This winter newsletter serves as our 2015 annual report. We hope you'll enjoy reading about our tremendous work last year, including successes that are only possible thanks to a number of collaborations with farmers, universities, and seed advocates like you.
Breaking New Ground in the Pacific Northwest
One of our biggest announcements this year was breaking ground at a new research farm in Chimacum, Washington. This certified organic farm is part of the Chimacum FARM (Fish, Agriculture, and Resource Management) Collaborative, and now serves as a research hub for conducting plant breeding, variety trials, and seed production. This year we produced organic seed for cabbage, carrots, cilantro, purple sprouting broccoli, and our 'Abundant Bloomsdale' spinach
(now available for commercial sale). Our organic variety trials included a number of other crops, including lettuce, onions, tomatoes, winter squash, peppers, and more. To find our most recent variety trial reports, visit our publications page
Colored Carrots and Organic Production
The Carrot Improvement for Organic Agriculture (CIOA)
project continues to make progress in breeding new carrot varieties for organic agriculture. The collaborators -- Dr. Philipp Simon of USDA-ARS and University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of California-Riverside, Purdue University, and OSA -- plan to release finished varieties within the next few years. Project goals include identifying useful traits for organic agriculture, including weed competitiveness, nematode resistance, and disease resistance, as well as superior flavor and appearance. In 2015, CIOA launched an online gallery to help farmers find new and existing varieties of carrots. The new gallery
allows growers and breeders to search more than 30 carrot varieties by color, disease resistance, shape, flavor, length, origin, top size, and commercial availability. Researchers will continue to update the gallery with variety results, including details on flavor and color pigmentation related to nutrition content.
California: OSA Hosts First-Ever California Seed Summit
There is a clear need to increase the availability and diversity of organic seed for California's organic growers. As seed companies expand their offerings to fill this gap, they face a number of challenges inherent to being in the business of seed. Many of these challenges can be solved through communication and collaboration between seed producers and distributors. In February 2015, OSA hosted the first organic seed summit in the state with a number of organic seed stakeholders. The group created long-term strategies and actions for building an organic seed system in the state, which are captured in the summit proceedings
. As a result of the summit, more than 70 commercial seed producers are participating in OSA's online network to put into action the needs identified by the group. A 2016 summit is planned for March. To learn more, contact Jared Zystro
California: Developing Quinoa for Organic Growers
In 2015, OSA participated in a quinoa breeding project with organic farmer Blake Richards of Wild Rose Farm. The Northern California trial included more than 70 varieties
and breeding lines
that came from a population
that Blake has maintained and improved for many years. We are currently reviewing the trial data and selecting for breeding lines that mature early and have a range of colors and large seed size, and that yield well under high plant populations and resist lodging. Quinoa is an important and emerging crop that has received very little attention from breeders in the U.S., except for a handful of dedicated growers and researchers. The goal of this project is to eventually release improved varieties that help organic growers fulfill the growing demand for quinoa here in the U.S.
Multi-Regional: Breeding OP Sweet Corn
When OSA breeds new varieties, we often focus on open-pollinated
varieties because farmers can save and produce seed from these varieties as well as improve them through selection on their farm. Also, open-pollinated varieties can be more genetically diverse, which can protect them when environments change. Many of the best public and private programs focus on developing hybrids
. How can we access the potential of the material in our public breeding programs to make excellent open-pollinated varieties for organic agriculture? OSA is partnering with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Oregon State University to find out through a new sweet corn breeding project. Together we are conducting trials and breeding projects on six organic farms in California, Oregon, and Wisconsin. We plan to collaboratively release several new open-pollinated sweet corn varieties within the next few years.
Pacific Northwest: Adapting Sweet Corn to the Olympic Peninsula
Sweet corn is an iconic summer crop, but farmers on the Olympic Peninsula have few choices in varieties that mature in the relatively cool maritime climate, especially open-pollinated varieties. OSA's research team is addressing this need in partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC), and the Port Townsend Food Co-op. The goal is to develop an early maturing, open-pollinated organic sweet corn variety that will thrive in the Pacific Northwest climate. Collaborators aim to release a finished variety to the marketplace within a few years.
