Cornell Cooperative Extension’s podcast “Extension Out Loud” released a new episode last week titled How’s it growing? New York State summer crop outlook.
Eight extension specialists from across the state joined the podcast to give updates on berry and vegetable crops, viticulture, tree fruit, and field crop production so far in the 2019 season.
Common themes the specialists shared were difficulties faced with a wet and cool start to summer that kept tractors out of the fields, and in some cases had the effect of pushing the growing season 1-2 weeks later. In the case of vegetable production, this means an increase in the potential for drought stress later in the summer. Soil compaction and rutting is a problem faced in fields where tractors are forced to enter before the field is completely dry.
Kitty O’Neil, a field crops and soils specialist with CCE’s North Country Regional Agriculture team, reports significant winterkill damage from ice sheeting in alfalfa and alfalfa grass, the effects of which can have ramifications felt by the already struggling dairy industry in New York by means of a price surge in dry hay.
The specialists also spoke of the major challenges being faced by farmers in New York State, such as labor shortages and an increase in frequency and severity of major weather events. To address these, labor-saving technologies are being developed and promoted that have the potential to be scale-neutral, such as automated milking machines. Finding scale-neutral labor-saving technologies would be of great benefit to farms in NYS, whose large farms are not considered very large on the global scale in which they have to compete.
A variety of cultural practices were discussed for climate change mitigation, such as hail netting to save apple crops from storms that would devastate yields, and reflective fabrics that can improve apple color to tune of large price premiums from buyers.
The thirty-five minute long podcast makes for an interesting and informative listen, and takes advantage of the internet as a means of getting the voices of extension specialists out to as many NYS growers as possible. Tune into the podcast here, and hear more from Extension Out Loud at extensionoutloud.com.
Join us at Empire Farm Days from Aug. 6-8 in Seneca Falls, New York for educational events and conversations focused around soil health in the Northeast.
Building soil health is imperative for a farm’s resilience in the face of drought and extreme weather events, erosion, water, and fertility management, as well as ecological and economic sustainability for growers.
Soil health talks will be led by Ryan Maher, extension specialist from our very own Small Farms Program, and Harold Van Es, notable professor of Soil and Water Management at Cornell University.
Additionally, the New York Soil Health Trailer will be at Empire Farm Days conducting demonstrations of soil health and compaction in northeastern pastures led by extension specialist Fay Benson and Cornell Cooperative Extension associate Joseph Amsili.
Learn more about Empire Farm Days on their website.
The cabbage industry in New York State is worth about $60 million annually, a statistic that is threatened by the cabbage looper: a pest capable of creating massive yield loss.
Farmers are looking for sustainable alternatives to chemical insecticides, which have the potential to build up resistance, impact non-target organisms, and incur a heavy bill for the grower. One of these alternatives is the controlled release of biological control agents such as ladybugs, which prey on cabbage loopers amongst other pests. A team of researchers led experiments on eleven cabbage farms in New York state to study if this method of biological control is effective enough to replace or decrease the use of insecticides when growing cabbage in the Northeast.
“The landscape context can inform how to better use this strategy in field conditions,” said Ricardo Perez-Alvarez, the paper’s first author and a Cornell University graduate student, told CALS News. Brian Nault, an entomology professor at Cornell AgriTech, is also a co-author.
A paper was published based on this research titled “Effectiveness of Augmentative Biological Control Depends on Landscape Context” in Nature on June 17. In short, the researchers reached the conclusion that the efficacy of releasing ladybugs to control cabbage pests depends on what landscape surrounds your farm.
In the study, on farms bordering forest or other natural landscapes, releasing ladybugs helped control cabbage pests, leading to less damage and higher yields. On farms in the midst of other cultivated agricultural areas, the opposite was true, and the release of ladybugs led to higher yield losses. Predator-pest relations in agricultural settings are complicated and vary case-to-case, and further research is necessary on this topic before general recommendations can be made to growers. But, this research gives an exciting insight into the potential of biological control for cabbage pests in New York state.
Read more about the research and findings on the CALS website.
Cover crops present a myriad of benefits to farmers in terms of soil health, weed suppression, improved water availability, and much more. The millions of acres of cover crops currently planted throughout the country are proof that they are becoming more and more attractive to growers in the United States. It is established that cover crops are an investment in future yield bonuses and quality, but the big question remains: when do they start to pay off?
