THE SEARCH FOR RESILIENT SEEDS

Creating Connections with The Seed to Kitchen Collaborative

 Where it Starts

Choosing what variety of tomato to grow on your farm or in your garden is a daunting task. How can you reasonably sort through the 5,000 possible varieties available to choose from? At SeedLinked we spend a lot of time thinking about the seed choices we make and why we make them. We also want to be making better choices, improving our results, and making a positive difference in our world. After all, seed is where it all begins. Resilient seed helps build resilient food systems, and resilient food systems help build resilient ecosystems and societies. 

On our journey to better understand seed choices, and where our choices begin, SeedLinked spoke with Dr. Julie Dawson, Associate Professor in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison). As a part of her work at UW-Madison Dr. Dawson runs the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative (SKC) evaluating promising vegetable varieties for use in the Upper Midwest.

For farmers, Dawson says variety choice is most often influenced by personal or neighbor experience, or by seed company information. For some markets, buyers may specify a variety or outline characteristics they require from their growers. Helping make the process simpler by providing an unbiased alternative source for information on best-performing vegetable varieties in the Upper Midwest is where it all starts for the SKC, says Dawson.  

The SKC’s variety trialing approach is unique, weaving together the expertise of plant breeders, farmers, and chefs to evaluate vegetable varieties for their flavor as well as their field performance under organic growing conditions in the Upper Midwest. Bringing together that many different players with the goal of finding great seed options is a big endeavor. With many reiterations and much learning since its beginnings in 2013, the SKC continues to provide an incredible resource for farmers and vegetable gardeners seeking out great vegetable seed options for the Upper Midwest.

Deciding What to Test

While the SKC project began with the goal of evaluating large numbers of vegetable varieties for suitability in Upper Midwest organic growing conditions and markets, Dr. Dawson admits they soon realized the enormity of the task. They have since narrowed their focus to issues common to vegetable growers in the Upper Midwest, such as earliness and disease resistance.

The project tests varieties identified by farmers as important. There are currently 12 common vegetables in the trials, including: beets, potatoes, sweet corn, cucumbers, sweet pepper, hot pepper, tomatoes, melons, winter squash, lettuce, kale and bitter greens.

Not surprisingly, finding seed to test in the SKC trials is also somewhat of a collaborative process. Each year the SKC puts out a request for variety submissions to seed companies, plant breeders, and organizations, hoping for interesting submissions. The only requirements for submissions are that they have potential for Midwest growing conditions and markets, are one of the crops being tested by the project, and that they be relatively untried in the region.

Pepper diversity showcased in the 2019 Seed to Kitchen Collaborative trials.

Making it Work

The SKC currently begins testing all new varieties at their UW-Madison research stations in Spooner and Madison, Wisconsin.  Dawson estimates that there are anywhere between 20-60 different vegetable varieties being grown each year for the SKC at the two research stations. But only the top five varieties in each vegetable category are chosen to advance to consecutive years of testing by the project. During the following years of testing, each of the previous year’s top five varieties are also grown and evaluated by over 100 participating farmers and gardeners in the Midwest.

Participating SKC collaborative testers volunteer to be a part of the project. They choose the crops they would like to trial and receive instructions and seed from the project each spring. Farmers and gardeners then grow and evaluate these varieties themselves, and report their findings to the group for further data analysis. The trials include three varieties for evaluation, along with two check varieties (one for flavor and one for performance) for comparison references in the data. Collaborators rate the varieties on a scale of 1-5 for qualitative characteristics such as earliness, flavor, and appearance.

In addition to the research station and collaborative trials, participating chefs come together each month during the harvest season to taste and rate the flavor of the varieties. Including chefs in the project brings the voice of the consumer to the table, and provides additional flavor and market expertise, both of which are key to the successful adoption of a new variety.

