Novel horticultural crops and genetic resources
Chair: Margi Lennartsson (Garden Organic)
Anton Rosenfeld (Garden Organic): Sowing new seeds: the potential of growing exotic vegetables in UK
Anton is currently Research Officer at Garden Organic. He has worked in a number of projects concerned with sustainable strategies methods of vegetable production. This has included the Sustainable Organic Vegetable Systems Network, and a number of projects focussing on uses of green manures and composts to build soil fertility funded by Defra, HDC and WRAP. He has worked closely with growers both in the UK and overseas and is currently coordinating the Sowing New Seeds project which is developing a resource of knowledge and varieties for growing exotic vegetables with small scale growers in the Midlands. He also delivers training to community groups and growers on a range of horticultural topics.
Presentation - Sowing new seeds: the potential of growing exotic vegetables in UK
Phil Sumption (Garden Organic): Genetic resources and plant breeding: reporting from the Leafy Vegetable Project
Phil has worked in the research department at Garden Organic since 1999 (then HDRA). He grew up on a farm in Somerset before studying Rural Environment Studies at Wye College. After working on various organic farms he was the organic grower at Radford Mill Farm in Somerset between 1989 and 1996. At Ryton he has worked on various projects including; Conversion to Organic Vegetable Production, the Sustainable Organic Vegetable Network, Organic Weed Management and NIAB organic vegetable variety trials. He has just completed a four year collaborative European genetic resources project - 'Leafy Vegetable germplasm - stimulating use. Since 2002 Phil has also been an adviser with the Organic Advisory Service and has also converted a walled kitchen garden at Cotesbach, where he grows organic vegetables for sale through Naturally Good Food and Lutterworth farmers' market. He is also on the committee of Mercia Organic producers, the Organic Growers Alliance and is co-editor of The Organic Grower. He has contributed to a number of books including Organic Vegetable Production - a complete guide and Pest and Disease Management
Presentation - Genetic resources and plant breeding: reporting from the Leafy Vegetable Project
Sally Howlett (ORC): Introduction to SOLIBAM
Dr. Sally Howlett is a senior researcher based at Wakelyns Agroforestry, the Suffolk home of The Organic Research Centre. She studied zoology and biological anthropology at the Universities of Durham and Oxford before specialising in malacology for her Ph.D. at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. After completing her doctoral thesis on the biology, behaviour and control of the grey field slug (Deroceras reticulatum), Sally worked at Belize Botanic Gardens in Central America before moving to New Zealand to work for AgResearch, a Crown Research Institute. Here, she was involved in a number of projects centred on the control of invertebrate plant pests and led research in the development of microbial biomolluscicides, funded by the New Zealand Government. She has written and contributed to a number of papers on this subject, and has also illustrated weed identification guides for national distribution.
Sally’s current work at The Organic Research Centre focuses on crop breeding, in particular the EU-funded project ‘Strategies for Organic and Low-input Integrated Breeding and Management (SOLIBAM)’, which incorporates both arable and horticultural crops. This is a multi-centre project in collaboration with a number of European partners and in which ORC is responsible for all UK based trials.
Presentation - Introduction to SOLIBAM
Scott Sneddon (Scott’s Garden): Modern varieties
Session Summary -
Anton Rosenfeld introduced the Sowing New Seeds project (www.sowingnewseeds.org.uk), which is mining the valuable knowledge and seed resources held by ethnic minorities in the UK. Many immigrants were farmers in their own countries, have grown their crops in UK allotments and gardens for over 20 years, and save their own seed. The home-saved varieties show excellent adaptability relative to commercial varieties in many cases; the growers have been good breeders.
Examples of exotic crops which have been successful on UK sites include Calaloo, which is a cut-and-come-again crop used like spinach, and Chickpeas, which are quite frost-tolerant (they are leguminous, but the rhizobia appropriate to them might not be present in UK soil).
One audience member asked whether building supply links with Asian grocers might be problematic. Anton agreed that Asian grocers often have established supply chains involving personal connections and family ties, and new market entrants should tread with care. But asynchronous growing seasons may allow UK growers to fill in the gaps where retailers rely on imports from Bangladesh or other Asian countries, and there are cases where new relationships have been successful.
