Breeding for Flavor


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.”

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Bill Tracy testifies in D.C. on the importance of plant breeding programs

Earlier this week Bill Tracy traveled to Washington D.C. to testify before congressional staff on the importance of maintaining plant breeding programs around the nation.

Addressing a packed room of congressional staff, Tracy noted in his presentation that he has observed a severe downsizing in plant breeding programs housed within our country’s land grant universities over the past several decades. Based on a survey he completed last year, the number of researchers that focus on plant breeding at public universities has fallen more than 30 percent in the last 20 years, with estimates that public breeding capacity has diminished by as much as a half over the past 50 years.

As noted by other experts in the plant breeding field, Tracy believes that these public programs are now at risk of extinction, which would have severe implications for the U.S. seed system and the future of our food and farming system in the U.S.

While private seed companies have a distinct role to play in developing new varieties of larger and more profitable crops, support for publicly funded plant breeding programs allows researchers more independence to complete longer term and riskier projects, work directly with underserved local markets and minor crops, increase food security by using exotic germplasm, and respond to emerging threats, he said.

“The power and implications of plant breeding cannot be over-emphasized,” Tracy said. “By predicting the future, we are actually creating the future.”

Full story at

“We would all go up to Minnesota and we would bite the ears… and we would decide which one we liked the best.”

Photo by John Hart, State Journal

Photo by John Hart, State Journal

Back in colonial times, before the advent of hybrid seeds that ensured every ear of corn in a given variety looked exactly alike and could be harvested and husked by machine, people gathered to do the work by hand.

They’d have husking bees, divvying up the harvested ears into piles and racing to see who could get through theirs the fastest, sometimes to find a bottle of whiskey buried at the bottom.

And — because the varieties of corn were variable — those lucky enough to find the occasional red ear got to kiss the person of their choosing.

UW-Madison Agronomy professor Bill Tracy recalled that tradition while meeting over beers at the Library Bar with some of the graduate students involved in helping him create a new variety of sweet corn — a non-hybrid with ears that don’t all look the same, as most farmers and gardeners these days have come to expect.

“People are going to be really surprised about this,” Tracy remembers them saying. “Hybrid corn is incredibly uniform. Every plant’s the same height. Every ear has the same number of rows. The ears are all the same size. They all flower on the same day.

“And I said that people are going to think something’s wrong with this corn because it’s variable. It’s got pink tassels and yellow tassels. Some of the ears are yellow, some of the ears are white. Some of the plants are shorter, some of them are taller.”

“I said we need a name that actually explains or will help us explain that this is variable and it’s meant to be variable,” Tracy said, adding, “I’m pretty sure I was the one that blurted out: ‘Who Gets Kissed?’”

That’s the name of the bicolor sweet corn available to farmers and home gardeners for the first time this year from High Mowing Organic Seeds (, which also carries two of Tracy’s hybrid varieties, “My Fair Lady” and “Bling” — names that Tracy didn’t come up with.

“Who Gets Kissed?” is the latest in a long history of seed varieties developed at UW-Madison, some of which — like the “Wisconsin 55” tomato and “Wisconsin Lakes” sweet pepper — have remained staples among home gardeners for decades.

Tracy, 60, chairman of UW-Madison’s Agronomy Department, has been breeding corn at the university for three decades.

With Wisconsin the No. 2 state in processed vegetables and usually the No. 3 state in sweet corn production, he said, “The reason the position is here at the university is really to work with the sweet corn industry in the state.”

“We have material that I developed that’s being used by the processors in the state,” Tracy said. “And we’ve also developed fresh market corn over the years as well.”

About seven years ago, he was contacted by friend John Navazio, also a former UW-Madison graduate student and now a senior scientist with the Organic Seed Alliance, who “has been an advocate for what we call participatory breeding, where farmers are directly involved in the breeding,” Tracy said.

Navazio had met Minnesota organic farmer Martin Diffley, who complained that his good cultivars were being dropped by seed companies, which merge or trim their inventories to the most profitable, Tracy said.

So Tracy — along with graduate students Jared Zystro, Adrienne Shelton, Alex Lyon and Rebecca Claypool — spent years creating a variety of sweet corn that Diffley and others could continue to plant year after year.

“The unique thing about it is it’s an open-pollinated variety,” Tracy said. “Essentially every sweet corn cultivar that’s been developed in the last 80 years are hybrids.”

Seed saved from hybrid varieties will not produce the same plant — it might yield one of its parents, or something entirely different — so hybrid seed must be purchased each time it’s planted.

The seed of open-pollinated varieties can be saved and planted from year to year to produce the same plant. While some early varieties of open-pollinated sweet corn are still available — such as “Golden Bantam,” introduced in 1902 — a new variety of open-pollinated corn hasn’t been developed in about 100 years, Tracy said.