Farmers are Key

Including farmers in the process of formal variety testing is not a new practice, and is commonly known as “participatory,” “collaborative,” or “on-farm” testing. With the SKC, farmers not only determine what vegetables and characteristics are important to evaluate, but also bring important expertise and additional growing environments that are not accessible at the research station scale. Farmer trials are so key to the success of the SKC work that Dawson says they actually act as a check for the research station trial results. If something is showing up at a research station but not at any of a hundred plus farm trials, it’s a real sign the stations may be off mark.

Making sure people have competence in doing the trial is key to success. “It is hard to mess it up. We want to reassure people that they’re not doing it wrong”, says Dawson. “We understand that there are things outside of a grower’s control that can happen”. SKC provides detailed instructions and follows up with participants again in the summer to be sure they understand the data collection process Though they do lose some trials every year, Dawson is happy with their overall participation results. On average each year, they get results from 60-80% of those who sign up at the beginning of the season.

Success is a Process

Dawson points out that the success of the SKC collaborative trials has evolved with time, error, and a great deal of work. Over the past seven years SKC has invested time and energy into asking the right questions of their collaborators. They learned early on that asking a farmer to numerically rate the tomato harvest just wasn’t going to be feasible for a business where there are an enormous number of things that need to be done on any given day. But when they began asking farmers to rate yield qualitatively, in comparison with the other varieties in their trial, farmers were able to respond consistently to the trialing questions without the trial being overly burdensome.

The current data collection process came out of a continuing conversation with farmers about what they wanted to know from their peers, and what types of information were most important when choosing new varieties.The SKC’s qualitative questions for their participatory trials are simplified down to 1-5 star ratings for vigor, disease resistance, earliness, appearance, flavor, yield, and storage. Dawson’s team also found that when they added the question “would you grow this variety again?” they really hit on something simple, but key, for the farming community. If another farmer would grow a variety again, it is a really good indicator that it will also have value for someone else. Currently, the SKC couples the qualitative data collected through their farm trials with more quantitative yield and disease resistance data gathered from their two research stations. The marriage of the two types of data works well for their statistical analysis, and keeps the burden light for their participants. What’s more, the SKC is able to include over 100 different testing sites each season, increasing the usefulness and reliability of their findings for vegetable growers across the Midwest.

Variety trial results from 2019 Seed to Kitchen carrot trial
Collaborative trial participant, Bjorn Bergman, presents his 2019 Seed to Kitchen Carrot Trial harvest, showcasing different varieties of Nantes-type carrots. Varieties pictured from left to right: Dolciva, Adana, and Negovia.

Nothing is Free

Traditional variety trialing under controlled research station conditions is expensive. Vegetable variety trialing costs can be even more cost prohibitive than other agronomic crops. For example, a public university conducting a single year of research station trialing (testing nine varieties at four different locations) is likely to cost between 25 to 30 thousand dollars. It’s not surprising that one of the biggest challenges the SKC faces each year is funding their trials.

Luckily, SKC has found that adding in the collaborative testing not only increases their trial replications, but also drastically decrease trialing costs. SeedLinked’s comparisons of research station trials to participatory testing over the past two years of beta testing has yielded strong arguments for including more collaborative testing into trialing protocols. Data from SeedLinked’s trials shows that collaborative trials of 1000 participants cost ten to twelve times less than equivalent variety trialing using just six equivalent research station trials. What’s more, the quality of the data collected through collaborative testing on SeedLinked is not inferior to highly controlled research data, even when using primarily qualitative data measures. (Stay tuned for more on data quality in participatory trialing in future blog posts!). So, why isn’t there more participatory testing happening if the costs are so advantageous? Well, there are always complications to consider.

Simplifying Complicated

Any time you add more people to the picture, create more connections, the process gets more complex, and more complicated. Some of the biggest challenges with collaborative trials come from managing the logistics of seed distribution, communication with participants, and data collection at the end of the trial. The SKC learned quickly that how they asked the questions mattered, but the extra time spent following up with participants and chasing down data sheets at the end of the season continued even with better questions.

