Gathering of chefs, farmers and plant breeders at L’Étoile in Madison, WI
A recent meeting in Madison brought together chefs, farmers and plant breeders to discuss opportunities for collaboration on flavor for local food systems. We were hosted by Tory Miller at L’Étoile and Graze, and joined by many innovative chefs and farmers in the Madison area. The discussion included strategies for finding varieties with unique qualities and the best way to get these to farmers and chefs. We have plans to expand the vegetable demonstration gardens at the West Madison agricultural research station this summer to showcase some promising new varieties of different crops and to host field days and tastings for interested chefs and farmers.
A collaborative of chefs, farmers and breeders presents a unique opportunity to focus on traits important to the local food system, such as flavor. Breeders are knowledgeable about the range of possibilities in their crops, both in modern cultivars and heirlooms or landraces. Breeders also know how to combine multiple characteristics into a variety, such as combining agronomic performance with flavor. They have very effectively combined traits such as disease resistance, yield, shelf life and uniformity of size, shape etc. into modern varieties targeted to whole sale markets, as this is what has been prioritized by many farmers and the seed industry. But there is no reason why flavor and agronomic performance in low-input and organic systems could not be a breeding priority as well, if enough public interest is demonstrated.
Farmers who direct-market produce represent a growing segment of the farming community, and come with expertise on growing practices, harvest, and post-harvest handling that maximizes produce quality. Chefs have already drawn attention to the local food movement, and are taking a new interest in the flavor and quality of the produce they source from local farms, going beyond the farm to the variety and the process of selection. They are able to articulate different components of flavor and quality and to provide expert evaluations of breeding materials and new varieties.
We also have a unique opportunity because of the growing involvement of farmers, non-profit associations and small independent seed companies in breeding and producing seed for the organic market. Since organic seed markets are small and usually focused on fresh-market growers, these companies and farmers groups are able to efficiently produce small quantities of many different species and varieties. This presents an opportunity for varieties with high quality traits to be produced on a commercial scale appropriate to the scale of production – targeted to direct market farmers that produce for local food systems, where these varieties are able to be grown and consumed in a way that maintains their full flavor and quality.
Please contact me if you would like to get involved!