Research co-op lands third grant to develop organic veggies

CORVALLIS, Ore. — For the third time in nine years, the USDA will fund a multi-state research program dedicated to breeding new cultivars of vegetables specially adapted for organic farms.

The Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Cooperative, or NOVIC, started in 2009 with a $2 million grant from the Organic Research and Extension Initiative, part of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. It received a second $2 million grant in 2014, and was once again awarded $2 million earlier this year.

Jim Myers, a plant breeder and professor of horticulture at Oregon State University, serves as project director for NOVIC, a collaboration of breeders and farmers who work together on developing new organic varieties. Other research partners include the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Cornell University, the Organic Seed Alliance in Port Townsend, Wash., and USDA Agricultural Research Service Plant Genetic Resources Unit in Geneva, N.Y.

Myers said it is extremely rare for a project to be funded three times by the USDA, which goes to show the quality and impact of their work.

“It’s nice to have the continuity, to have a long run like this,” Myers said. “We have a lot of things in the pipeline and they’re looking at us to finish them.”

Myers’ research focuses on tomatoes — specifically, finding varieties that are resistant to late blight and other diseases. The co-op is also performing variety trials on sweet corn, winter squash, peppers and cabbage, targeting resilience to insects and weeds.

Organic crops cannot be raised with conventional fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Myers said organic growers need robust and stable varieties, able to tolerate conditions and fend off pests or diseases that would normally be controlled with spraying.

“You’re trying to use natural inputs, and have a fairly closed system so there’s not a lot coming from the outside,” he said.

NOVIC trials have already resulted in a number of new releases alongside grower partners, such as the “Iron Lady” and “Brandywine” tomatoes, “Honeynut” squash and “Solstice” broccoli.

“Then there are about a dozen things that are coming along in the way of peas, sweet corn, tomatoes and winter squash,” Myers added.

Myers pointed to one example of a sweet Italian pepper, named “Stocky Red Roaster,” that was developed in partnership with Frank Morton, of Wild Garden Seed in Philomath, Ore. He said the pepper helped to put Morton and his company on the map, earning a reputation with chefs in Portland and contributing to the city’s “foodie” reputation.

“In general terms, what I think we’re looking for are varieties that do well for growers and make them more profitable, and then provide more nutritious food to consumers and end users,” Myers said.

This latest round of funding should sustain the program for another four years, Myers said. In that time, the co-op aims to start posting trial results to an online database called “eOrganic,” while continuing outreach through field days, work shops and publications.