Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Dig a little deeper. . . into Tomato & Pepper Breeding

by Emily Rose Haga • Johnny's Plant Breeder

Greetings, growers!  My name is Emily Rose Haga, and I manage the tomato and pepper breeding programs here at Johnny's, along with my breeding team.

In both programs, we are focused on creating special, new varieties for market growers that combine heirloom flavor and quality with specific traits that improve adaptation to variable growing conditions.

It can be challenging to grow these warm-season, heat-loving crops organically, and in short-season growing conditions like ours in Central Maine, but by breeding varieties directly under such conditions for traits like earliness and disease resistance, we can help direct evolution towards development of crop varieties that are more resilient under these conditions.

This is the most exciting time of year for my team (and most of us on the research farm), because much of what we do the remainder of the year revolves around the crops and analysis that are now coming to fruition. 

The tomato and pepper programs really come to life after the plants are in the ground. Early in the growing season, we are in the field, placing pollination barriers over plants to prevent undesired cross-pollination; rogueing off-types from our seed-increases; and sampling leaf tissue to help us identify disease-resistant plants.

Later in the season, once the crops mature (August–September), is prime time for evaluations. You will find us rating the crops and taking notes, harvesting fruit for yield, flavor or other sensory qualities, and flagging individual plants for possible seed harvesting.
In August we welcomed the Fifth Annual Student Organic Seed Symposium (SOSS) to Johnny's for a full-day tour. (That's me, crouched next to the pepper plants, intently discussing our trials!) 
» Read more about the SOSS here
The plants in our breeding nurseries — where we make our selections —  are doing generally well this year, but showing signs of water stress in this abnormally dry growing season. As a breeder, the silver lining for me is that I can select plants with better tolerance to stress and drought (to an extent). Ultimately, I may one day be able to help farmers better adjust to these extreme weather patterns.

Late summer is also when the trials we've placed with university and farmer-cooperators across the country begin to mature. These are on-farm trials of our new, experimental varieties, designed to determine how they perform in different regions and collect valuable, real-world feedback from growers to inform our breeding and commercialization decisions. This year I'm visiting some of our trials in Maine, Connecticut, New York, Wisconsin, Oregon, and California — and enjoy seeing how things look!

In the off-season, we stay busy analyzing information from prior seasons, coordinating the logistics of our new product introductions, and preparing for the next growing season. A significant part of what we do to prepare involves operating a year-round breeding greenhouse to create seed for testing. My team carries out thousands of hand pollinations in the spring and winter months to make new test crosses, develop breeding populations, and increase trial seed for the following season. Having the ability to do this counter-seasonally in Maine is a big asset for our program, because it affords us an extra crossing cycle per year and speeds up the breeding process, which on average takes 8 to 10 years from start to finish.
Breeding Technician Brett Johnson, busy in the greenhouse with one of many tasks required to bring our on- and off-site breeding nurseries to life during the growing season...

Bearing in mind that classical plant breeding is a slow-going, long-term process of directed evolution, Rob Johnston and Janika Eckert deserve continued our recognition for their mark on these programs, which will continue to show up for many years to come. It's an honor to have inherited their breeding programs, and I'm excited to continue their fine work, as well as embark on my own creative projects — which are now beginning to take root! I look forward to sharing our work with you as we continue to introduce outstanding varieties to our offerings.

Senator Scott Cyrway, representing Maine Senate District 16, recently visited and presented Johnny’s Selected Seeds with a certificate of congratulations from the people of Maine.
From L to R: Brett Johnson, Rob Johnston, Aneta Jacobs, Janika Eckert, Sen.Scott Cyrway, Emily Rose Haga

The certificate reads:

"Be it known to all we, the members of the Senate and House of Representatives, join in recognizing Johnny’s Selected Seeds of Winslow, whose 'Cornito Giallo' F1 and 'Escamillo' F1 peppers were selected as 2016 AAS Vegetable Award Winners by All-America Selections. All-America Selections is an independent, nonprofit organization that tests new varieties of flowers and vegetables and names only the best garden performers as AAS Winners. We extend to everyone at Johnny’s Selected Seeds our congratulations and best wishes. And be it ordered that this official expression of sentiment be sent forthwith on behalf of the 127th Legislature and the people of the State of Maine."

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Celebrating the Last of Our Long-Storing Kabocha Squash

by Pete Zuck, R&D, Vegetable Product Manager

» Watch Pete's New Video-Recipe for Miso-Glazed Kabocha Squash

Just as we reach the last few weeks of another Maine winter, our once seemingly boundless supplies of storage crops are dwindling. For those of us whose storage conditions are less than ideal, some of the fussier items are in serious jeopardy by now. The basement is a few degrees too warm? Perhaps your potatoes have begun to sprout. The fridge’s “crisper” is a bit too dry? Maybe the carrots have lost their crunch. As for those storage onions, you never know what you might find when you slice them open.

