telling seed stories, with organic breeder rachel hultengren

CALL ME A SEED NERD and I won’t mind because yes, I’m obsessed with where seed comes from and specifically how critical it is to support organic seed breeders and farmers with our seed-shopping dollars. I’m also drawn to the stories of particular seeds—and not just old varieties or heirlooms, but the stories of new varieties, too.

I recently spoke to Rachel Hultengren, an organic seed breeder who likes to trace stories of seed and the seed breeders behind it. When I was scouting topics for this winter’s Seed Series on the blog and podcast, I came across a trove of podcast interviews with organic seed breeders. It was hosted by Rachel, who in 2017 received her Master’s in plant breeding and genetics from Cornell, where she focused on bell peppers and winter squash and on establishing priorities for organic vegetable breeding in the Northeast. We talked together about why organic seed matters, and shared some of her favorite seed stories.

Stories like how seed breeders try to hurry up the process with biennials like carrots, that normally don’t set seed till their second year. About how a tasty, colorful range of dwarf tomatoes resulted from a giant online volunteer project mostly undertaken by amateur breeders. Or how seed breeders don’t just go for flavor or size or disease resistance–but also “domesticate” the plants for traits like easy harvest of the seed itself. (A story about when that backfires starts in the recording at about 13:37.)

Read along as you listen to the February 17, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

my q&a with organic seed breeder rachel hultengren



Margaret: I was glad to discover your work, Rachel, and what you were doing. And so I want to start by asking you a scene-setting question because I just said “organic” a bunch of times already in the first minute. And I remember asking longtime organic seed breeder John Navazio this a long time ago, but why does breeding under organic conditions … why is it so critical? I mean, why does it matter how a crop of seed was bred and then raised? What’s the difference?

Rachel: That’s a really good question. So, organic breeders are really important, and organic varieties are really important to organic farmers–people who are growing under organic conditions–because those conditions can be very different, are often very different, from the conditions that conventional growers are growing under. So, organic, organically certified growers, they have a different suite of production strategies that they’re using. And so varieties need to be well-tailored to those specific conditions.

Margaret: Right.

Rachel: So, organic growers need varieties that can do well with not synthetic fertilizers, but with managing to grow with compost or other sources of nutrients. They need varieties that are adapted to growing in areas with disease pressures and insects that other growers can spray to protect against.

Margaret: Right. So, you just used the word “adapted” and that’s the key—that seed’s alive. It’s like any living organism adaptive, it adapts over generations to how it was raised, where it was raised, and so forth. And so we want one that’s well-matched to our conditions. And if we’re growing organically, especially if we were a farmer on a large scale, and we’re not going to use chemicals, and we don’t have these tools in our arsenal of chemicals and so forth. We want seed that’s adapted to our conditions, yes?

Rachel: Yes, that’s a good point. So, people who are growing under organic conditions want seed that is produced under organic conditions. But not only that, they need seed that has been selected for generations, like you just said, under organic conditions, so that the individuals that are selected are the ones that did the best under organic conditions.

Margaret: Right. So, I discovered you via the podcast archive that I mentioned in the introduction. It was recordings of a show you created and hosted for the Open Source Seed Initiative website. The show was called “Free the Seed!” And I think you did the series each year, a few of them for a few years. But, before you explain the show and what its goal was, maybe first tell us, quickly, what OSSI is, the Open Source Seed Initiative?

Rachel: Yes, the Open Source Seed Initiative is a nonprofit, that’s focused on education and outreach around intellectual property rights in crop plants. And so they have something called the Open Source Pledge, which states that people using a variety that has been pledged as open source, they agree that they will not restrict anyone else’s use of that seed. And that they expect that people using that variety for future breeding projects will also not apply for restrictive intellectual property rights on their derivative varieties.

And so they have hundreds of varieties that have been pledged as open source, and a number of breeders who are working and pledging those varieties. And it’s an organization that their goal, my understanding of their goal, is to have this conversation around intellectual property rights and plants. Get people talking about why we allow, as a society, we allow utility patents to be applied for and gained on varieties that are developed by breeders. And whether that’s something that we as a society want, whether it’s really fair and sustainable in the longterm for us to have varieties that are being taken out of the common … being taken out of being used for the public good.

