Any farmer can tell you that the environmental conditions they work with are extremely dynamic and vary greatly from year to year. With changing climate patterns, new crop diseases and pests, and evolving cultural habits, farmers have to constantly adapt. The most important factor for a resilient farm is biodiversity, so it is imperative to have a wide range of crops and varieties going into each new growing season. Currently, farmers rely on a dwindling supply of heirloom varieties and whatever modern varieties are being bred by organizations such as the USDA. While professional breeders do great work, they are breeding for a narrow set of traits which may not fit with a small farmer’s specific site or farming practices. It is thus imperative that small scale farmers and home gardeners start breeding their own varieties to fit their own needs and adapt to the changes inherent in farming.
Heirloom varieties are priceless as a source of genetic variation and should be maintained for this reason. However, these varieties were developed in a different time in a different set of conditions and have not necessarily adapted through the times. Thus these varieties are in danger of succumbing to new pests, disease, and changing weather. If we can use the genetic material contained within heirlooms to constantly breed new varieties that adapt to the changing conditions, we can feel more confident in creating a resilient food system. Traditional farming cultures have been developing landrace crop varieties for thousands of years. Landrace varieties are adapted to a certain region and set of growing conditions and are constantly evolving with their environment. These varieties are maintained through selection, which allows for gradual genetic change over time. However, this is sometimes not enough to account for rapid changes such as pest outbreaks. Active plant breeding creates a wider variation of genetics to allow for more of a chance of having resistance to a wide variety of pests or diseases. While breeding is commonplace among university researchers, it has lost touch with the small farmer.
Plant breeding in the U.S. is largely dominated by professional breeders working for universities or organizations such as the USDA. These breeders are focused on developing varieties that are bigger and will store longer, with less emphasis on taste or disease resistance. These varieties are not necessarily the best fit for home gardeners or market gardeners who are more interested in taste and don’t need a tomato or apple that will keep for weeks because they will eat it when it is ripe. Also, small producers are more likely to use a crop for different uses which aren’t bred for on the professional level. For example, apple and pear breeders are breeding for fresh eating apples because that’s what the market demands. These breeders may discard varieties that would make great dried apples or cooking apples because they don’t fit the narrow focus they are looking for.
Professional plant breeding is also limited by its timescale, especially with tree crops. New fruit varieties can take as long as twenty years to be released from the time of the first cross. In twenty years, a lot can change as far as pests and disease go. Luther Burbank, an innovator in the field of breeding, came up with a mother tree concept, which allows for a great reduction in the amount of time to get from a cross between flowers to a fruit which can be evaluated. Burbank grew out thousands of seedlings from his crosses, which he then mass selected from for signs of vigor. The vigorous individuals were then grafting onto a mature tree so they could produce fruit in two to three years. By using time-saving methods such as this, and having a keen sense of intuition, Burbank developed a great number of excellent fruit and vegetable varieties. These methods can be used by amateur breeders to develop varieties on a time scale that can keep up with our changing environment. Plant breeding can seem to be overwhelmingly technical, but it is feasible on an amateur level. With increased education on breeding techniques and a network for exchange of breeding material, small farmers and hobbyists growers can take control of their future by breeding their own varieties. Besides the importance of breeding for creating a resilient food system, plant breeding is fun and exciting and once you get started it will likely become a lifelong passion.
Through organizations like NAFEX and NNGA, I have met several amateur plant breeders who are passionate about breeding and do it mostly because they enjoy the thrill of creating something new. However, many of these breeders are older and there is not as much interest in the younger generation. It is very important that the techniques they have improved on and the genetic material they have developed is passed on to the next generation. Recently, I took a trip to visit two breeders to bridge the knowledge gap between the old and young. Jerry Lehman is a persimmon breeder in Terre Haute, Indiana. He has taken the breeding work of James Claypool, a persimmon breeding predecessor, and created his own varieties through crossing. Fred Blankenship, of Cecelia, KY has been growing hickory and pecan trees for several decades and has been collecting and breeding his own varieties. He often gets calls from across the state of a certain hickory tree with exceptional nuts. He then collects seeds or scion wood from the tree and adds it to his collection. He evaluates these and uses promising trees to breed new varieties. Neither Fred nor Jerry have professional breeding training, but they have both created new varieties that add to the genetic database of varieties that we have to work with in the future. Through collecting the breeding work of predecessors and promising wild material, they have enhanced the future of breeding crops to fit our changing environment.
The best way to start breeding is to find others who have experience and collections of breeding material. They are happy to share breeding techniques as well as plant material and nothing is better than hands-on learning. There are also some great books on the subject. Carol Deppe has written “Breed Your Own Vegetable Verities” which goes into great detail on vegetable breeding and will keep you up at night thinking of all the possibilities. “Partner of Nature” by Luther Burbank is also a great work that will inspire you to start breeding and provide you with some insights on how to begin. Participatory plant breeding will also be very important to the future of our food system but has focused mostly on annual crops. Participatory breeding links professional breeder with farmers to mix the knowledge of the professional with the practical experience of the farmer to get the best of both worlds. Once you start breeding your own varieties, you will be empowered to take control of your future and feel safer in a world that is constantly changing.