This summer Organic Seed Alliance co-hosted four on-farm workshops in the upper Midwest, with partners University of Wisconsin-Madison and Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Services (MOSES). The workshops focused on how to conduct on-farm variety trials of organic vegetable and small grains. The workshops were well-attended, with a total of more than 60 participants, signaling a growing interest in strengthening the upper Midwest regional seed system by identifying and advocating for varieties well-suited to local, organic systems.
The first workshop was held at We Grow LLC, a diversified organic vegetable and livestock farm in Westboro, WI. Farmers Rebecca and Eric Zuleger grew a demonstration trial of early broccoli, looking for traits such as large head size, early maturity, and performance in a high tunnel environment. They were also in search of a variety available in a certified organic form to replace their conventional standard variety ‘Amadeus’. A few of the organic varieties proved successful, including ‘Batavia’ and ‘Belstar’.
Hans and Katie Bishop of PrairiErth Farm in Atlanta, IL, hosted the second workshop. Their demonstration trial featured yellow potatoes, which they evaluated for early yield and leaf-hopper tolerance. Their results were less conclusive, but the group assembled for the field day benefited from a great discussion of management techniques for potato production and trial design possibilities.
The third workshop was held in conjunction with the Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Organic Grain Resources and Information Network (OGRAIN), and the Hughes Farm in Janesville, WI. Willie and Randy Hughes grow a wide variety of field crops on their farm. For the workshop they grew a demonstration trial of organic food-grade corn hybrids focused on earliness and yield. There was a surprising amount of diversity among these commercially available hybrids. The farmers are still analyzing the results of this trial post-harvest, and OSA will share those results when they are in.
Greg and Mary Reynolds at Riverbend Farm in Delano, MN, hosted the final variety trialing workshop. Their workshop centered around a kale trial designed to assess mid-season eating quality, as well as overall productivity. Their trial focused mostly on green curly varieties, though some red and lacinato types were included in the border of the trial for observation. Thirty people came out to taste kale on a beautiful midsummer day. Flavor favorites included ‘Nash’s Green’, the Wild Garden Seed mix and the classic variety ‘Winterbor’.
All workshops included instruction by an OSA staff member (Kitt Healy or Jared Zystro), a UW-Madison faculty member (Drs. Julie Dawson or Ruth Genger), and a MOSES staff member (Matt Leavitt or Lauren Langworthy). This was a wonderful partnership that we hope to reprise in future projects! Variety trials are a useful tool for farmers interested in finding the best varieties for their farm and markets.
Conducting variety trials can also help growers identify promising organic varieties to replace conventional ones, new varieties to fit a particular market niche, or open-pollinated varieties for future on-farm breeding projects. More information on variety trialing can be found in OSA’s publication, The Growers Guide to Conducting On-Farm Variety Trials as well as in these other publications and webinars.