Pacific Northwest: Finding the Best Storage Onions
OSA conducted winter trials earlier this year on several vegetables with the goal of identifying the best performers. By providing these variety trial results to Pacific Northwest farmers, we can help them expand access to local produce in the winter and early spring. Onions are a key winter storage crop, but the relatively cool, moist growing season in the region can make storage onion production challenging. This year's onion trial had excellent growth and virtually no disease or pest problems, and initial evaluations after curing showed many differences in yield and quality among the varieties. The results of this trial will be published in 2016. This project is supported by the Washington and Oregon Department of Agriculture's Specialty Crop Block Grant Programs.
Pacific Northwest: Breeding Better Cabbage
OSA is working in partnership with Nash's Organic Produce
in Sequim, Washington, to breed a new variety of purple cabbage for the Pacific Northwest that stores well throughout the winter. The project is in its first year and is part of the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC)
. Our goal is to develop a new variety with great flavor, brilliant color, and storage and production traits, including tight heads and disease resistance. Cabbage is a biennial plant that normally takes two years to produce seed, but we used a greenhouse to complete the seed production cycle in a single year. This means we are accomplishing twice as much breeding work in one season.
Southeast: Evaluating Cucurbits for Organic Farmers
The Eastern Sustainable Organic Cucurbit (ESO-Cuc)
project is in its second year and aims to identify cucurbit germplasm
that performs well under East Coast growing conditions while building a network of organic farmers interested in on-farm variety trials and seed production. Cornell University leads this project in partnership with North Carolina State University, Auburn University, and OSA. In 2015, OSA and partners hosted a field day at the Mountain Crops Research Center in Waynesville, North Carolina, where more than 80 participants learned about the project and variety trial results. Researchers are looking for breeding material with resistance to Downy Mildew, Striped Cucumber Beetles, and viruses. Trial results inform future breeding projects for developing new organic varieties with strong resistance to these common regional issues. This project is funded by a grant from the USDA's Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI).
We're so lucky to have Tony Kleese serving as OSA's Regional Outreach Assistant in the Southeast. He is our on-the-ground OSA representative for this and other regional projects. Tony has served this role since 2014 and joined our team with a breadth of experience in organic agriculture and seed system work. If you have questions about our work in the Southeast, contact Tony
Celebrating Our Big, Bold Organic Community
In 2015, OSA co-hosted the Organicology conference in Portland, Oregon, where more than 1,000 people representing all sectors of the organic food chain gathered to discuss -- and further create together -- a vision for growing the organic sector. Few food and farming conferences aim to inspire interaction between diverse players, where farmers get to know CEOs, organic certifiers visit with food retailers, and policy wonks meet public plant breeders. The event is deliberate cross-pollination at its finest. OSA led a number of seed workshops and co-hosted an "Heirlooms of Tomorrow" dinner with the Culinary Breeding Network and Organically Grown Company that highlighted collaborative breeding projects, like 'Who Gets Kissed?' sweet corn ice cream. Many of the workshops were recorded and available through eOrganic's YouTube channel
Organic Seed Research Featured at International Symposium
OSA joined other researchers from all over the world for the first Organic Agriculture Research Symposium in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in February 2015. The event highlighted some of the newest research on organic plant breeding and other seed research, including OSA's participatory plant breeding work. Some of the presentations were recorded and are available through eOrganic's YouTube channel
OSA Collaborates on New Book for Seed Savers
A new text for seed savers, written by OSA's Micaela Colley and Jared Zystro, and published by Seed Savers Exchange, was published earlier this year. The Seed Garden: The Art and Practice of Seed Saving
is filled with advice for both gardeners and the more seasoned horticulturist on saving seed from your favorite open-pollinated plants. The book is beautiful, combining stunning photographs with clear instructions on how to save seed from more than a dozen crop types. Our hope is that the book makes seed saving accessible to everyone, while helping readers develop a deeper understanding of the importance of practicing this important act as a way to conserve and improve the genetic diversity of our seed heritage.
Organic Seed Education in High Demand
In 2015, OSA hosted or participated in 44 events across the U.S. that collectively educated more than 2,400 people. Classroom and field courses ranged from basic seed saving to commercial-scale organic seed production to on-farm plant breeding techniques. Staff also shared policy updates and findings from our forthcoming State of Organic Seed report. Our seed publications remain important go-to resources for farmers and other agricultural professionals, downloaded by more than 4,300 individuals. Our staff also provided consulting services to farmers representing 30 on-farm breeding projects.
