On a bright and beautiful day in the middle of August, Organic Seed Alliance and partners hosted a field day at Nature and Nurture Farm outside Ann Arbor, Michigan. The purpose of the event was to showcase participatory plant breeding projects and commercial seed production methods in the Midwest. Highlights of the day included a guided farm tour, seed cleaning demonstration, and a tomato taste test.
Nature and Nurture Seeds, co-owned by Erica Kempter and Mike Levine, is a farm-based seed company offering heirloom vegetable, flower, and herb seeds. In addition to the seed crops, the farm includes a perennial fruit orchard, shiitake mushrooms, garlic, hayfields, woodlands, wetlands, solar panels, and a friendly farm dog named Kiwi.
For about twenty years, Erica has been breeding tomatoes for great quality and performance in the Midwest. Through a partnership with OSA and the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative at the University of Wisconsin, her project has expanded to include dozens of skilled growers across the Midwest and a trained team of researchers working to identify promising breeding lines. Another tomato breeder present at the field day, Keith Mueller of KC Tomato, is working on a parallel project with this same network of growers and researchers, developing unique and flavorful varieties that thrive in his local environment. All of the resulting varieties coming out of these projects are pledged to the Open Source Seed Initiative.
Participants of the field day had a multisensory experience using the SeedLinked platform to evaluate Erica’s breeding lines against commercial standard varieties. The tomatoes were presented in sets of four varieties, with names hidden, and people scored the samples on a 1-5 scale for several traits including appearance, acidity, texture, and overall flavor. Feedback from more than 20 individuals was compiled instantly via the SeedLinked app and shared with the group for discussion. Three sets of tomatoes were scrutinized, and in 2 of those 3 sets, the overall ranking showed that people preferred one of Erica’s varieties over a comparable variety that has already been commercialized.
In addition to plant breeding, the field day highlighted tools and techniques for producing high quality seeds in the Midwest. Erica demonstrated the use of a Winnow Wizard with some chive seeds that had been recently harvested. She shared about the journey of starting the seed company when they processed nearly everything by hand, and over time, scaling up and investing in specific equipment to increase efficiency. Mike talked about their heirloom Allis Chalmers model G tractor and all-crop harvester that they are planning to use to collect amaranth seeds this year at a larger scale than they have ever tried.
The field day brought together farmers, breeders, and learners from at least 5 different states. After the field day ended, many folks stuck around to enjoy the Nature and Nurture Harvest Festival. Check out Nature and Nurture Seeds on Facebook or @nnseeds on Instagram for highlights of that event.
This was the third field day as part of the project titled “Collaborative Plant Breeding Network Development for Organic Systems in the Upper Midwest” under the leadership of Dr. Julie Dawson. This project was made possible by the USDA’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative. For highlights of the 2021 and 2022 field days, check out these blog posts.
If you would like to participate as a trial grower in a breeding project, check out the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative website. More information about the project and additional resources can be found online through this link, Collaborative Plant Breeding Network Development for Organic Systems in the Upper Midwest. Join an online group of Midwest seed growers, plant breeders, and others in the Midwest Regional Seed network hosted on Organic Seed Commons. If you have any questions or would like to know more about the event, please contact Michael Lordon at firstname.lastname@example.org.