April 27, 2016
Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of blog posts highlighting Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) projects. Our last SARE: Stories from the field blog featured a Kansas project which used SARE funds to help farmers quantify the financial risks of adopting cover crops.
In agriculture, it all starts with seeds. And when trying to grow viable and marketable fruit and vegetable crops, farmers play a critical role in the development of seeds, not just by nurturing them into marketable fruit and vegetable crops but also by developing adaptable varietals that can help growers meet the production challenges they encounter every day. With support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, Virginia farmer Edmund Frost embraced that quintessential farmer tendency toward innovation and applied it to nature’s simplest and most profound creation, the seed.
From Farmer to Seed Breeder
For over 25 years, SARE has invested in innovative research that helps farmers succeed through sustainable production practices. Known for its regional approach and efficiency in using public funds, SARE helps farmers, non-profits, and institutions partner on training efforts, outreach, and on-farm research.
After working on farms in southern Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Massachusetts, Frost became the Farm Manager at Twin Oaks Community Seed Farm in Louisa, Virginia in 2008. Twin Oaks grows about 40 varieties of open-pollinated and heirloom vegetable seeds on six acres of certified organic land. Inspired by his years of experience advocating for the public availability of seeds and the needs he identified while operating his own farm, Edmund decided to delve into researching and experimenting with selective seed breeding.
“I’d been involved in farming for a number of years before starting seed farming – I worked on an orchard and on several produce farms. I was also involved in activism, so seed growing was the natural combination of those things,” said Frost.
Dwindling Public Support for Breeding Research
Over the past few decades, as seed breeding has shifted away from the public sector (i.e. researchers at public universities) and toward the private sector (i.e. big seed companies), the number of publicly available cultivars has shrunk significantly. Because of this, farmers are now left with increasingly fewer options from a sector that was once a robust public resource. The consolidation of seed breeding research and resources is especially problematic for organic farmers, who face a concerning lack of organic seed that is adapted to organic management systems.
“Not enough work goes into regional development and stewardship of seeds, especially in the Southeast. Most Southeastern organic vegetable growers use varieties developed, evaluated and produced in other regions, especially the Northeast and Western U.S.,” explains Frost. “In this framework, regional diseases are often overlooked, leading to production problems, crop failure, and inability to meet market demand.”
Addressing Production Challenges through On-Farm Breeding
Frost received his first SARE grant in 2013 to determine which plant varieties were best adapted to resist cucurbit downy mildew, a pathogen that affects cucumbers, melons and squashes and is prevalent in the Southeast. Downy mildew overwinters in southern Florida and blows north on the wind each year. The humid climate of the southeast and mid-Atlantic regions favor rapid proliferation of the pathogen, causing widespread foliage damage and crop failure.
“Cucurbit downy mildew has been the number one limiting factor in cucurbit production at Twin Oaks Seed Farm, affecting seed crops as well as market crops of cucumber, squash, melon, gourd and watermelon every year. Since 2009, downy mildew has caused severe losses of these crops each year, including several complete crop failures. Downy mildew has a huge economic impact on growers throughout the Southeastern U.S.”
For example, over 600 million pounds of fresh cucumbers were grown in the top 11 fresh cucumber producing states in 2014. This industry is worth $168 million and 10 of the top 11 states (all but California) are in the eastern U.S. and affected by downy mildew. Farmers in the Eastern United States spend in the range of $20 million each year on fungicides to manage the effects of cucurbit downy mildew on cucumber crops alone (NCSU Cucurbitacaceae Horticulture 2014).
Frost conducted replicated variety trials of cucumber, melon and winter squash to evaluate resistance to downy mildew, yield and crop quality characteristics. As a result of the trials, he identified 15 varieties of cucumbers, 20 varieties of winter squash and pumpkin, and several varieties of melons with better resistance to downy mildew than the market standards entered in the trial.
Regionally specific seed breeding is important for farmers battling pests and diseases like downy mildew because the challenges of one region may not affect farmers in another.