New Reports Help Organic Farmers Identify Best Varieties for Their Region
OSA published five organic variety trial reports last year that focus on the following crops and regions:
- Purple Sprouting Broccoli Variety Trial Report (2014 - 2015)
- Greenbank Farm Organic Seed Project: Western Washington Variety Trial Report (2015)
- California Organic Rutabaga Variety Trial Report (2013 - 2014)
- California Organic Broccoli Variety Trial Report (2013 - 2014)
- California Organic Kale Variety Trial Report (2013 - 2014)
To find these and other OSA publications (all free to download), visit this link
First Research Farm Field Day Celebrates Local Seed Community
This past October we hosted our first autumn field day at our new research farm in Chimacum, Washington. More than 60 participants walked the fields to look at variety trials before tasting the most successful varieties of colored carrots, winter squash, red peppers, Swiss chard, onions, and quinoa. Local chefs also prepared appetizers that showcased the culinary potential of these vegetables. It was a wonderful event that celebrated our growing community of seed advocates and stewards in the region, and served as a formal debut of our new research hub here in the Pacific Northwest.
A National Roadmap for Organic Seed Systems
Our staff was busy in 2015 analyzing data from a number of surveys and other research collected as part of our next State of Organic Seed report, which will serve as the first five-year update to this project. We attended a number of conferences in 2015 to give the organic community a sneak peek, including these findings: Organic farmers who responded to our national survey are sourcing more organic seed compared to five years ago, and they are more satisfied with the organic seed they are planting. There is also stronger interest among farmers in organic seed production and on-farm plant breeding. Still, challenges remain for growing the availability of organic seed. The full report will be released this spring. It will include detailed recommendations for building organic seed systems in the U.S. that deliver farmers high-quality organic seed for all scales, crop types, and regions.
Protecting Organic Seed Integrity
Genetically engineered (GE) crops can be a problem for organic seed producers, farmers, and food buyers who strive to grow and sell products free of these novel traits. As the USDA promotes the concept of "coexistence," we at OSA continue to promote fair policies that level the playing field for organic farmers and better protect the integrity of organic seed. In 2015, OSA provided detailed recommendations to the USDA on the work of the Advisory Committee on Biotechnology for 21st Century Agriculture, an agency-appointed committee charged with addressing coexistence issues in the U.S. We also weighed in on an important announcement coming out of the USDA: that, for the first time, the department is updating its biotechnology regulations, as discussed below. We also provided the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) detailed recommendations regarding its efforts around contamination prevention strategies, including a proposed genetic purity standard for seed used in organic systems. Find these and other policy comments here.
Pushing for New and Improved GE Crop Regulations
The USDA has been regulating GE crops under outdated regulations for far too long, which is why we took it as good news that it collected comments in 2015 on how their regulations should be updated. Current regulations simply don't protect farmers, the public, and the environment from the negative impacts of GE crops. OSA submitted comments to encourage the USDA to draft new regulations that at the very least do the following: mandate contamination prevention practices on behalf of GE crop owners and users; require independent analyses of the potential impacts of GE crops; establish stronger experimental field trial oversight and restrictions; and create a fair compensation mechanism to support those harmed by contamination. Read our comments here.
USDA Admits More Oversight of Experimental GE Wheat Trials Needed
Following two genetically engineered (GE) wheat contamination events, the USDA said it will regulate GE wheat trials under its permit system versus the ubiquitously used notification process, where companies simply notify the agency of experimental trials and largely self-regulate themselves. This is OSA's take on the decision and our role in advocating for improved oversight.
Permits should provide more oversight of trials, but these permits must include strong contamination prevention requirements and hold developers accountable if containment is not achieved. We also told the USDA that GE wheat trials should be halted given ongoing gaps in regulation and oversight, as documented in a recent audit
of the agency's oversight of GE crops.
The Buzz Around Pesticide Seed Coatings
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a policy proposal this year that aimed to mitigate exposure to bees from toxic pesticides. Unfortunately the proposal failed to recognize a major route of exposure: seed coated with pesticides. In particular, evidence is mounting that neonicotinoids (or "neonics") have a detrimental impact on pollinators. With approximately 200 million acres of neonic-treated seed planted in the U.S. each year, the impact these seed coatings have on pollinators must be addressed. That's why OSA submitted comments telling the EPA that it must consider seed coatings a major route of exposure. We also asked the agency to consider the effects of pesticides on wild and unmanaged bees, which are largely ignored by this proposal. Without a healthy population of pollinators, flowering plants in agriculture would not be adequately pollinated, including seed production fields, causing potentially devastating consequences for our seed supply. We asked that existing alternatives to pesticide seed coatings be expanded and further developed to protect organic seed systems.
