Sometimes I feel like the luckiest farmer around. As Trials Manager at High Mowing Organic Seeds, my job affords me the satisfaction of not only farming vegetables and flower and herbs, but also cultivating information. In fact, harvesting data is the reason for all that we do on our 5 acre Trials Farm. (Read about what we do with all of our produce from the farm here.)
Many farmers I meet talk about trialing varieties on their own farms, trying out new cultivars that win their hearts with flattering catalog descriptions in the soft light of winter to see if those varieties measure up in the bright heat of summer. They have intentions of identifying which cultivars perform best on their farm, under their growing conditions. However, in the harried height of the season, when weeds are threatening to take over the fields and so many crops need harvesting, paying attention to differences between varieties can easily take the backseat. And sometimes, when it’s all said and done, spring’s best-intentioned, most well laid-out trial can result in fall’s inconclusive, shoulder-shrugging results.
Types of Trials that High Mowing Conducts
With the incredible support of my Trials Team, I get to do what many farmers wish they could: focus on the data and the differences between varieties. In 2012, we conducted 139 unique trials with a total of 176 total plantings (some trials have multiple successions to get a look at varieties in different seasonal slots). Trials are planted for various reasons, to meet several different goals:
- Trials allow us to evaluate newly available varieties that could potentially be added to our catalog. This is what makes up most of what we focus on at our Trials Farm.
- Grow-Outs are used to ensure true-to-typeness of varieties that come from either our Seed Production Farm and from our Breeding Program. We usually grow out 100 plants of a variety to check for consistency in plant habit and fruit, to look for any off-types, and to ensure that the plants are expressing the characteristics that they should be.
- Vendor Evaluations are used to compare seed sources for existing varieties. This may mean growing out different lots of the same variety, or comparing our own strain of a variety along with other sources of the same variety
- Showcase is where we highlight the varieties in our catalog and varieties that we will soon be offering. The “Showcase” area of the farm is used as a demonstration grounds for the public and to familiarize our sales staff with our current varieties.
The size of our trials in 2012 ranged from one variety (typically a grow-out) to as many as 18 varieties (in our field tomato trial), with an average of five. In total, we evaluated 680 distinct varieties and/or lots. Additionally, we planted 54 Showcase Trials (with a 100 total plantings – again due to multiple successions). The size of Showcase Trials ranged from one to thirty, with an average of seven varieties per trial. In total, we planted and harvested 350 distinct varieties and/or lots in our Showcase. That’s a total of over 1,000 varieties in 2012 alone!
So, how do we decide what to trial each year?
The majority of our trials are conducted to screen for new varieties to offer in our catalog. We start our trialing process in the winter by identifying slots – or gaps – in our product offerings that we hope to fill. We then do a survey of available varieties that fit those slots. Sources of the varieties we trial might be customer recommendations, other seed catalogs (for open-pollinated varieties), university breeding programs, High Mowing’s own breeding program, or a wholesale seed company (that may or may not also have its own breeding program).
Planning a Trial: Cauliflower
An example of this process unfolding for the upcoming 2013 season is for a cauliflower trial. Right now, our cauliflower section is relatively slim, and we would like to offer more of a selection in this crop; both of hybrid and open-pollinated varieties. One of our wholesale vendors and partners, Vitalis Organic Seeds, is conducting breeding work in hybrid cauliflowers for organic seed production. Their varieties are still a year or so away from release, but we want to include them in our trials so that we can get a look at them now and see how they compare to our current cauliflower varieties and to market standards. While scanning seed lists we receive from other vendors, we have come across a number of interesting varieties: The Family Farmers Seed Cooperative, a network of organic seed producers, has available the known open-pollinated cauliflower, Amazing, while Terra Organics, which has done some of its own selection work on cauliflowers, has a few interesting open-pollinated varieties as well. We’ll round out the trial by including a few market standards, such as Skywalker F1, Snow Crown F1 and Fremont F1 for comparison and … voila – a trial is born!
Managing a Trial
Of course, building the trial in the winter is just the beginning. Next we select appropriate planting dates (for crops that can be planted in successions, we’ll select two or more planting dates throughout the season so that we can try to observe any “slotting” – better seasonal performance – in varieties). As with any other farm or garden, each trial gets seeded, weeded and tended throughout the season, but at much smaller increments: for transplanted trials such as full-sized lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, melons, squash, tomatoes, etc. we plant anywhere from10-36 plants of each variety, while direct-seeded crops such as greens and roots are seeded with only 5-10 feet per variety.
It goes without say that at each step in the process clear labeling and keeping distinct varieties separate is essential. Trials are observed as the crop matures and observations are recorded with regards to differences in plant health, vigor, growth habit and other noteworthy characteristics. For fruiting crops (peas, beans, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squash, etc.) we generally record yield data when we harvest, tallying total weights and dates of harvest. For certain trials, our data collection includes setting up taste tests for HMS staffers. (Melons are a clear favorite, green beans … not so much.) If all goes well, at the end of the season we are able to make informed decisions about the most stellar and standout varieties to offer in our next season’s catalog!
But, our trialing program is not complete without a lively feedback loop with our customers. Tell us which High Mowing varieties are working for you and what varieties you’d like to see us carry in the future!