A newly published resource from Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE), “Cover Crop Economics: Opportunities to Improve Your Bottom Line in Row Crops,” examines the economics of cover crops within corn and soybean rotations. Using five years of data from national cover crop surveys, this publication explores seven common management situations in which cover crops can pay off faster.
The goal of this publication is to help farmers, as North Dakota farmer Justin Zahradka writes, “look at cover crops as an investment rather than a cost.” The authors recognize that every farm has different resources and needs, and therefore pursue a holistic approach to cover crop recommendations, including learned lessons in several farmer profiles.
Dry bean growers, packer/shippers, seed suppliers, and Cornell faculty and Extension Educators came together to discuss the state of the industry and to receive reports of industry-funded research.
By Julie Kikkert
The March 15, NYS Dry Bean Meeting and Variety Evaluation, held in Geneva, NY brought together 44 dry bean growers, packer/shippers, seed suppliers, and Cornell faculty and Extension Educators to discuss the state of the industry and to receive reports of industry-funded research. According to Amie Hamlin from the Cool School Food Program, dry beans are overflowing with health benefits, being high in protein, fiber, iron and other nutrients. While the NYS Dry Bean industry has supported the Healthy School Food Program for many years, new interest has been stimulated through the NYS No Student Goes Hungry Program, which includes a higher incentive to school districts to use more local products and increases the reimbursement that schools receive for lunches to $0.25 per lunch to those schools that purchase at least 30% of their lunch ingredients from NY farms and food processors (whose product is comprised of 51% NY farm ingredients).
Cornell Vegetable Program (CVP) dry bean specialist Julie Kikkert facilitated discussions at the March 15 meeting between the Healthy School Food Program and the dry bean packer/shippers, and has worked with local CCE Farm to School Coordinators and CCE-Harvest New York to facilitate schools purchasing NY dry beans.
According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, 72 western NY farms produce roughly 10,000 acres of dry beans, with CVP partner counties providing 6,820 of those acres. Leading counties in the CVP region are Monroe (2,288 acres), Steuben (1,360 acres), Genesee (1,192 acres), Ontario (906 acres), and Yates (844 acres). Black beans and red kidney beans are the types that produce well in our soils and climate. After local beans are harvested, they are sent to one of several factories in NY or PA for cleaning and processing into canned product or packaged for the dry pack market. Product is sold to local, regional, export and organic markets. The value of the NY crop varies, but averages around $7 million.
Other topics of high interest to the industry included market updates, development and testing of new varieties, as well as management of white mold disease, western bean cutworm insects and weeds. At the end of the educational meeting, the industry prioritized research proposals and allocated funds from the Dry Bean Endowment to five research projects, totaling $32,643. The group then moved to the Raw Products Building to view and evaluate 56 dry bean cultivars that were canned by Furman Foods and on display for taste and visual appearance.
Julie Kikkert is an Extension Vegetable Specialist for CCE Cornell Vegetable Program. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
How to effectively use breeding harnesses and spray paint for sheep.
By Ulf Kintzel
A customer of mine asked me: “Do you use a breeding harness for your ram?” She did and had problems keeping it on the ram. Her question prompted me to write this article, explaining how I make certain that I know which ram breeds which ewes at what time.
Why and how is that knowledge important? One main reason is to avoid inbreeding. You don’t want a ram to breed his daughters; you want to expose them to a different ram instead. You can also greatly extend the number of years you can use a ram when he is purposefully matched with ewes unrelated to him.
I am using two different methods of keeping track of which ewes were bred by which ram. One method is the use of breeding harnesses. The other is the use of spray paint to identify the ewes. They work, in my view, equally well. Which method I use depends on any given year and the relation of my ewes to existing rams I own. I will describe both methods and you, the reader, can decide if one or the other works for you.