The Heritage Seed Library, based at Ryton, has existed since the 1970s to maintain all ex-commercial and heirloom (not commercially developed) varieties. For the Leafy Veg Project, Phil Sumption’s group tested 17 heritage varieties (from freshly generated seed) and found that they performed well in comparisons with commercial controls, generally coming top in taste tests and not showing increased disease or frost susceptibility. Given the strong performance of the heritage varieties, there is now interest in finding growers to bulk them up with a view to getting some onto the National List.
SOLIBAM, introduced by Sally Howlett, is an EU project which will exploit within-crop and between-crop diversity to address productivity and other challenges in organic and low-input agriculture, while also working on the development of a legal framework which will facilitate the commercial application of non-standard uses of seed and crop management. A huge range of crops, both arable and horticultural, is encompassed.
One outcome of the project should be more crops specifically suited to organic and low-input agriculture. In breeding and crop assessment work, it is a challenge to identify the most important crop traits for organic and low-input agriculture, and it will be helpful to have so many project partners across Europe.
Scott Sneddon gave a very positive message about the commercial varieties available on the market today, saying that growers are often ‘spoiled for choice’ with regard to plant growth habits, flavour, pest and disease resistance and so on. Given variation in conditions between growing sites, Scott emphasised the importance of trial and error for growers trying to work out which varieties to grow. He has discovered, for example, that no type of cauliflower will grow on his site, but there is a variety of lettuce which can be continuously cut and re-grown from one sowing from April to October.
Scott strongly encouraged growers to communicate with each other about their experiences with varieties, e.g. through the OGA forum (http://www.organicgrowersalliance.co.uk/forum).
- The case for on-farm seed saving: UK growers might find themselves in a more secure position if they control some / all of their own seed resources instead of relying exclusively on seed companies. Scott Sneddon agreed and said that he has saved seed from pumpkins and runner beans and achieved an improved crop from doing so. An audience member said that the German biodynamic movement has made good progress with adapting legislation to allow seed saving and has even achieved the registration of new varieties based mainly on taste. Anton Rosenfeld pointed out that there are some crops for which seed saving remains very difficult for growers, such as outcrossing plants like the brassicas or slow-growing plants like parsnips.
- Legal implications of on-farm seed saving: Selecting and saving seed on farm, then selling the product (not the seed itself) is perfectly legal, even if it involves creating a new variety. This is according to Margi Lennartsson. In this respect, the SOLIBAM project faces unique difficulties because crop populations represent a novel genetic entity, especially when adapted to local conditions, but may have been derived from commercial varieties.
- Variety choice: Supplying to caterers and processors requires different varieties from those used in box schemes or other end-consumer-oriented retail models, and there is a scarcity of information about this. Many growers would welcome a new forum for knowledge exchange, but for it to be successful, participation levels must be high. A grower said that commercial considerations end up dictating variety choice, and that what the grower wants to do is often different from what the course of action forced by the market. For example, while a grower might be interested in heritage varieties, the modern cultivars often deliver slightly higher profits at scale.
- Organic seed: Some growers feel that the choice of seed available in organic quality is small and even contracting.
- Marketing heritage varieties: Heritage varieties can be used as a marketing tool; Scott found that in a farmer’s market, labelling his produce ‘heritage’ generated interest and a willingness to pay more. In particular, heritage plants with interesting fruits on them sell well. Other growers agreed that if produce tastes good, consumers will buy it even if it looks worse, though not necessarily for the same price as perfect-looking produce. The general feeling seemed to be that it is possible to ‘create’ markets because consumers are interested in novelty value; places like markets where growers can communicate directly with consumers are an especially good situation.
- A grower pointed out that commercially available brassicas, spinach and so on are increasingly dominated by F1 hybrids which deteriorate over time, and that groups of growers working together ought to be able to develop a better alternative.
- Many seed companies are trying to develop low-input varieties.
Growers interested in trialling exotic or heritage varieties should contact Anton Rosenfeld and Phil Sumption.