Margaret: Right. So, these utility patents that would therefore restrict the use of those genetics in subsequent breeding projects, so that the gene pool essentially of traits that are available is getting smaller and smaller because big companies have … these corporations have bought up, so to speak, and patented all of these traits, in a way. And it makes the gene pool so much narrower and that can be dangerous. It may not be sustainable. Well, we think it probably isn’t a lot of us, yes. [Laughter.] [Read more about plant patents.]

So, OSSI: You did this podcast for I think a few years, a series for them called “Free the Seed!” What was the goal of it? And you sort of created it and hosted it and everything …And tell us about what it did, what it aimed to do?

Rachel: Yes, so I started this podcast a few years ago. And the goal of the podcast is to hear stories about how new varieties have been developed and why they were pledged as open source. So in each episode I talk with a plant breeder about one specific variety. So, I talked with a lettuce breeder, Frank Morton, about his variety ‘Hyper Red Rumple Waved,’ and how he decided to start breeding this vibrantly red lettuce, and hearing all of the twists and turns of its development, I thought would be a really interesting thing to listen to. I listen to a lot of podcasts myself, and I always have time for a good story. [Read and listen to the “Free the Seed!” episode with Frank Morton.]

And so I thought it would be great to hear the stories of plant breeders and to share those stories with more people because I thought that other people might also want to hear those stories.

And so I was really thrilled to partner with the Open Source Seed Initiative, because they have this database of varieties that’s been pledged, and I thought it would be a great outreach for them to have the stories of open-source seed available to listeners. In addition to just telling good stories, the goal of this podcast has been to share with listeners who are interested in where their food comes from, how varieties are developed, and to show that plant breeding can be a really accessible thing for somebody who, maybe didn’t study genetics in college or didn’t get a Master’s in plant breeding, that actually you don’t need those things to be a plant person.

Margaret: Right. [Laughter.]

Rachel: You can jump right in.

Margaret: Yes.

Rachel: And what I’ve enjoyed in all of the interviews that I’ve done is this sense of, “I had a need,” the plant breeders will tell me or, “Somebody told me about a need, and I wasn’t sure exactly how to do it, and I hadn’t done plant breeding before, but I decided to just go for it.”  And so many times people say that they discovered things that they weren’t looking for, and they had so many learning moments in the journey of developing this variety. And so I want people who listen to the podcast to hear that, too: that if you have an idea for creating a variety that doesn’t exist already, that you would like to see in your garden and on your plate, you can try to make it.

Margaret: Yes.

Rachel: And it’s an approachable process.

Margaret: Yes. Now, you don’t just get results or a new variety in like a year or two or three, and especially with certain crops that have a different life cycle. And we’ll talk about that in a second. And I’ll give links to the past “Free the Seed!” podcast for those who wish to listen in full. But I wanted to touch on a few highlights .

You just were mentioning, you don’t have to be professional seed breeders. And in fact, you did a segment with the Dwarf Tomato Project, and I’ve interviewed Craig LeHoullier on the show as well, about this all-volunteer worldwide tomato breeding project, which is pretty wild, that has made dwarf tomato plants their specialty. So, what were a couple of your takeaways from that one? [Below, some of Craig LeHoullier’s harvest from the Dwarf Tomato Project.]

Rachel: Oh that … I so enjoyed getting to talk with Craig and with Patrina Nuske-Small, who was his collaborator out in Australia. That was a delightful conversation. I, personally, didn’t know about dwarf tomatoes as a growth type in tomatoes before I did this interview. So, I learned a lot about tomato breeding. And some takeaways from that were, like you just said, the fact that this was an all-volunteer project, they had hundreds of people who worked with them in Australia and in the United States, developing … now they have over 100 different dwarf tomato types. And so dwarf tomatoes, your listeners are probably familiar with determinate tomatoes versus indeterminate tomatoes-

Margaret: Yes.

