Breeding for Flavor

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Picture: A team of students led by horticulture professor Julie Dawson (center, in cap) and agronomy professor Bill Tracy (second from left) prepare vegetables for the chef’s tasting. The students conduct a tasting of their own to determine which varieties go on to the chefs.

CALS scientists are breeding new varieties of produce that not only are delicious, but also will thrive in organic growing systems. And in a new collaboration called “Seed to Kitchen,” they’re partnering with chefs and farmers to help determine what works best.

By Erik Ness

Chef Tony Miller, Estrellón, takes a seat with colleagues Jonny Hunter of the Underground Food Collective and Dan Bonanno of A Pig in a Fur Coat. The chefs are here to lend their highend taste buds to science, and they start to banter about tomato flavor. What are the key elements? How important are they relative to each other?

Despite their intense culinary dedication, these men rarely just sit down and eat tomatoes with a critical frame of mind. “I learned a lot about taste through this project,” says Hunter. “I really started thinking about how I defined flavor in my own head and how I experience it.”

The sessions are organized by Julie Dawson, a CALS/UW–Extension professor of horticulture who heads the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative (formerly called the Chef–Farmer–Plant Breeder Collaborative). Her plant breeding team from CALS will note the flavors and characteristics most valuable to the chefs. Triangulating this with feedback from select farmers, plant breeders will get one step closer to the perfect tomato. But not just any tomato: One bred for Upper Midwest organic growing conditions, with flavor vetted by some of our most discerning palates.

“We wanted to finally find a good red, round slicer, and tomatoes that look and taste like heirlooms but aren’t as finicky to grow,” says Dawson at the August tasting, referring to the tomato of her dreams. “We’re still not at the point where we have, for this environment, really exceptional flavor and optimal production characteristics.”

Nationwide, the tomato has played a symbolic role in a widespread reevaluation of our food system. The pale, hard supermarket tomatoes of January have been exhibit A in discussions about low-wage labor and food miles. Seasonally grown heirloom tomatoes have helped us understand how good food can be with a little attention to detail.

But that’s just the tip of the market basket, because Dawson’s project seeks to strengthen a middle ground—an Upper Midwest ground, actually—in the food system. With chefs, farmers and breeders working together, your organic vegetables should get tastier, hardier, more abundant and more local where these collaborations exist.

Julie Dawson decided she wanted to be a farmer at age 8. By her senior year in high school she was hooked on plant breeding and working on a project developing heat tolerance in beans. By the time she finished college, Dawson had a strong background in both plant breeding and participatory research. During her graduate education she began breeding wheat for organic systems. As a postdoc in France, she started working on participatory breeding with bakers and farmers, focusing on organic and artisanal grains.

In September of 2013, Dawson attended a conference organized by food impresario Dan Barber, author of The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, the conference gathered chefs and breeders from across the country to talk about flavor. Barber knew what could happen when chefs and breeders talked because he was already working with Dawson’s graduate advisor at Washington State, wheat breeder Stephen S. Jones.

In the 1950s, as grocery stores replaced corner markets and California’s Central Valley replaced truck gardens, the vegetable market began to value sizes and shapes that were more easily processed and packed. That a tomato could be picked early in Florida and ripen during the boxcar ride to Illinois was more important than how it tasted. Pesticides and fertilizers also became more common, buffering differences between farms and providing a more uniform environment. Packing houses and national wholesalers dominated the market, and vegetable breeding followed.

Breeders have at their disposal a huge variety of natural traits—things like color, sugar content and hardiness. Over the course of decades they can enhance or inhibit these traits. But the more traits they try to control, the more complex the breeding. And flavor has been neglected over the last few decades in favor of traits that benefit what has become our conventional food system. “Breeders were targeting a different kind of agricultural system,” explains Dawson.

Barber wanted to reverse that trend, to connect farmers and plant breeders and chefs. It appealed to Dawson’s sense of where food should be going. “Breeding for standard shapes and sizes and shipping ability doesn’t mean that breeders aren’t interested in flavor,” she says. “It just means that the market doesn’t make it a priority.”

New to Madison, Dawson hadn’t met Tory Miller, but they connected at the Stone Barns Center, and together realized Madison was the perfect place to pursue this focus on flavor: A strong local food movement supporting a dynamic and growing number of farms, world-class chefs, and—through CALS’ Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics Program—one of the highest concentrations of public plant breeders in the world.