The use of a breeding harness is a well-established way of keeping track of breeding activity. The harness will be put on the ram and a crayon block will be attached to the harness. Some blocks are secured by a metal pin, some can be snapped in. The placement of the crayon is in the brisket area. When the ram tops a ewe in season, he also marks her on the rump. Crayons come in various colors like blue, green, purple, orange, yellow, and red. They are also available in three different degrees of hardness, which makes them suitable for a variety of weather from hot to mild to cold. Be sure what your temperature range will be during breeding season so that you order crayons with suitable hardness. There are various harnesses on the market. The most common and the cheapest is a black nylon harness, which I very much dislike. It never stayed in place when I used it. Other sheep farmers reported the same problem. The customer I quoted above used it as well. Other slightly more expensive harnesses were developed in the attempt to address that flaw in design. Premier One Supplies, Weaver, Syrvet, and Sure-Sired are some of the most common brand names for breeding harnesses of various kinds and quality. I have settled for a harness called “Matingmark,” made in New Zealand. It is sold by companies like Hunter Nutrition, Valley Vet, and Amazon. The added benefit of this harness is the fact that the crayon block snaps in, which makes the metal pin to secure the crayon obsolete. This pin can rub on a ram’s front leg and can cause irritations.
At the beginning of breeding season, I start with a lighter crayon color, i.e. yellow. This allows me at a later point to use a darker color, i.e. blue, which will cover the lighter color if a ewe returns to season and gets bred again. Depending on how many ewes a ram will breed, I usually switch the crayon color no later than one estrus cycle, which is about 17 to 19 days. The use of different colors for the same ram during the course of a breeding season will allow you to have a good idea when a ewe is about due to lamb. If a ewe runs into health problems during gestation and you need professional help, the first question your vet will ask you is “When is she due?”
You can also use different colors for different rams when you have your flock split during breeding season and each group is matched with a different ram. This way you will know during lambing season which ewe has been bred by what ram. You can then still use a second color crayon later during breeding season for each of these rams since there are six different colors available. Please keep in mind, blue and green crayon colors will, in my experience, be almost indistinguishable when they are faded after a few months.
The quality of the crayon blocks can vary greatly. At times, the rams leave a definitive mark when breeding, at other times, it is rather faint. Changing weather can play a role, too. I tackle this problem by running the entire flock through the chute and spray a dot on the wither of the ewes that matches the color of the crayon. This dot will surely last all the way to lambing season. I do that a few weeks after breeding season to avoid stress right after the ewes have been bred, which can cause fertilized eggs to abort and not attach to the uterus wall. That is a common problem when ewes are stressed during breeding season. The spray paint I use is specifically designed for sheep. That may be of concern to anyone who has wool sheep and has a good market or a good use for the wool. The paint can easily be washed out when the wool is being processed. There are a few different brands on the market. I currently use the brand Sprayline. However, I have not found a difference in any of the brands that were available over the years. Mid-States Wool Growers and Premier One Supplies are two companies that offer spray paint for sheep. A few other companies that offer sheep supplies may also offer it.
My second way of keeping track of breeding activity is to split the flock into the groups I want for each ram, and to mark the ewes with a dot on the wither just before breeding starts. I tend to use colors that will match or will somewhat match the color of the tags of the future lambs that I described in my previous Small Farms Quarterly article, “How Crayons Inspired My Sheep Tracking System.” For instance, all my ewe lambs born to “Slick” will receive a fuchsia-colored ear tag. The ewes to be bred by him will receive a red dot on the wither. All ewes bred by “Outback” receive an orange dot because his female off-spring will get salmon-colored tags. As silly as it may sound, that is helpful later when I tag their lambs. Usually, I omit putting a dot on the largest group of ewes because all ewes without a dot will have been bred by yet another ram. That saves me some spray paint and some expense.
Eachgroup of ewes and one ram will stay separate for about one breeding cycle, which is on average 17 to 19 days long but can last for individual ewes up to 21 days. Usually, I go with the 21 days to maximize the use of my rams. That means all ewes will have come into season and will be bred once. After these three weeks, I take the rams out and let all ewes join back together. Keeping the groups separated for a longer time than these three weeks becomes unsustainable for me. A few ewes will not have become pregnant and will return to season. These ewes will in the coming three weeks be bred a second time by a ram that is now with all the ewes. He will wear a breeding harness so that I can keep track of those ewes that were re-bred. The harness stays on the ram for a second cycle or 21 days. He will remain with the flock after that and on rare occasions, a ewe will return to season a second time and thus be bred for the third time. Returning to season is not that unusual. However, needing three or more cycles to stay pregnant is undesirable. This is likely a ewe that will be culled.