Winter Sweet Kabocha Squash
Johnny's-Bred 'Winter Sweet' Kabocha Squash
One crop that is easy for almost anyone to store successfully, however, is winter squash. A good butternut or kabocha will stay delicious well into the spring, stored at what most Mainers consider “room temperature” for this time of year – about 60ºF/16ºC. In fact, some of the longer-storing varieties are just beginning to reach peak flavor as the dark nadir of the winter solstice sets in — refer to our Winter Squash Curing & Storage Chart for specifics.

Because it’s so reliable, we Mainers tend to put up a lot of squash each fall. While it’s great to have a dependable, highly nutritious food source on hand, by March it gets to be a little redundant on the menu. Winter staples like mashed butternut and squash soup use up a lot of material, but they can get tiresome. With each passing potluck, our friends grow more indifferent to our offerings.

Pete Zuck, Johnny's R&D Vegetable Product Manager
The key, I’ve found, is to break away from our traditional vision of squash. Let’s face it; many Americans still equate squash with baby food — maybe they’ve only ever had it one way — mashed. And even then, it is often not the most flavorful type or variety, or given the simple enhancements it needs to really impress. We tend to stick with butternut as our go-to storage squash. While there is nothing wrong with this type (and a well-bred butternut can be delightful on its own — our award-winning Butterscotch, for instance), most butternuts are better suited as ingredients in a broader recipe, whereas other types are actually much better as stand-alone dishes.

Glaze Ingredients
A couple of years ago, I really discovered kabocha squash. It helped that I was working for a company known for producing some of the best-eating varieties, with vast fields of them just a short walk from the break room. I credit our company founder, Rob Johnston, with turning me on to kabocha. When I started working here, Rob would often sit down to lunch with a big wedge of Winter Sweet or another of his elegant creations, adorned with nothing but salt, pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil. As I adopted this practice myself, I quickly began to appreciate how different and wonderful kabocha squash is. The dry texture ate more like a baked potato than like the mealy mush I was used to. There were subtle flavors in the background that reminded me of maple syrup and spiced rum. It was sweeter than butternut, and I didn’t even have to peel the skin off!

Miso-glazed Kabocha Squash
Quick, Easy, Nutritious, DELICIOUS!
This time of year, I cook a big kabocha most Sunday nights, then pop it in the fridge and reheat it each morning for a simple squash-and-eggs breakfast. I just follow Rob’s simple recipe (although I prefer butter to olive oil), and I find it’s great fuel for the morning routine. It’s a sort of sweet twist on hash browns, with perhaps a healthier starch profile, too.

It is not surprising that kabocha is the squash-of-record in Japan. The Japanese market is very particular about eating quality in vegetables. The sweet corn must be tender and highly sweet, with just a hint of a floral accent. The tomatoes, preferably pink, must be low in acid and high in umami, a flavor concept embodying “pleasant savoriness,” first defined in Japan over a century ago. It is a gourmand culture, and their chosen winter squash is kabocha. (To learn why some winter squash and edible pumpkins taste so much better than others, read Eating Quality in Winter Squashes, with an explanation by Dr. J. Brent Loy, a classical plant breeder with whom Rob Johnston has collaborated for over three decades.)

In searching for ways to experience squash the way they do in Japan, I’ve been trying a few variations on miso-glazed kabocha. The concept is simple and the recipe adjustable, and it highlights everything that’s so great about this squash. It incorporates the core flavors of sweet, sour, salty — and probably umami (but I’m not qualified to say for sure). And, it’s the perfect way to share and celebrate the last of last year’s winter squash, as we plan for the upcoming planting season. I hope you enjoy it enough to try it six different ways.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Johnny’s Attends 8th Organic Seed Grower’s Conference: Cultivating Resilience

by Joy Longfellow

R&D Breeding Team, Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Early February saw several members of Johnny’s Research, Breeding, and Sales teams head west for the Organic Seed Alliance’s 8th Organic Seed Growers Conference: Cultivating Seeds of Resilience.

The Pacific Northwest is a powerhouse for seed production in the US, and Johnny’s has many loyal customers and seed producers there. The Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) is a strong voice in the conversation around organic seed production, and over 500 farmers, plant breeders, seed producers, researchers, and others came together for the four-day event at the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis, Oregon.

Five Highlights from the Johnny’s Crew

1.       Finding Our Place in Resilient Seed Systems
  • Much of the conversation during the conference revolved around building resilient seed systems at local and national levels. As our food systems come under increasing pressure from changing climate, changing politics, and changing regulations surrounding seeds, the need grows for systems that can withstand future shocks and stresses.
  • One highlight was the keynote address by Cary Fowler, author of Shattering: Food, Politics and the Loss of Genetic Diversity. Cary Fowler is also the motivating force behind the Svalbard Seed Vault, the world’s largest secure seed storage facility, located north of the Arctic Circle in Norway. Fowler spoke about the increasing need for preservation of genetic resources, reminding us that “We protect what we love.”
Some of the many seeds available at the Seed Exchange,
held the last night of the conference