They decided to get started in the summer of 2014 by growing a collective palette of many varieties of the most common vegetables. Dawson approached the breeders, Miller rallied the chefs, and both reached out to their network of farmers. “The main idea of the project is to get more informal collaboration between farmers and plant breeders and chefs—to get the conversation started,” says Dawson. “We can really focus on flavor.”

When the chefs are done tasting tomatoes, they wander over to a table of corn and cucumber. They are magnetized by the different kinds of corn: an Iroquois variety, another type that is curiously blue, and large kernels of a corn called choclo, which is very popular in the Andes.

These are just a few jewels from the collection amassed over four decades by CALS corn breeder Bill Tracy, who works in both conventional and organic sweet corn. Tracy leads the world’s largest research program focused on the breeding and genetics of organic sweet corn, with five organically focused cultivars currently on the market. He was recently named the nation’s first endowed chair for organic plant breeding, with a $1 million endowment from Organic Valley and Clif Bar & Company and a matching $1 million gift from UW alumni John and Tashia Morgridge.

The support gives Tracy more room to get creative, and Dawson is helping to develop potential new markets for his breeds. Despite his focus on sweet corn, Tracy has always suspected there might be interest in corn with more flavor and less sugar. “We know from sweet corn that there are all sorts of flavors and tendencies,” Tracy says. From soups to the traditional meat and potato meal, he thinks savory corn deserves a place.

And building from deep Mexican and South American traditions of elotes and choclo corns, Tracy sees vast potential for new varieties. “Corn is one of the most variable species,” he says. “For every trait that we work with in corn there is an incredible range of variation.”

The chefs went crazy last year when Tracy introduced them to some of the Andean varieties. “Amazing,” says Bonanno of A Pig in a Fur Coat. “I want to make a dish like a risotto or a pasta dish or some type of salad. I don’t want the sweet on sweet on sweet. I just want the corn flavor. I want savory.”

Tracy’s modest sampler inspired chefs Hunter and Miller as well, and they started brainstorming potential growers for 2016. If the experiment takes off, the corn could start infiltrating Wisconsin restaurants this summer.

With so much genetic potential, the chefs help focus the breeding process. “Breeding is a craft,” Tracy says. “The great chefs—and we have some great ones in Madison—are truly artists. They are fine artists at the same level as a fine arts painter or musician. The creativity is just mind-boggling.”

And there is little question that they understand flavor. “They are able to articulate things that we can’t. We might be able to taste the differences, but we can’t say why they are different or why one is better than the other. The chefs are able to do that,” says Dawson. “And that’s useful for the whole food system.”

A food system has so many pieces— chefs, farmers, retailers, processors, consumers—but perhaps the most fundamental unit is the seed. After decades of consolidation in the seed industry and a significant decline in public breeding programs at land grant universities, many sectors of the food movement are turning their attention to seed.

One fortunate consequence of the industry concentration has been to create a market opening for smaller regional and organic seed companies. They, along with a few public breeders, still serve gardeners and market farmers. One goal of the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative is to systematically support breeding for traits that are important for local food systems.

These small companies develop their own breeds, but also adopt interesting varieties from public breeding programs. They have the capacity to target regional seed needs, and are usually okay with seed saving. “It’s almost like working with nonprofits because they are really interested in working with the community,” says Dawson.

After Adrienne Shelton MS’12 completed her PhD in 2014—she studied sweet corn breeding under Bill Tracy— she moved to Vitalis Organic Seeds, where she works with growers to find cultivars best suited for the Northeast. As a graduate student in CALS’ Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics program, Shelton was a leader in establishing the Student Organic Seed Symposium, an annual national gathering to offer information and support to young researchers focusing on breeding organic varieties.

“Getting farmers’ feedback is critical,” says Shelton of the opportunity to work with the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative. “The more locations, the better, especially in organic systems where there is more variation.”

The organic movement deserves a lot of credit for the trajectory of new food movements. “Organic growers often have a higher bar for the eating quality of produce because that’s what their customers are demanding,” Shelton says. “Putting a spotlight not just on the farmers but all the way back to the breeding is helping the eater to recognize that all these pieces have to be in place for you to get this delicious tomato that you’re putting on your summer salad.”

“We try to make the project practical,” says Dawson. “The food system is so complicated. It feels like this is something we can make a difference with. This can help some farmers now, and in 10 years hopefully it will be helping them even more.”

Bill Tracy puts the program in an even bigger context.

“The decisions we make today create the future,” Tracy says. “The choices we make about what crops to work in and what traits to work in literally will create the future of agriculture.”

To read this article in its entirety, please visit http://grow.cals.wisc.edu/food-systems/breeding-for-flavor