Tomato Progress

This picture was taken June 23, 2015.

This picture was taken June 23, 2015.







This season has been very busy with field work, and so we have not had much time to update the blog. Today, though, I thought it would be nice to share some of the progress on the tomato project. Headed by Kitt Healy, this year’s tomato project consists of one packed hoophouse and one adjacent field. All told, there are well over 600 tomato plants in dozens of varieties.

The project is an experimental evaluation of tomato varieties for yield, flavor, earliness, and more – just like last year.

So far, day to day work on the tomato project includes pruning and clipping the hoophouse tomatoes, but the beginning of the outdoor project called for more work. The outdoor bed had to be prepared with a layer of compost shoveled and raked on by hand. Planting and watering-in all the outdoor transplants was no small task, and a few days after planting, a team of 6 spent the better part of a day pounding in posts for the outdoor field trellising system. For both the indoor and outdoor plants, the team gathered cut rye from a nearby field to use as a mulch for weed suppression in the aisles between plants. Continued maintenance includes adding new levels of tomato twine to the outdoor plot trellis to ensure the plants stay upright and optimally productive, and of course, weeding as needed.

May 30- Outdoor Bed Prep


Friday was a big day for the tomatoes! We arrived at West Madison around 9AM and immediately got to work. Brian tilled the outdoor plot first thing to prepare the soil and mix in the chicken fertilizer that was spread the previous day. With help from the Research Station’s garden interns, our team measured the location of the 21 beds in the plot marking them with garden stakes every 4ft at each end. Next we laid compost down where each bed would be constructed. One group worked on filling wheelbarrows with compost, and another group transported the compost to the beds for spreading. This took all morning. Following a much needed lunch break, the team worked in the hoop house removing the black plastic laid earlier (we learned it was not OK for organic certification!) and weeding the tomato beds while we waited for the mulch to get tilled into the outdoor plot. Once the tilling finished, we were able to get out there and construct the mounds for each tomato bed by digging trenches and dumping the shoveled soil in the center of the bed. Drip tape was then measured, cut and staked in along the center of each bed. The last step involved laying black plastic over each bed for weed prevention and moisture retention. To keep the plastic in place, we shoveled soil over the edges. Before leaving the field site we closed the hoop house sides for the weekend, and everyone was rewarded with a refreshing freezy pop provided by Terri!

May 13- Planting Day

photo 3Planting day in the hoop house was quite an experience. photo 2The weather was cold and wet, so it was nice to be under the cover of plastic. We began by finishing the black plastic laying job started the previous week by Anders, Wes, Rachel, Felipe and Richard. When it came time to plant, we divided up into a few groups. One group measured out planting spaces using a length of twine with a knot tied every 26 inches, and using a sharpie to poke a hole in the plastic at each planting site. Another group labeled stakes with plot numbers and the names of each of the 42 varieties of tomato and tomatillo we planted. Another group laid the tomatos out on the beds, and still another group planted. I busied myself putting the drip irrigation system together (you can see the water tank which feeds the drip in the photo). photo 4Trial and error was the theme of the day as we forged new systems for completing each task efficiently. We were lucky to have a tireless crew helping to get all the wee tomato starts in the ground. photo 2-1Even a few days later, the plants are starting to differentiate themselves. They vary in height, leaf shape and even color- one variety, though apparently healthy, is certainly more purple than green! I can’t wait to see how the plants continue to express themselves in the hoop house and in the field.



April 17- Hoop House Construction


With the help of the strong folk at west Madison, we stretched the plastic covering over our 88 x 32 ft hoop house. We will trial 42 varieties of tomatoes in the hoop house, evaluating them for yield, earliness, disease resistance, flavor and harvest quality; and comparing them against an identical production scheme in an adjacent field. It took many hands and lots of callused thumbs to secure the plastic on the hoop house with wiggle wire. Just when we nearly had the skin hauled over the skeleton, a gust of wind came and nearly lifted a few of us off the ground! Now it’s all put together and ready for 100 lbs of chicken manure compost, 50 cubic yards of compost, and 252 tomato plants.

Chef-farmer-plant breeder collaborative

Chef-Farmer-Breeder Meeting

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!

Seeds: Cultivating the Future of Flavor

Dan Barber of Blue Hill Restaurant and Steve Jones of Washington State University organized a really wonderful conference, bringing together plant breeders with some of the best chefs in the world to talk about variety development, flavor and local foods.   There were a couple good articles written after the event, so I won’t go into detail here, but please check them out:

Sowing a Change in Kitchens

Mother Jones News

Local varieties

Local Varieties

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.

Research interests

Urban and peri-urban farm enterprises are very diverse in their marketing and management strategies, and I am interested in providing research support for small-scale farm and food enterprises serving regional markets, and community gardens focused on food security.  I welcome input on research priorities and ideas for projects.  If you are interested in participating in research or education projects, please contact me!

Potential research topics include:

  • Early-season extension methods and late-season value-added processing
  • Options for more diversified products and a more balanced seasonal workload
  • Scale-appropriate equipment and technology
  • High-value rotation crops and cover crops for small acreage
  • Local varieties for small-acreage farms and gardens: traits such as flavor, nutrition and quality
  • Crop and variety characteristics for small spaces or shallow soils
  • Use of genetic diversity to improve product quality and agronomic performance, beneficial associated biodiversity, especially in fragmented habitats