I am aware of sheep farmers who find that approach too cumbersome and too management intensive. Perhaps you too may feel that way. However, think about it this way: inbreeding brings genetic faults to show while genetic diversity does not. If your ram breeds some of his own daughters and just one lamb shows a genetic default that will keep it from thriving or even living, you lost income. To me, the extra time spent, and the extra management skill needed, is well worth the effort. If I still haven’t convinced you, there is another approach you can use. You can use a ram lamb one season, then castrate him and turn him into burger meat, and use a new ram the following year. That can be done year after year.
Ulf owns and operates White Clover Sheep Farm and breeds and raises grass-fed White Dorper sheep and Kiko goats without any grain feeding and offers breeding stock suitable for grazing. He is a native of Germany and lives in the US since 1995. He farms in the Finger Lakes area in upstate New York. His website address is www.whitecloversheepfarm.com. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone during “calling hour” specified on his answering machine at 585-554-3313.
Wildlife damage during crop production causes yield and quality losses that lead to diminished profits.
By Ali Nafchi
Many farmers experience wildlife damage during crop production each year. This damage causes yield and quality losses that lead to diminished profits. Wildlife damage to U.S. agriculture was reported to be at $944 million during 2001 (USDA, NASS-2002). In New York State, particularly, fresh market products are facing severe profit cuts due to wildlife damage. There is another issue concerning wildlife in produce fields and that is the potential for microbial contamination of the crops from animal feces and increased susceptibility to other pests and pathogens (Pritts, 2001; Duffy and Schaffner, 2002; Holb and Scherm, 2008).
Telenko et. al, conducted small plot trials of bird damage in sweet corn (2015-2017) that showed devastating economic losses for farmers. Being able to manage birds in larger fields is the next step. Large-scale plantings can attract many more birds; therefore, the management options need to be updated. To implement this project, Precision Agriculture Specialist Ali Nafchi has designed two new laser systems that will be tested this year in our region. Type (a) will have a programmed variable pattern laser beam across the field to scare birds. Type (b) has a radar detector that will turn on the laser beam when birds come near the field. Solar panels will power the devices. Once the designs are tested and optimized, growers will be able to build the scare devices themselves.
Season extension infrastructure is needed for farmers to maintain year-round supply of local produce.
By Ethan Grundberg
The rise in demand for year-round supply of local produce has led many vegetable growers in Eastern New York to invest in season extension infrastructure. While Amy Ivy and Teresa Rusinek have collaborated with Jud Reid from the Cornell Vegetable Program to research high tunnel fertility demands and best practices for summer tomato production, little work has been done to better understand nutrient demands and cycling in tunnels for winter grown greens. With financial support from Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NE SARE) Partnership Grant, Ethan Grundberg collaborated with the Poughkeepsie Farm Project to study nitrogen availability and uptake in winter grown spinach, kale, and salad mix. Specifically, Grundberg was interested in the role that temperature plays in nutrient cycling in winter production and the economics of minimal supplemental heating in high tunnels.
The Poughkeepsie Farm Project has identical side-by-side high tunnels with propane heaters, so the thermostat of onetunnel was set to 33 degrees and the other to 40 from November through March. Grundberg took soil nitrate samples from each tunnel weekly and submitted tissue samples from the crops every other week to assess nutrient uptake. Grundberg also tracked propane use in each tunnel while the farm crew tracked yield from research plots in the tunnels. While the data analysis is not yet complete, it does appear as if the added cost (2.14 times more propane was used to heat to 40 degrees than to heat to 33) of higher heating could be economically beneficial to winter lettuce growers. However, the additional yield measured in spinach and kale was not enough to offset the additional heating expense.
Amy Ivy investigated the question of nitrogen uptake and yield impacts from using different fertilizers for winter grown spinach at the Willsboro Research Farm. With funding from the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program, Ivy tracked the yield and nutrient content of plant foliage in plots fertilized with urea, bloodmeal, and alfalfa meal over the winter in an unheated high tunnel. Again, the data analysis is not yet complete, but the initial findings show almost no measurable difference in nitrogen uptake or yield across treatments, including the unfertilized control.