“Downy mildew is not exclusive to the Southeast, but it is certainly most prevalent here due to the [humid and warm] climate. Traditionally it was not found in the Midwest and Northeast, but in recent years you now see it in those regions too. Because most of the small, vegetable-focused seed companies were traditionally found in the Northeast and Northwest, rather than the South, there has not been a focus on seed varieties that are resistant to downy mildew.”
Creating a Farmer Breeding Movement
Following the success of his first SARE project, Frost joined other local farmers to launch Common Wealth Seed Growers (CWSG), a growers’ cooperative and seed company, which specializes in regionally specific seeds for the Southeast. Early in 2016, Frost moved to Sycamore Farm in Buchanan, VA where he continues to conduct on-farm research to develop cucumber, squash and melon varieties resistant to downy mildew.
“CWSG is part of a movement to create the capacity, networks, and knowledge needed for viable and highly relevant regional seed systems,” said Frost.
In addition to producing high-quality, regionally-specific seeds for Southeastern farmers, CSWG received a SARE grant this year to improve on the work Frost did at Twin Oaks Community Seed Farm. While the previous research found several winter squash varieties that are resistant to downy mildew, many of these varieties had traits that made them less favorable for market like variable eating quality, large size, and splitting.
With their current grant, CWSG hopes to improve these winter squash varieties through breeding and selection work, with a particular focus on developing a high quality downy mildew resistant butternut squash This season, they also hope to gather feedback from farmers who used their seed varieties, specifically the Seminole-Waltham F5, Crowning (Chinese Tropical Pumpkin), and Cuban Neck Pumpkin.
SARE aims to provide farmers with easily accessible, customized information that they can use to benefit their own operations. In order to facilitate this flow of knowledge, one important requirement of those who receive SARE grants is to make the results of their research projects available to other farmers.
Common Wealth Seed Growers plans to include a report about their project in their 2017 catalog, which is distributed to over 1,000 farmers. They also plan to host a public event with tastings of their winter squash varieties and a presentation explaining the results of their SARE project. CWSG hopes to present the research at various sustainable agriculture conferences including NSAC member organizations, Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture conference, Carolina Farm Stewardship Alliance conference, and the Virginia Association for Biological Farming conference, following up on presentations Frost gave in 2014 and 2015 at these conferences
SARE is at the forefront of innovation in environmentally sound and profitable farming systems, giving farmers and ranchers the tools they need to thrive. It is also the only USDA farmer-driven research program with a clear and consistent focus on sustainability.
“The 2014 SARE grant enabled me to really delve into finding solutions to the problem of cucurbit downy mildew, in a way that no one else is doing. Having the funding I needed to devote a full acre to research, and being able to look at all these seed stocks side by side in a trial provided me a clarity that I wouldn’t have found otherwise. We have already made several of the DMR varieties we found in the trial available through CWSG. We are on track to breed several new outstanding DMR varieties. We have helped verify the performance of DMR varieties developed by Michael Mazourek’s plant breeding program at Cornell University, and released those varieties to the public (including DMR 264 Cucumber and Trifecta Melon). This year’s winter squash SARE grant will enable us to continue and significantly expand our DMR winter squash breeding work. The producer grant concept is so valuable because farmers are in a position to really zero in on finding solutions to the production problems they face, and to do so in a very cost-effective way.”
The Future of SARE Research
Increased investment in sustainable agricultural research is vital to continued productivity and innovation in American agriculture. For over 25 years, SARE has been at the forefront of research and extension activities that develop profitable and environmentally sound farming systems.
Despite SARE’s popularity, efficiency, and productivity, it is still not funded at even half of its authorized amount. NSAC urges Congress to match the Administration’s budget request to fund SARE at $30 million in fiscal year 2017, which would bring the funding to just half of the authorized spending level.
SARE is administered through four regional councils of producers, researchers, educators, and government representatives. Regional SARE councils house their program information and requests for proposals separately, but you can find the latest SARE information and data from across all regions in the most recent SARE Roundup on the NSAC blog.