OSA Takes Advocacy to Washington, DC
Advocating for policies that support organic seed systems and the farmers who rely on them is an important part of our work. We joined other members of the National Organic Coalition (NOC) in June 2015 to meet with members of Congress about our most pressing organic policy priorities. Our message included the need to increase organic research investments to expand the availability of diverse, public plant varieties that are adapted to organic agricultural practices and regional climates. As consumer demand for organic products continues to outpace domestic supply, research is an important piece to growing production here in the U.S. Among other issues discussed was our support for the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act
, which would require the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to label food containing genetically engineered ingredients. NOC is a strong coalition comprised of more than a dozen organizations and businesses representing organic farmers, processors, retail businesses, consumers, certifiers, researchers, educators, and policy experts. Learn more about NOC here.
New Experts Join OSA's Team in 2015
This year we welcomed Brook Brouwer as a research and education associate. Brook has a Ph.D. in crop science from Washington State University where he studied barley and dry bean production, genetics, and plant breeding for regional food systems. He has worked on diverse livestock farms and conducted nitrogen cycling and botany research in mountain, floodplain, and island ecosystems. He is helping OSA with Pacific Northwest research projects and coordinated a regional organic plant breeding symposium that was held in conjunction with our 2016 Organic Seed Growers Conference earlier this month.
Steve Peters also joined us as a contractor to assist in numerous California research and education projects. Steve brings years of experience and passion in organic research and the organic seed industry. He received his master's degree in agronomy from Cornell University and has served as a research agronomist for Rodale Institute and seed production manager for Seeds of Change.
Katy Davis also joined us this year as an intern and field technician after completing Washington State University's Farm Innovation, Education, and Leadership Development program in Jefferson County, Washington. She received a master's degree in marine microbial ecology from Duke University, where her research focused on the genetics of plant-microbe interactions.
We also welcomed Leyla Cabugos to our team as a contractor assisting with the coordination of a network of regional seed hubs across California. These hubs help organic specialty seed producers improve their production practices in addition to increasing market access and the supply of seed adapted to organic systems. She holds an M.S. degree from the University of Hawaii at Mānoa and a B.S. degree from Humboldt State University, both in botany.
Organically Bred Seed in High Demand
If you tried to order 'Abundant Bloomsdale' spinach
or 'Who Gets Kissed?' sweet corn
last spring, you may have discovered they were out of stock. Both varieties quickly sold out due to popular demand, but they're back in 2016 seed catalogs! (See links above to learn where you can find them.) Thank you for giving these varieties a try, as your purchases represent a vote for organically bred seed, and allows for further investments in participatory plant breeding focused on the needs of organic farmers.
Building a List of Organic Seed Availability
Organic Seed Finder
provides more than 2,700 variety listings for farmers, gardeners, certifiers, and others looking to source organic seed. The website allows organic seed vendors to post their available varieties in a central, on-line location where growers can search for the varieties they need. It is also a resource for organic certifiers who need access to documentation of the types and varieties of organic seed available. People searching for organic seed can access the data for free.
Promoting Variety Trials as a Risk Management Strategy
Through our education and research, we promote variety trials as an important strategy for identifying appropriate organic varieties for your farm. Choosing the right crops and varieties for your local climate, field conditions, and market can significantly minimize loss and increase agricultural success while avoiding the expense of investing in poorly adapted or poorly performing varieties. OSA's On-farm Variety Trials: A Guide for Organic Vegetable, Herb, and Flower Producers
provides training in basic, on-farm experimental design, as well as tools to efficiently and effectively manage on-farm trials and use trial results. We are also a proud partner in the Organic Variety Trial Database
-- the only searchable website that includes hundreds of organic variety trial results from across the U.S. We accept scientific trial reports year-round. The trials should be conducted in organic systems, and replicated and evaluated using documented methods. If you have trial results to share through this database, contact OSA's Jared Zystro
Growing Our Community
OSA continues to be the go-to for expert opinions on organic seed issues, as evidenced by more than 90 articles that covered or mentioned our work. Our social media following also grew considerably. Both our Facebook
following doubled, growing to 295,000 and 5,900, respectively. Our quarterly newsletter
reaches more than 12,000 individuals.