These two research projects highlight the need for further investigation of fertility needs and management in winter high tunnels; the data generated through this work will be used as the basis for a proposal for multi-year state-wide funding to continue developing best management practices for winter high tunnel producers.
Ethan Grundberg is a Vegetable Specialist for CCE Eastern New York Commercial Horticulture, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Connecting retiring farmers and young upstarts is just the first step of a newly expanding statewide program — funding, access to markets, and a community of support help complete the picture.
By Lisa Held
At the end of 2017, Sandy Gordon spent six weeks helping Joshua Rockwood move his entire farming operation across about 30 miles of upstate New York.
“Josh had 65 head of cattle and draft horses and pigs and chickens,” Gordon said. “We had two trucks and trailers going. We were moving cattle until eight o’clock at night.”
Gordon, 64, was happy to help, because after listing his farm on Craigslist in cities around the world — from Boston and New York City to Miami, Seattle, and Hong Kong — and trying various land-linking websites, he had finally found a young farmer he felt he could trust to steward the land he had been planting and grazing on since 1983.
Rockwood was committed to organic practices and to building soil health via rotational grazing, just like Gordon. “The preservation part was key, and I wouldn’t have sold if it wasn’t a part of it,” he said.
Gordon and Rockwood represent two groups of farmers that are especially important to the future of American agriculture: those who are aging out of farming and have land to sell, and those who are young and hungry for land.
Helping these two groups find each other in order to make sure the land stays in farming has become a hot-button agriculture issue. The average age of the American farmer is now hovering around 60 (it was 58 at the time of the 2012 census). As a result, a significant amount of farmland will change hands in the next decade — and that crucial, often delicate transfer has become the focus of many “land linking” services across the country.
The program that linked Gordon and Rockwood — Hudson Valley Farmlink Network(HVFN) — is being held up as a model of success by many organizations and advocates, and its approach will now be implemented across New York State. Last October, the national group that launched HVFN, American Farmland Trust (AFT), announced a new land-linking program called Farmland for a New Generation New York, funded by $400,000 in state funds for the first year as part of a larger state investment in farmland protection.
“This [comes] out of a researched effort to make sure that we are meeting the needs of farmers across New York State,” said AFT’s New York state policy manager, Samantha Levy. “We’re really taking the lessons from Hudson Valley Farmlink Network and applying them statewide.”
Those lessons can be boiled down to a few key points: While listing land owners and seekers is important, it’s adding boots-on-the-ground work to that service that really makes the magic happen. That kind of connection requires significant funding, however, which is usually lacking.
The Limitations of Land-Linking Programs
At face value, the idea is simple: create a database where people looking for farmland in a particular region and people selling it in that same area can find each other.
There are highly regarded organizations across the country that have done exactly that — like California FarmLink, and New England Farmland Finder— while also providing land access resources like workshops, loans, and help with leases. The farm-link programs across the country have had varying degrees of success, though, because matching a farmer to land is much more complicated than it seems.
“I hear a lot of ‘I’ve got this farmland, why can’t I find young farmers to buy it?’” said Holly Rippon-Butler, land access program director at the National Young Farmers Coalition(NYFC), noting that a lot of land that changes hands doesn’t even go on the market, and finding out what’s available is just the first step. On the other side, she hears, “‘Okay, there’s land, but does that land have irrigation? A barn? Housing? What’s the soil quality like?’ There are all these factors that start to narrow down the pool.”
That’s before cost is even considered. For older farmers, their land is often their one real financial asset and they are drawn to the highest bidder; for younger farmers, the cost of land is often prohibitive.
For all of these reasons, the little research that has been done on land linking programs shows limited success. In one 2014 study on 17 programs in the Northeast, the majority of land seekers rated the services as helpful, but only 7 percent actually secured land through a program. And most of the programs reported that they typically make fewer than 10 matches per year.
Seasoned experts like Kathy Ruhf at Land for Good, who has been working on the issue for about 30 years, cited similarly low numbers. “I have a database of about 60 [land link programs],” she said. “If we were to say ‘How many farms got hooked up with farmland on all of those?’ I would say a couple of dozen.”