2.       Making Valuable Connections
  • Lindsay Wyatt, Squash and Pumpkin breeder at Johnny’s, made contact with cooperators for conducting butternut squash trials this upcoming summer season.
  • John Navazio, Root Crop and Leafy Greens breeder, and Myra Manning, Product Technician, paid visits to several trial sites and cooperators on the west coast.
    Lainie & John share a laugh with farmer-cooperators
    Lainie Kertesz & John Navazio
    evaluate kale and purple-sprouting broccoli
    (and share a laugh) at an off-site
    trial cooperator's farm
  • Trialing our products with farmer–cooperators connects us with a community of expert growers with whom we can evaluate prospective new releases.
3.       Sharing Our Knowledge
  • John Navazio, Lindsay Wyatt, Lainie Kertesz, and Brenna Chase combined forces to give a talk titled Perspectives of a Successful, Independent Seed Company — discussing Johnny’s history as a seed company and contributions to the field of plant breeding. It was a fitting tribute to the work done by Rob Johnston, Janika Eckert, and so many others over Johnny’s long and successful history.
Lainie Kertesz discussing Johnny's contributions
to the field of plant breeding
  • Rob Johnston and John Navazio were both invited to participate on a panel of Seed Elders. Panel members included Carol Deppe and Frank Morton, among others recognized for their valuable contributions to the fields of plant breeding and sustainable seed systems. Rob Johnston, unable to attend due to personal reasons, was notably missed.
4.       Getting the Update on Organic Seed Production & Plant Breeding
  • The Organic Seed Alliance announced some results from their most recent assessment of organic seed production in the United States. The State of Organic Seed 2016 report showed an increase in growers using organic seed on their farms, but also stressed the reality that many farmers still face difficulty in sourcing organic seed in large quantities or for specific varieties.
  • Some interesting facts from the report:
Greatest barriers to farmers using organic seed
•   Specific varieties unavailable as organic seed
   •  Organic seed not available in sufficient quantity
Top vegetables requested for breeding improvements
•  Tomatoes •  Brassicas   
•  Squash •  Sweet corn   
•  Peppers •  Lettuce
Top traits farmers requested for breeding improvements in above crops
•  Disease resistance •  Yield
•  Flavor •  Quality
•  Appearance
  • This kind of feedback from growers is critical to making sure our efforts match what our customers need. Events like the Organic Seed Alliance conference give us the opportunity to get a sense of the market and calibrate our breeding and research efforts accordingly.
5.       Engaging & Eating!
  • Much of the conversation during the week revolved around to how to involve people from the whole food system — from breeding to eating.
  • The OSA coordinated several “tastings” over the course of the event, giving participants a chance to taste and evaluate several varieties of cabbage, chicory, barley, and squash. A favorite was the raw Black Futsu Squash salad with anchovies and chicory.
Tasting ... Black Futsu Squash Salad

  • Johnny’s crew met with Lane Selman from Oregon State University to discuss the Culinary Breeding Network — an exciting venture working to connect farmers, chefs, and plant breeders in the efforts to breed and distribute flavorful vegetables. If you are a chef, keep an eye out for new varieties from Johnny’s!

The Discussion Continues…

Additional conference talks we attended covered such interesting topics as:

  • Hybrid development and use in the organic seed community
  • GMO contamination and regulation
  • Intellectual property rights in plant breeding and seed production
  • Plant breeding for organic systems
The conference provided opportunities for Johnny’s crew to hear and participate in some of these conversations. While yielding more information than can fit into a short blog post, we came away with much to think about and some ideas for how we at Johnny’s can contribute to building resilient seed systems.
  • What issues related to seed production and seed systems are important to you?
  • Where do you see the need for more work in seed research and plant breeding?
  • How are you “cultivating resilience”?
Thanks for reading — and best of luck to you, in whatever ways you are cultivating resilience!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Trip Notes from the 2016 Southeast Regional Fruit & Vegetable Conference

Bonita Nicolas, Johnny's Selected Seeds Quality Assurance Manager, shares her trip notes from the 2016 Southeast Regional Fruit & Vegetable Conference that she attended with Southeast Territory Sales Rep, Rod Heyerdahl.

Johnny’s booth was in a great high traffic area, and we had a constant stream of visitors.  Friday was the day several young farmer groups, Future Farmers of America (FFA) and the like, attended the show.  

Entering the drawing for a $100 gift certificate

They all signed up for the drawing for the $100 gift certificate and were happy to have the free shipping coupon available. Many of the young growers are following in their parents' footsteps for farming as a lifestyle. They are incredibly aware of variety names and know what they can sell to the fresh market farm stands, as well as restaurants.

This young grower was very proud of his Great White tomato crop, which he sold to a local chef who made absolutely beautiful stuffed tomatoes.

Rod greeted all visitors by their first name and with a handshake. Each greeting was genuine and I could tell that the growers really value Rod’s knowledge and customer service level.
This was clearly the best dressed person at the show. A good friend of Rod’s and a good grower, he went over several pages of the catalog in detail with Rod.

Rod’s wife Linda in the background, but believe me she is an integral part of the booth! She is a great supporter of Rod, and Johnny’s.