There’s a community of organic farmers who want open-pollinated varieties so they can adapt them to the growing conditions on their own land, saving their own seed to plant from year to year, he said.

“Who Gets Kissed?” was developed over about a dozen growing seasons — both in Minnesota and South America — starting with seed from Tracy’s existing stock.

“We’d take seed from an individual ear and plant it in maybe a 12-foot row and we might have 200 rows out in the field from 200 different ears, Tracy said, adding that some seeds from each ear would be stored on campus.

Then, he said, “We would all go up to Minnesota and we would bite the ears from the 200 rows and we would decide which one we liked the best.”

The stored seed from the best ears was sent to Chile to be grown in the wintertime, then the process was repeated.

When it came to selecting which ears to keep, Tracy said, “We wanted ones that were dependable germinators that would come up reasonably well. We wanted something that had good flavor and good tenderness. We wanted something with reasonably good disease resistance. And we wanted ones with attractive ears.”

“It’s basically human-directed evolution. We’re selecting genes that we want for various characteristics and we’re, if you will, enriching the population with the favorable genes and hopefully we’re throwing away the unfavorable ones,” he said.

Tracy and his colleagues tasted the corn raw as it was growing in the field. “The definition of good was if you bit it, you wanted to bite it again,” he said.

“Sweetness, tenderness, mouth feel are not really affected by cooking. What’s affected by cooking are the aromas,” he said, adding, “You need the heat to break the protein and release the smell.

“A lot of our modern sweet corns in my opinion are so good you don’t need to cook them except for that aroma,” Tracy said.

Despite his 30 years of breeding expertise, the question about corn Tracy is asked most often is: “How long do you cook it?”

“I’m not a cook, so I asked my mom, who’s a great cook, and she said the most brilliant thing, at least in this sense. She said, ‘You cook it until it smells like corn.’

“Cause that’s the only reason you’re cooking it. Except for, of course, to make it hot so you can melt the butter on it.”

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Dr. Bill Tracy receives Public Plant Breeding Award

The National Council of Commercial Plant Breeders (NCCPB) presented Dr. Bill Tracy with the Public Plant Breeding Award for 2014. The award is presented to a person who has made outstanding contributions to the advancement of plant breeding and genetics in the public sector. It is administered by the Council through its Awards Committee and Board of Directors.
The award was presented at the American Seed Trade Association Corn & Sorghum and Soybean Conference on December 9.


Who Gets Kissed?


Professor Bill Tracy holds an ear of sweet corn developed through his breeding program.


“Who Gets Kissed?” is the name of a new organic sweet corn developed by the UW-Madison and a nonprofit called the Organic Seed Alliance.

The corn, with its equally corny name, was announced December 5 by the university.

It’s named after a game played at “husking bees” (gatherings of farm families and friends to husk corn, in case you haven’t been invited to one yet). The first person to find an ear with all red kernels – this used to be much more common – got to choose one person in the group to kiss.

“Who Gets Kissed?” was developed after a Minnesota farmer reached out to the Organic Seed Alliance and an agronomist at UW. The farmer was having trouble growing organic sweet corn in colder soil.

The corn took about seven years to develop, according to the university. In addition to its hearty and decidedly Midwestern ability to grow in cold temperatures, they say it is also resistant to “common rust and corn smut.”

The corn is organic and open-pollinated, which means it is pollinated by insects, birds, wind, and the like. Open pollination makes different generations of the crop look different, and increases variety.

The UW will be developing more organic sweet corn varieties with the Organic Seed Alliance, farmers, and professional breeders.

Whether they’ll have as charming and corny a name as “Who Gets Kissed?” remains to be seen. We can only hope.

(As originally seen on:

“If We Understand What Chefs Want, We Can Produce It”

— There’s a good chance that many of the suddenly trendy vegetables that foodies latch on to in the next decade will benefit from research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

While plant breeders at many public universities focus on improving field corn, soybeans and other crops used in food manufacturing or livestock feed, those in Madison want to produce better-tasting vegetables.

The university has long had ties to the vegetable processing industry, as Wisconsin is among the top two or three states in producing canned or frozen sweet corn, green beans and peas. But vegetable breeders say the local food movement has created additional opportunities with a boom in organic farms, farmers markets and farm-to-table restaurants. The challenge is coming up with varieties consumers like, even if they can’t always articulate what makes one ear of corn better than another.

“Apples are almost the only fruit or vegetable that when you go to the grocery store, you see 30 different apples all by name,” said Bill Tracy, a sweet corn breeder who chairs the university’s Department of Agronomy. “We could do the same thing for corn, and I’m not saying we need 30, but we could have a corn that’s perfect for roasting, or soup use.”