Plugging in to Resources
The Hudson Valley Farmlink Network, on the contrary, says it has made close to 150 matches over four years, and advocates in the space point to it as a uniquely successful program. The special sauce is not in the network’s website itself (although some farmers did say it was more professional and easier to use than other similar sites), but in the way that individuals at local organizations bring the program to life.
Lee Hennessy, for example, was engaged in a long, frustrating search for land to house their goat dairy in upstate New York. They found the 46-acre farm they’re now running using the HVFN farmland finder, but when they first went to see the site, Hennessy didn’t think it would work. “I didn’t like that it’s all on the side of a hill, there’s no room for hay,” they said. “I was like ‘I don’t think this is for me. There’s so much I need to put together for this,’ and I couldn’t see it working at the scale I want.”
Hennessy was discouraged, and ended up on a farmland bus tour organized by the network. While they didn’t find new property on the bus tour, it introduced them to a world of resources, like fellow farmer Tim Biello, who runs the network and offered advice that led Hennessy to reconsider what was possible on the original property.
Those new connections also led Hennessy to the Hudson Valley AgriBusiness Corporation, which helped them access resources; Dirt Capital Partners, which purchased the land and leased it back to them with the option to buy in the future; and GrowNYC’s FARMroots program, which provided mentoring and legal help related to the leasing process. Suddenly, Hennessy said, it was like they had a whole team working for them.
Hennessy officially established Moxie Ridge Farm & Creamery in early 2017 and is now raising goats, pigs, and chickens. Recently, they snagged a spot at the coveted Union Square farmers’ market in New York City, thanks to the relationship with FARMroots.
“Once you find these organizations, it’s a tight-knit community of people who seem to work tirelessly to try to make this stuff happen,” they said. “It’s why I think the AFT project is such a big deal—they have the resources to support that.”
‘Navigators’ on the Ground
Building on that idea, $200,000 of the state funding for Farmland for a New Generation NY will go toward giving local organizations, dubbed “regional navigators,” more resources to interact with farmers and landowners.
“So much of this work is one-on-one work. It needs these navigators on the ground visiting farms with beginning farmers, doing the financial analysis to make sure they can afford it, helping them write a lease, etc.,” said Christopher Wayne, the director of FARMroots, which trains and supports beginning farmers — especially immigrant farmers — in and around New York City.
Wayne is hoping FARMroots will be named a regional navigator because the additional funding “will allow us to expand and increase that one-on-one support,” he said.
Organizations like FARMroots are especially essential to the success of HVFN because they help bridge the gap between what retiring farmers want to be paid for their land and what younger farmers can afford.
Both Rockwood and Hennessy, for example, were able to secure their land by working with impact investment groups — Local Farms Fund and Dirt Capital Partners, respectively — that bought the land and leased it to the new farmer long-term, with options to buy down the road.
FARMroots often helps land seekers find those groups. It also has its own program to help farmers access capital: It works with microlending platform Kiva to get beginning farmers zero-interest loans, of which the organization contributes 30 percent from the get-go.
Many of the other organizations involved in HVFN—such as Orange County Land Trust and Columbia Land Conservancy also work on conservation easements, another tool for getting land owners a good price while making it more affordable for seekers.
Making Matches Across the State
All of these elements could seemingly come together across the state and in other areas across the country to duplicate the model. But Ruhf said it’s also important to remember that the Hudson Valley is a unique locale for many reasons. Its proximity to New York City means resources (like impact investors and a plethora of organizations) and customers (via farmers’ markets, CSAs, and restaurants) are close by. Land is more expensive than in other parts of the state, but off-farm jobs are also more available.
Take Kama Docoure as an example. Docoure is a farmer from Mali who completed the FARMroots training program and an internship at Glynwood, a Hudson Valley nonprofit that focuses on saving farming in the Northeast, where staff helped him create a profile on the HVFN. Doucoure has been limiting his search to properties that will work for vegetables and livestock and that are within about an hour’s drive from NYC, where his wife works. After one property fell through, he was feeling optimistic about another. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” he said.
Farmers across the state will be doing the same as Farmland for a New Generation NY kicks off.
