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High Mowing Organic Seeds
High Mowing Organic Seeds High Mowing Organic Seeds

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 unique varieties.

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 important?

"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.

Evaluating sugar levels in winter squash"It 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." 

Hybrid Sweet Corn Trials 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."

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