Rachel: And dwarf tomatoes—they grow like a determinate, but they grow very slowly and so they don’t need to be pruned, and they take up a lot less space, but they have this rolling harvest, like an indeterminate. And it was really … I enjoyed very much hearing from Craig and Patrina, their motivation for starting the project. And that was to provide people with more options—to provide gardeners with this entire class of tomatoes that they thought would be perfect for urban gardeners and other folks who would be able to grow them in spaces that, right now, it would be pretty tricky to grow tomatoes in.

And so they had these hundreds of people sending seeds back and forth, and making observations and growing out varieties. And they discovered all sorts of things. They had all of these moments of making crosses and then growing the seeds out of that cross and finding things that they weren’t expecting, at all.

Margaret: [Laughter.] Yes. Genetics. Genetics.

Rachel: Absolutely. And so many people got to have this hands-on experience of learning about the genetics of tomatoes, in a way that was meant for … to be really enjoyable and meant to be fun and interactive, in a community. And that’s the kind of plant-breeding projects that people can take part in, and you don’t have to be a formally educated professional plant breeder to do it. [Listen to the “Free the Seed!” podcast episode about Dwarf Tomato Project.]

Margaret: Yes. I know you mentioned it closer to the start of our conversation. You did an episode with a longtime organic seed breeder that I admire so greatly, Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed. And he and I have talked about … We had interviews in the past, and his varieties I always grow in my own garden—and he has a specialty in salad and lettuce. And he was a longtime salad grower, he and his wife, for restaurants and so forth. And then he’s looking out at these big blocks of lettuce, particular varieties of lettuce, he started to see variations in the big beds.

And he thought he had one of those aha moments, and he said, “Oh, hey, maybe I could save the seeds from that one over there, that’s really different and kind of cool.” And a plant breeder was born, a sort of accidental plant breeder; Frank Morton became a plant breeder [laughter] instead of a restaurant salad grower.

So you did this interview about his ‘Hyper Red Rumple Waved’ lettuce [above] that you talked about. And I think the part I liked best of that one, that I listened to, was toward the end where he explains how breeders don’t just try to make the lettuce, like in this case redder and rumpled and waved and whatever, or the winter squash sweeter, or whatever the trait is—the tomato juicier. But they also domesticate the crop in ways by their breeding efforts that make the seed harvestable and easy for a seed breeder to then reproduce the crop. And I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about what he found out about lettuce seeds. Now, lettuce is an annual so it makes seeds every year, yes, at the end of its life?

Rachel: That’s right, yes. So Frank told a story about how he got this wild variety of lettuce, one that isn’t grown very often in gardeners’ gardens or in farmers’ fields, but that had traits that he really wanted in a new variety of lettuce. And he crossed it to a variety that he had. And that season when it was … when the progeny of that cross was going to seed, he went to harvest it and discovered, actually, quite a lot of it had blown away already. So, wild lettuce-

Margaret: [Laughter.] Oops!

Rachel: … folks that are familiar with dandelion flowers-

Margaret: Yes.

Frank Morton of Wild Garden SeedRachel: … and the way that they go to seed and seeing the seeds just puff away in the wind or when we blow them out from our hand when we’re holding them. And lettuce, which is related to dandelion, has really similar seeds that have these little parachutes on them, that will blow away when the wind comes so that the seeds can be dispersed away from the parent plant.

And Frank [above, collecting seed] discovered that all of the seeds that he was planning to harvest that had happened to, because it wasn’t a domesticated lettuce, it had all of these wild genes in it. And that trait of the little parachutes staying on connected tightly to the seed is one of the traits that lettuce breeders many generations ago selected against. In order to save the lettuce seed, you needed to let go of that parachute and let the parachute leave but the seeds stay on the seedhead. And that same selection happened in all of our domesticated crops in some ways.

So with grain, the grain heads would shatter, the wild relatives of a lot of our grains like wheat, they will shatter when they’re ready to be harvested. And so they’ll fall on the ground and it’s very difficult to get grain out of the dirt. So our ancestors selected for seeds that stayed on the plants until they were able to come and pick them up.

