Behind the Scenes of the High Mowing Organic Seeds' Vegetable Breeding Work - Interviews with the people who make it happen.
Tom Stearns, President & Founder
Behind the scenes of our plant breeding are the two people
who direct this work, build relationships with public plant breeders,
take detailed notes, and organize taste tests to ultimately bring forth
these exciting new varieties. I thought that you would want to hear
from them about how it all works. Jodi Lew-Smith and Heather Jerrett,
have both worked at High Mowing since 2003 and are a large reason for
the success of our company and for the high quality varieties that we
offer. I interviewed each of them about their roles in developing our
Interview with Jodi Lew-Smith, HMS Director of Research and Production
When did the HMS breeding program begin and what were its first early steps?
"In 2004 we began with making self
pollinations (selfs) and cross pollinations (crosses) between varieties
of zucchini and summer squash. 2005 was a quiet year when we moved our
farm, but then I continued in 2006 only with zucchini because there was
more need in the market and we had better quality in open pollinated
(OP) summer squash than we did in zucchini. Our OP zucchini is what
needed improvement. 6 lines of the F2s from the 2004 selfs were grown
out in plots of 50 plants each in 2006 and we began to narrow down what
we were looking for."
Breeding new vegetable varieties is usually done by much
larger companies. Why is HMS even doing breeding and why is it
"Large companies almost exclusively breed
hybrids whereas our priority is OPís because we feel that they can be
more suited to organics. We breed hybrids too but because OPís have
received so little attention we feel that we can make a lot of progress
in breeding them. We breed in an organic system, which no big companies
do, and I feel like we are well-suited to identify the gaps in
organically available seed. We also work in crops well-suited for the
northeast which is generally too small of a market for any other
companies to breed for. For example, most pumpkins are bred in CA and
need a long hot growing season and therefore in the northeast they
struggle with rain. But pumpkins developed here have the traits that
growers in this region need."
Describe the process of developing a new variety from the beginning until release.
depends on what the starting material looks like. The first year is to
identify commercial material that has the traits that we are looking
for. We mostly identify these through the breeding plot grow-outs as
well as in our trials fields. Then, in years 2-6 we make selfs to fix
the traits that we want and do test crosses to see how the lines
combine. Every year we evaluate every line and make a small number of
selections. Summer squash selections are made for yield, architecture,
fruit shape, PM (Powdery Mildew) tolerance, spines, and overall success
throughout the season. Winter squash selections are made on early fruit
set, fruit shape, size, dry matter, brix (sugar content), and taste.
The taste testing is done by our trials
farm and all of our staff. As varieties mature, they are included in
our variety trials and are compared to market standards. This helps us
decide which varieties to move into production and release. Seed from
the breeding plot then becomes Foundation Seed and is used to produce
Stock Seed. Since this is typically the largest population we have
seen, we do final quality checks and select for uniformity and any
remaining off types. Sometimes we have enough seed to release it then,
but often there is another year of production first. The variety is
then named and released in the catalog.
I need to be flexible to start new
projects but also put old ones away so that you can start news ones with
different goals. Sometimes projects just donít make enough progress,
or our thinking about the market changes. The whole program needs to be
flexible. You never lose a project if you save the seed and your
notes. I can just set the seed aside, and maybe Iíll pick it back up
later and continue."
HMS collaborates with others on some breeding work. Describe a few partners.
"Weíve collaborated with Cornell to
develop King Crimson pepper which we selected out of their breeding
lines from crosses between King of the North pepper and some early CMV
(Cucumber Mosaic Virus) tolerant lines. We have worked with UNH as
well, to commercialize varieties that they develop, but we are also
beginning test crosses with their lines and our lines. We are making
many test crosses with an inbred sweet corn line from UWI to develop new
hybrid varieties. All of these universities are different and have
been great to work with. I visit UHN and Cornell every year and always
learn a lot. Iíve especially learned a lot from Brent Loy at UNH, on
breeding for flavor and quality. He has been a real mentor for me."
Are there overall aims of the High Mowing breeding work or is each project different?
"Flavor is a primary concern for many
crops. Disease resistance is also a key focus. Commercial traits, like
ease of harvest and uniformity are also important. But flavor is our
primary driver. We are at the point in our young breeding program where
we are learning about how flavor as a trait is fixed. Bing cherry and
butternuts are examples."
What new projects are you excited about?
"I am excited about our hybrid sweet corn
projects. Weíve just completed our second year and we started with
really good material from UWI. We are learning to do evaluations of
test crosses, how to collect the data and which traits to focus on.
Corn is such a new crop for our breeding program. It has an interesting
reproductive system and is very different from the fruiting crops and
cucurbits that we have mostly been focused on. We also are seeking
grant funds to expand our breeding especially sweet corn."
What interests you so much about plant breeding?
"Breeding is as much about art as it is
about science. Creativity, intuition and instinct all play large
roles. Flashes of inspiration can even play a role. I love evaluating a
large pool of material and picking out the best standouts. Every year,
a project can direct you as much as you direct it."