The SKC began using SeedLinked’s trialing platform in 2018. Dawson says there have definitely been some challenges involved in changing their system over to SeedLinked, but as beta testers they have also been able to influence and help make things better. Ultimately, the changeover has made their participatory trials much easier, particularly once the seeds have been sent out at the beginning of the season.

SKC used to follow up individually with every participant during the growing season, but did not always know at what point in the season the follow up would be most useful to the participant. Using SeedLinked SKC can now see exactly where in the process each participant is in their trial, and follow up strategically if it appears someone is stuck, or may need a check-in.

Collecting data is also much easier with SeedLinked than their previous pen and paper system. The old system required participants to write everything down and send it in the mail at the end of the season. Once received, the individual data had to be transferred to excel spreadsheets before it could be analyzed and used. The time and labor requirement was significant and meant that results were not often available in time for farmers to use the data from the previous season for their next growing season decisions. With SeedLinked, all users see the data live as it is entered. Dawson’s team can extract the results immediately, or whenever needed for presentations or analysis. The hassle of data input and excel spreadsheets is mostly a thing of the past. There are still some people who prefer pen and paper, so SKC does allow participants this option, if they prefer.

Dawson says using SeedLinked has also made it possible for SKC to recruit many more trial participants. SKC is now able to include gardeners with garden scale trials. Overall, they can be more efficient, and are able to have more participants without adding significantly to the time burden.

Throw in COVID-19

When asked about how COVID-19 impacted the 2020 SKC trials Dawson laughed, saying “Well, we got all the seed for the on-farm trials mailed out the day before the University shut down the mail service. It was… memorable.”  With the critical seed sourcing and distribution for the collaborative trials complete, these trials have continued this year as per usual.

In contrast, pretty much all the UW-Madison research station trials were cancelled for the season, unless they were critical for graduating a student. All work conducted at a university research station is reliant both on access to the facility, and the ability to hire and have people working there. “If the University decides we can no longer safely have access to the facilities, or hire people for the growing season, we have a major breaking point for our research station-based trials,” said Dawson. And Dawson’s group is not alone. Many other organizations have faced closures to facilities and trials under COVID-19 in 2020. Fortunately, SKC is not dependent on the research station trials for everything., 

With a pre-established collaborative trialing network using the SeedLinked platform for data entry and communication, the SKC has been pretty resilient during the sudden closures and logistical challenges imposed by COVID-19. Not having the typical quantitative date this year from the research trials means the SKC won’t be able to do as much data comparison. But, the trials continue at the farms and gardens, and as of now it seems like people are doing a good job. With all of the added struggling to re-define our systems, Dawson is relieved that their decentralized testing is proving to be robust on so many levels.

At long last! Butternut squash from the 2019 SKC collaborative trials.

Worth the Effort

While management decisions and weather play a large part in a farm or gardens overall cropping success, choosing a well-fitted variety to your specific growing and market conditions is also key to success. Data collected over the past two years of variety testing through SeedLinked shows that farmers can increase production anywhere between 10-50% when choosing a better-suited variety to their region and growing conditions. Making the effort to find seed that fits your region and specific conditions does actually make a significant difference..

A big thanks to the combined efforts of the breeders, farmers, gardeners, and chefs bringing better choices and resilient seed options to the Midwest! If you’d like to learn more about the results of the SKC trials you can find more information about promising and best performing – and tasting – varieties for the Upper Midwest at https://seedtokitchen.horticulture.wisc.edu/.

If you’re interested in joining the collaborative SKC trials as a farmer or gardener please be in touch. And, if you don’t live in the Midwest and wish your region had a resource like the SKC, consider signing up to join SeedLinked’s collaborative trials. There are many people and organizations hard at work to provide us with resilient seed options. SeedLinked would love to help you find each other! You, too, can be a part of creating a resource for your community.

We’re also excited to announce that coming winter 2021, SeedLinked’s new Seed Search function will provide a searchable interface where you’ll be able to easily find vegetable seed based on your specific growing conditions and variety characteristics. We can’t wait to make this tool available to you in your search for resilient seed.