor Irwin Goldman, a public plant breeder at the University of Wisconsin, Madison who specializes in carrots. He jumped in right away.

Instrumental in founding the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI), Irwin shared his insight that since Bolero’s parent lines were likely so inbred that it would be counter-productive to simply ‘de-hybridize’ Bolero. “Crossing Bolero with OSSI’s nantes-style carrot population is an elegant solution,” he said, “combining the specificity of Bolero with the broader but still desirable genetics of a healthy nantes population will make a much more resilient carrot.”

That winter, Irwin crossed several Bolero carrots into the OSSI nantes population and sent Fruition the seed the following season, beginning a cycle we would follow for four years to come. The seed was sown at Remembrance Farm, with agronomic selections made at harvest. Both Remembrance and Fruition selected each root for classic nantes shape as well as early, abundant leaf production, providing early vigor and early maturity as well as machine harvest. Once we stored the roots 3 months (the minimum vernalization period for carrot), we made taste/texture selections and sent them to Irwin, who planted them in his glasshouses to produce seed over the winter. Irwin’s immense generosity and expertise allowed this biennial crop to be produced annually.

This growth-selection-production cycle continued for five carrot generations over six years, each season refining our process. The flavor selections we made were immensely illuminating. I had read that carrots quickly revert back to their bitter ancestry, and tasting this ancestry in all her pine-y, resinous intensity was eye-opening, to say the least. Not often, but initially perhaps every one in eighty carrots would have a distinct and unmistakable pinesol-esque quality. With each generation, the proportion decreased. Still, with every generation and each one to come, we make flavor selections. And it’s paid off: Already, Dulcinea (the name of Don Quixote’s muse and the name of this new carrot variety) is much sweeter and more tender than Bolero.

As we made flavor selections, we had three bins: One labeled heaven, another hell and the third one was purgatory. As much as I love flavor wheels and nuanced discussion, we were tasting hundreds of roots and had to keep it simple. Delicious ones went to heaven and bitter ones went to hell. Purgatory was of course in the middle and most of them became soup: We would only circle back to ‘purgatory’ if we needed more roots to ensure we had a healthy population size (200 roots), to avoid any risk of inbreeding depression. Thankfully, we never did.

By our third generation, we already had a more consistently sweet root than Bolero, perhaps not surprisingly, since most commercial varieties prioritize every other ‘market’ quality above flavor itself. Selecting for long-term storage was also straight-forward: Nantes, as a market class, is long-keeping and maintains excellent flavor. Now that we’re saving 1000+ roots for seed each generation, we’re growing them in the field rather than Irwin’s glasshouses. Though it’s turned our annual cycle into a true biennial cycle once more, this only increases the significance of our storage and flavor selections.

The greatest challenge for us has been selecting for that early, vigorous leaf production that is so much the hallmark of Bolero. At first, we attempted selections by flagging vigorous individuals in the field six weeks after planting. The time invested did not prove fruitful, so we next made vigor selections by simply making a visual evaluation at harvest. Our observations suggest that early, vigorous leaf production may be indicated by above-average leaves present at harvest. Each generation has been improving, though this is by far the trait we’ve seen the least of in the population, making it slower to make more consistent. We are learning that an OP carrot may never reach the early vigor and leaf development of an F1 Hybrid, but with refined cultural practices Nathaniel and other growers can have a more resilient and regenerative organic seed supply to trust for years to come.

In 2018, Remembrance Farm grew two acres of this new carrot and five acres in 2019, a testament to the quality and reliability of this new variety. Remembrance plans to grow this new variety, Dulcinea, as most of his production in 2020.

Key Challenge: Saving seeds from F1 Hybrids unleashes the backlog of diversity that is masked in the F1 generation, which is a marvelous ocean to select from, though also nearly impossible to ‘re-create’ the Hybrid you so love.

Key Opportunity: Sometimes F1 Hybrids are labeled as such but, in fact, are not. This makes new variety selection much faster and more streamlined. Other times, their parent lines may be similar enough that their offspring are remarkably similar, also making new variety development simple, compared to the offspring of F1s with disparate parent lines who are often riotously diverse.

Unpatented F1 Hybrids

I confess: I spent the first three decades of my life conflating F1 Hybrids with the highly proprietary industrial food complex they represent. Friends, they are not. And in this time, with climates of all kinds shifting, now more than ever we need all tools in our toolbox. F1 Hybrids are a sharp one, indeed.

Here’s the thing: To make and share a brand new F1 Hybrid takes relatively little time, compared to refining an OP with similar traits. To make a Hybrid, simply decide on some parent lines, make your test crosses and see what grows! The more consistent the parent lines are, the more uniform F1 will be. Turning that cross into a stable OP takes at least 6 generations and likely more. As a nimble, adaptive response to a changing climate, I’m learning to not throw Hybrids out with the bathwater.

And another thing: Some traits, like Powdery Mildew resistance, are most robust in an F1 Hybrid state. Realizing this was a complete gamechanger for me.

What fully allowed me to experiment with making F1 Hybrids is this: Though most hybrids come from parent lines that are controlled by companies through various intellectual property mechanisms, they don’t have to. Ours don’t. We freely direct people to the parent lines of our hybrids. They are all unrestricted by intellectual property protections and widely available, so you can make your own hybrid seed, and so can our great-great- grandchildren (How radical of an idea is THAT?!)