Horticulture professor Julie Dawson is leading a project in which vegetable breeders work with local farmers and chefs to figure out what makes vegetables taste great and then produce easy-to-grow varieties with outstanding flavor. Participating chefs receive weekly deliveries of produce that they evaluate on a 5-point scale for qualities like sweetness and texture.

Dan Bonanno, the chef at A Pig in a Fur Coat, estimated he’s tasted 80 varieties of tomatoes — “I never knew there were so many different tomatoes” — since mid-July. For him, the big find has been a sweet corn bred to have a less sugary taste and firmer texture than most popular varieties.

“I ripped open the husk, took a bite, and it was like eating a pear,” Bonanno said. “It was so juicy … I’m like, wow, you can make a very nice sauce or gelato with it because it’s already naturally sweet and buttery and it had so much water.”

Very sweet corn, which most Americans have become accustomed to, becomes mushy when stirred into a dish like risotto, Tracy said, and the sugary taste may conflict with other ingredients.

“If we understand what chefs want, we can produce it,” he said. And, Tracy is confident chefs will be able to sell those new varieties to the public, given how they have popularized ramps, broccolini and other once-obscure fruits and vegetables.

On Wednesday, chefs, farmers and members of the public sampled and rated Tracy’s corn, along with multiple varieties of tomatoes, peppers and melon at a university farm in Verona. Dawson will use the information to see how closely the chefs’ opinions match that of regular eaters and develop an evaluation system that can be used early in the breeding process to select the best-tasting prospects from hundreds of cultivars.

“The flavor is much harder to fix at the end,” she said. “If you have the flavor, the other things are easier to fix.”

That’s where farmers come in.

Mark Voss has been testing five varieties of tomatoes at his urban farm, which supplies Madison restaurants. He looks for resistance to disease and good production, but taste and aesthetics are important, too.

The varieties include a few big tomatoes with bold flavor as well as some smaller, cocktail tomatoes that he’s “not so passionate about” because they “take a long time to pick.” He prefers bigger fruit with thin skins and a lot of flesh — characteristics that make tomatoes more likely to bruise during shipping but aren’t a problem when he’s selling locally.

“I think there’s an inverse relationship between bruise-ability and flavor,” Voss said.

That’s the kind of feedback Dawson is seeking. “Because really,” she said, “it has to work for farmers as well as chefs.”

Read more here:

By M. L. Johnson, Associated Press

Click Here to See Photos from UW Agronomy Field Day

“The corn is probably sweet enough”

On the track of not-so-sweet corn

You might wonder why Bill Tracy bothers to breed new varieties of sweet corn. It’s already unbelievably tender and crisp and supersweet. We just need more of what we’ve got, right?

Not really, says Tracy, chair of the UW-Madison Agronomy department, who has been breeding sweet corn since the 1980s. There’s a lot of things besides sweetness to worry about. And in fact, sweetness is something a lot of people would like less of.

“Modern sweet corn has excellent eating quality, flavorful and tender​. We are always looking to make improvements to eating quality but the corn is probably sweet enough,” says Tracy. “We want to improve disease resistance, weed competitiveness, shelf life, and other traits to make it easier to grow and provide better more consistent quality for the consumers.”

“We are also looking at developing non-sweet vegetable corns for culinary uses. Many chefs and cooks feel modern sweet corn is too sweet for many recipes. In 2014, we began new efforts in developing non-sweet vegetable corns. We have gathered heirloom sugary sweet corns that are prized for their corny flavor. We have also searched world collections for starchy corns that have been bred for eating quality when harvested green. We have Chilean choclos that will be tested by chefs in Madison this summer and fall. Since Chile has a similar growing condition to Wisconsin the choclos are well adapted here.”

And the perfect ear of fresh corn is only part of the equation. Sweet corn processors have very different needs. Processing corns must be very disease resistant and high yielding (tons per acre).

“They must also have very high recovery—number of cases of product per ton, which is affected by kernel-to-cob ratio. Longer kernels and thinner cobs which equals higher recovery.

“They also cannot be too tender because they need to withstand mechanical harvesting and processing. Fresh corn sold through grocery stores needs long holding capacity or shelf life.”

Wisconsin ranks third in the nation for sweet corn production (Minnesota is first) and 13th for fresh corn (Florida is no. 1), according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.



(As seen on eCALS)


It’s All in the Genes: Dr. Bill Tracy discusses sweet corn with Lynn Rosetto Kasper

Listen to department chair Bill Tracy discuss sweet corn with Lynn Rossetto Kasper on this week’s episode of The Splendid Table:

Food keeps getting more complicated. Take sweet corn: It’s no longer enough to buy it directly from the farmer or to pick it yourself. You need a degree in agriculture to figure out which kind of sweet corn you want: sugary, sugary enhanced, supersweet, synergistic or augmented.