I’m really excited to be starting this position in horticulture at UW Madison, as I see my longstanding interests in sustainable agriculture, local food systems and participatory plant breeding finally coming together. Discussions about food systems are starting to include the need for varieties adapted to local environmental conditions, and discussions in plant breeding are recognizing the particular needs of organic and sustainable farmers growing for local markets. There are also many management innovations, such as high tunnels, that open a range of new possibilities for local food systems in more northern climates such as Wisconsin.
One idea I’d like to explore is that of local varieties. In plant breeding, local adaptation means that a variety does well in a particular environment and not necessarily in other environments. Broad adaptation is when a variety has good performance across a range of environmental conditions. Plant breeders working with organic and low-input farmers (particularly in developing countries) often find that modern varieties bred for conventional high-input systems do not do as well as expected, and that farmers may be using landraces or other varieties they have found that perform better in their agricultural systems. Other times, farmers may not put the highest priority on agronomic performance but instead continue growing heirlooms or landraces for their quality characteristics. These heirlooms or landraces may be grown over a surprisingly large area, with farmers modifying their management strategies to cater to the particular needs of the varieties.
There are certain heirloom vegetable varieties that are grown in all corners of the US. And yet we would not equate these with the type of broadly adapted modern vegetable varieties that produce the same product for a standard market wherever they are grown. The difference is that heirlooms are meant to be grown for local markets, and do not survive long distance transportation or storage. While the same variety of heirloom tomatoes may be grown by farmers in Wisconsin and New York, we do not buy heirloom tomatoes from New York in Wisconsin.
It is important to develop varieties that are adapted to local environmental conditions. This makes it much easier for farmers to manage diseases, pests and everything else that can go wrong in a crop. It’s also important to have crops for local consumption, where traits like flavor are given top priority, and less emphasis is placed on standardized shapes, sizes or the ability to be picked unripe and shipped long-distance. Flavor is harder to select for than something like disease resistance because it is so complex and subjective. But we know heirlooms and some more modern varieties are prized for their flavor, whether or not they have all the desirable agronomic traits farmers and gardeners would like. Conserving these heirlooms is important, but when heirlooms were developed, they were not preserved as antiques but were grown, used and adapted to new climates as people brought seed with them as they moved from one place to the next.
This type of local selection by farmers and gardeners is still going on, and in recent years there have been many successful partnerships between plant breeding programs at universities, non-profit organizations, small seed companies, and farmers to develop varieties for organic agriculture. These partnerships usually start on a local level, but trialling networks also exist at the national level, and varieties may do well in multiple regions, or growers may really like quality characteristics of certain varieties and then work to adapt those varieties more closely to their growing conditions. The distinguishing characteristic of these projects is that farmers are interested in varieties bred for high quality in regional markets. So, in the most complete sense of the term, local varieties could mean varieties that are adapted to local production and also adapted to local consumption.