We Are All Plant Breeders Now

So let me share the story of Brandywise tomato. In 2013, the variety Iron Lady became the first F1 hybrid variety with ‘triple resistance:’ actual resistance to Late Blight, Septoria Leaf Spot and tolerance of Early Blight. Though tasting better than a standard grocery-store tomato in January, the lack of richness and depth of flavor left many growers still wanting better options. In response, Martha Mutschler-Chu (the Cornell plant breeder who developed Iron Lady) crossed one of her triple-resistant tomato lines with the quintessential heirloom tomato ‘Brandywine’ to see if triple resistance and flavor would pair in the resulting F1 Hybrid. They did.

The world can now enjoy ‘Brandywise,’ an indeterminate, large red slicer with the best of both worlds: succulent flavor and resistance to Late Blight and Septoria as well as Early Blight tolerance. Fruition Seeds asked to play with one of Martha’s triple-resistant lines, hoping to find another cross whose fruit produced a disease-resistant hybrid that was uniquely delicious. Among dozens of test crosses that did not impress us, we fell in love with a cross between Martha’s line and Will Bonsall’s ‘Gardener’s Sweetheart,’ a heart-shaped red cherry tomato that is exceptionally sweet and creamy. ‘Summer Sweetheart’ is a large two-bite cherry tomato with handsome ribs ideal for salads, roasting and stuffing with mozzarella.

Key Challenge: Investing the time and resources to identify your parent lines is often the most consuming aspect of creating your own Hybrids.

Key Opportunity: When not protected as intellectual property and selected for flavor, F1 Hybrids are a nimble, adaptive approach to variety development, especially highlighting disease resistance.

Landraces & Populations

I cannot share about cultivating more resilient genetics without describing perhaps my favorite approach of all. Landraces, or populations, are in some ways the intermediary between a wild species and an agricultural ‘variety,’ expressing great diversity and the subsequent resiliency. They were rejected by industrial food systems requiring greater uniformity to attain greater economic efficiency, which Vandana Shiva describes so elegantly as “the monoculture of the mind.” This is easy to grasp, looking at the millions of acres of corn in North America alone, though perhaps harder to find in our own lives. For example, I find even my own ‘radical’ self prioritizing anthems of ‘productivity’ and ‘earliness’ alongside flavor. Important yes, but at what cost? Populations invite us — and the communities we serve — to become human again, diverse and delicious, courageous enough to cultivate different kinds of crops to nourish a more generous, forgiving and resilient culture than the one we find in grocery stores.

Joseph Lofthouse and Frank Morton have extensively played with landrace populations, sharing them most generously. I recommend their work with the highest respect and deepest joy.

Fruition Seeds is in the early stages of exploring a new population. We think of it as taking Sibley for a ride.

Sibley is a smooth and long-storing C. maxima winter squash, early with bright coconut notes in her sweet flesh. We love Sibley, though here in the Northeast she is covered with Cucumber Beetles and Squash Vine Borers, as all maximas are, as well as powdery mildew. With no vision apart from, “what will happen next?!!,” we crossed Sibley with a small, sweet butternut.

We chose butternut, C. moschata, hoping to make an inter-specific cross gently trending the vines toward moschata (less susceptible to pests) while maintaining extraordinary flavor and earliness. The next generation we crossed to a delicious kabocha as well as powdery mildew resistant moschata, weaving even more delicious diversity into the mix. We love that, in creating and playing with this population, the journey is the destination. What’s happening is surely diverse and it’s always edible, sometimes delectable. Stay tuned! And join us for supper one day.

Key Challenge: Maintaining productivity and marketability alongside genetic diversity to meet the needs of your system and markets both short- and long-term is a challenge, indeed.

Key Opportunity: Diversity! For the win! When the stories we tell and food we share reflect the constant growth and transformation of ourselves and our world, truly we will have made, as Buckminster Fuller envisions, ‘the model that will make the existing paradigm obsolete.’

What Are You Waiting For? Ghandi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” What if we save the seeds we wish to sow in the world?

Whether you have a pressing need (delicious + blight resistant tomatoes, please!) or a delectable curiosity to explore (maxima x moschata, go!), may this be the beginning of integrating plant breeding into your systems. The world needs us to farm more than ever. The world needs us to grow ourselves more than ever.

George Orwell penned, “Those who control the present control the past. Those who control the past control the future.”

Never doubt: You come from a great lineage of farmer-plant-breeders. We all do. Even if we never sow a single seed in our lives, with every meal we serve the food systems of the future.

When Will Bonsall says, “Let’s not leave this up to the professionals,” let’s all rise. We are all plant breeders now. Let’s make it deliberate. Oh, and delicious.

Sow Seeds & Sing Songs.

Petra is the co-founder of Fruition Seeds, growing organic seeds in the Finger Lakes of New York. She shares an abundance of seed saving resources on Fruition’s website, blog and YouTube channel. Reach out to her anytime (petra@fruitionseeds.com) and find her seeds at www.fruitionseeds.com. For further reading, Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties by Carol Deppe and Breeding Organic Vegetables by Rowen White and Bryan Connolly are immersive, instructive and inspirational. The introduction was inspired by Seth Godin’s “We’re All Artists Now,” which is essential reading for anyone wanting to thrive in our times.