Lisa Elaine Held is a New York City-based journalist who writes about the food system, health, and sustainability. She is a regular contributor to Civil Eats, Eater, and Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn; she is also the host of The Farm Report on Heritage Radio. Her work has appeared in print publications like Women’s Health and Conde Nast Traveller. She covered health and nutrition as an editor at Well+Good for more than six years and has a master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism.
This article was original published by Civil Eats, an excellent online resource for agriculture and food system articles, on January 8, 2019. Visit www.civileats.com for more stories about the American food system.
For website publishing, original article link: https://civileats.com/2019/01/08/has-new-york-found-the-secret-to-linking-retiring-farmers-and-eager-upstarts/
Learn how to get started with your own on-farm plant breeding project.
By Kristen Loria
Often as growers we rely on our favorite seed companies to provide us with the varieties we grow. This strategy usually works well, and there are a lot of great varieties out there both new and old. However, by their nature most modern commercial varieties (we will focus on vegetables, but this applies to other crops too) were developed to perform well across as broad a geographic area as possible, with a focus on the major commercial production regions for that crop. These varieties may not perform so well in non-target climates.
Breeding investment also tends to focus on the most commonly grown crops, so if there is an obscure crop that’s important on your farm (i.e. ground cherries or watermelon radish), odds are the commercially available options will be more limited — and the opportunity will be ripe for an on-farm plant breeding project. Major seed corporations also emphasize hybrid varieties in some crops, which are much more expensive and must be re-purchased every season.
Also, modern varieties are almost exclusively bred in conventional systems where synthetic fertilizer, abundant water and at least some chemical controls were used. Because environmental conditions on organic farms tend to be very different in terms of nutrient availability, weed competition and other stressors, organic growers especially find that conventionally bred varieties don’t perform as well or as reliably on their farms.
All of these factors are common reasons that farmers and gardeners decide to try their hand at plant breeding. Plant breeding on the farm allows us to develop varieties that fit our specific farm environments, with the traits that we most value. However as useful as that can be to our business, it’s also important to realize that plant breeding is a long-term endeavor and takes additional time and attention in the growing season, so it’s probably going to be hard to sustain unless it’s an activity that you feel curious and passionate about.
The best plant breeding projects arise when you are already familiar with a crop, the traits that are important (at least to you) for that crop, and different varieties that are available. Unless you already have that familiarity, it’s worthwhile to spend some time trialing varieties and observing them closely. Through that process you often will notice interesting differences or traits that might spark an idea: “I love the fruit quality of this winter squash, but I’d prefer a bush growth habit,” etc.
It might already be clear to you that an important part of plant breeding is seed-saving! Saving seeds from crops to replant the following year used to be a part of every farm, but it’s much less common now. Some crops are very easy to grow seed for — if you are a bean or corn grower, you already are a seed grower. Other annual fruiting crops, like tomatoes, squash and peppers, are quite straightforward. Some crops, such as kale, beets and carrots, are biennial and need more than one season to flower and produce seeds. Make sure you know what will be required in order to grow seed for the crop you want to work on and think about whether this process will realistically be able to fit into your farm systems.
Crop Pollination Strategies
The pollination strategy of your crop makes a big difference both in terms of what type of population you will be starting with, and the strategies you will use to improve it. A quick internet search will tell you whether your crop is an out-crosser (cross-pollinating) or an inbreeder (self-pollinating), if you don’t already know. Pollination strategy is a spectrum and some crops like peppers and squash often do both.
If you start with a cross-pollinated crop (i.e. corn), you can assume that plants planted near each other will freely intermate. This is helpful if you want to select within an existing variety or create a diverse population by intermating several different varieties, but it limits your ability to maintain “pure” varieties in a field without large amounts of space to isolate them. Another useful thing to look up is isolation distances for your crop — how far apart you need to plant two outcrossing plants if you don’t want them to cross. Often pollen from out-crossers is carried by wind, so distances can be large. If you have limited space, consider picking a crop that you would be comfortable with growing just one variety or population, or perhaps pick a self-pollinating crop to work on instead. Some backyard plant breeders ask to grow plots at neighbor’s properties to achieve isolation distances!
Highly outcrossing species also suffer from inbreeding depression, which means that if forced to self-pollinate or intermate repeatedly with very genetically similar plants, vigor and overall quality of the variety will decrease due to loss of genetic diversity (genes become more homozygous). To avoid inbreeding depression, it’s important to grow a sufficiently large number of plants in your breeding plot to maintain diversity within the crossing population. Some outcrossing species exhibit self-incompatibility, which means they can’t create viable offspring by self-pollination. This is an evolutionary strategy to ensure genetic diversity and can affect breeding approaches.
Self-pollinating crops (i.e. beans, peas) are unlikely to outcross even if grown right next to each other. That means that they will naturally form what breeders call “pure lines” — each plant self-pollinates each generation to create a very genetically uniform and true-breeding line. Plants will be homozygousfor most or all genes. Modern varieties of inbreeding crops are usually pure lines, which means they were often descended from just one high-performing plant. Older varieties such as heirlooms or landraces are less likely to have descended from a pure line, so you might see more diversity between different plants in your variety. With inbreeding crops, it is more likely that you will have to make an initial cross in order to introduce enough variation into the population to select from.
Picking Your Parents
It’s important to remember that in order to achieve gain from selection (i.e. improve the performance of your variety over time), you need to start out with a genetically diverse population. In particular, you want a population that has genetic variation for the trait or traits that you are most interested in improving. This means that either you find a variety or population that already has variation within it, or you make a cross between two varieties to introduce new variation. That genetic variation is the buffet of traits that you select from throughout the project, and if most or all of your plants in a field are already genetically very similar, you won’t be able to select plants that are any better than the rest.
One complication is that some of the variation we see between plants in the field is due to environmental effects rather than genetic differences (phenotype = genotype x environment), so in order to make sure you are looking at a genetically diverse population of plants, you will want to know something about where that population came from. You will be much more effective at selecting for traits that are highly heritable, rather than those that are more influenced by environmental conditions. In the initial vetting of parent varieties, the easiest way to determine if the variation in phenotype you see is heritable is to plant multiple replications of your variety plots.
There are several sensible starting populations for a plant breeding project on the farm.
- Use an existing open-pollinated variety, especially an heirloom or landrace, which has obvious variability in the trait/s you are interested in.
- Make a cross by taking two varieties that show variability in the trait/s you are interested in, and either cross them by hand (self-pollinators) or interplant them in a plot (cross-pollinators).
- Use a commercial hybrid, as these are the first generation offspring (F1) of two distinct parents — you can think of the seed company as already having made your initial cross for you. If there is a hybrid variety that you like (and there are no intellectual property restrictions on it, see below) you will grow out the offspring and see segregation for whatever traits those two parents differed by. This works for both cross-pollinated and self-pollinated crops.
- Some smaller seed companies are starting to sell “breeder’s grex” populations, which just mean a population created by intermating several different parent varieties. These are sold with the express intention of being a plant breeding “starter kit” — there is sure to be plenty of diversity present, and you get to select what you like best for your own farm ecosystem.
You can use any seed to start a plant breeding project, unless there are plant patents or “bag tags” that restrict this use. Odds are you will get your parents from seed catalogs that you are already using. Other sources can be seed saver organizations, the Open Source Seed Initiative, small seed companies that often focus on unusual or regionally adapted varieties, or the USDA-ARS Germplasm Resources Information Network.
For more information on variety trialing, check out the first article in this series, “What Can Variety Trialing Do for Your Vegetable Farm?” in the Spring 2019 issue of Small Farms Quarterly.
Part two of this “On-Farm Plant Breeding” series will be on crosses and selection. Look for it in the Small Farms Quarterly Fall 2019 issue!
Kristen Loria is a Masters’ candidate in the Plant Breeding and Genetics section at Cornell University. Her own research focuses on trialing and breeding vegetable varieties for organic production systems, under the USDA NIFA-funded Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement. She is excited to be a SFQ contributor and to help grow and support a more independent, adaptive seed system for small farms. Please reach out by email: email@example.com
Source for more Info:
Deppe, Carole. Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties. Chelsea Green Publishing: 2000.
Introduction to On-Farm Plan Breeding. Organic Seed Alliance. 2017. https://seedalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/introduction_to_on-farm_organic_plant_breeding.pdf
Plant Breeding and Genomics. Extension.org. https://articles.extension.org/plant_breeding_genomics