And so there’s a suite of what are called “domestication traits” in our crop plants that were selected for, by our ancestors, to make them plants that would be easier for us to cultivate and harvest.

Margaret: Yes. Well, that was interesting because what we know about, again, is breeding for color or taste or something like that, or size or whatever. But, there’s these other critical traits if you want it to be a seed-producing crop that you can then sell the seed of etc. So, that was this domestication in that manner was very interesting to me.

Similarly, you did an interview about this ‘Dulcinea’ carrot. It’s available from Fruition Seed and it was bred with the team, I think, that included University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Irwin Goldman [above] and Claire Luby. And I think that carrot is a biennial, is that right? So you don’t get seed the first year-

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Margaret: … unless you … and they set up, I think, special environments, artificial environments to shorten the time that it takes to get seed. And lots and lots of them, when they started with 140 of carrots that were the ones that they were observing to maybe use genetics from and make crops from. Wow: a lot of time, a lot of work. And then what-

Rachel: A lot of time.

Margaret: What cracked me up was that, so then you want to know what’s the good carrot. And so you pull them out of the ground–and again it’s a biennial, so you have to wait and you have to replant it to get the seed next year. So, tell us about that because you can’t eat the whole thing, because if it’s your best carrot that you want to get the seed from, you can’t eat the whole carrot. You can’t taste-test too much of it, can you? [Laughter.]

Rachel: That’s right, yes, so with carrot being a biennial, the life cycle from seed to seed is that you sow the seeds in the ground the first season and you get the carrot roots like you would pull up and eat from your garden. And then in order to get seed from that carrot, you need to plant the root back into the field in the spring and let it grow for a second season.

Margaret: Right.

Rachel: And that root will put up a flowering stalk and then go to seed in the second year. And so what was really special about this project, is that collaboration that you mentioned between Fruition Seeds and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, that allowed the project to shorten the amount of time that was necessary to get new seeds and to make those selections such that ‘Dulcinea’ came out much more quickly than it would have if those selections had just been made in the Northeast, where it would have taken two years to go from seed to seed. [Below, Fruition co-founder Petra Mann with a bunch of ‘Dulcinea’ carrots; photo from Fruition website. The “Free the Seed” podcast episode about ‘Dulcinea’ is at this link.]

Margaret: Right.

Rachel: At the University of Wisconsin, they have winter greenhouses. And so the way that they set it up was the seeds would go to Fruition Seeds out in Naples, New York. They would grow the roots out. They would do selections and they would taste them. And to your point you can’t taste the whole root because then you won’t have anything to plant, so you can taste like a third or half of the root, and then leave the top half for planting the next spring, or in Wisconsin into this winter greenhouse. And so they would have the second half of its life cycle in the winter greenhouse. Whereas, in Naples, it would have had to be stored in a cooler for all of that time-

Margaret: Yes.

Rachel: … and not growing that seedhead. And I really enjoyed that conversation, in particular, because of that public plant breeding-private seed company collaboration.

Margaret: Yes.

Rachel: And that’s another thing that I wanted to highlight in this show was the importance of the public plant breeding-

Margaret: Of the university system, the state universities.

Rachel: That’s right, yes. Land-grant universities have people who are professional plant breeders, working for the public good. And I really enjoy stories of those plant breeders working closely with other breeders at seed companies and other people who are interested in becoming plant breeders, to help train folks in creating new varieties and even seeds of the varieties that already exist. And the role of … I enjoy hearing when those public programs at the universities are really actively doing this capacity building outside of the universities, because I think that decentralizing our plant breeding and our seed saving is something that’s really critical for our resilience and for food security, generally.

Margaret: Yes. So you’re a super-expert in bell peppers and certain squash, winter squash, I believe. And I just wonder, because we’re all ordering our seeds, all of us regular gardener folks, and I’m going to start them before too long. And I wonder if in those two kinds of plants, any maybe tips, wisdoms, experiences? I mean, I’ve heard everything—like years ago, people used to bury matchsticks for the phosphorus in the holes with their bell peppers. And-

Rachel: I didn’t know that.

Margaret: Yes, I don’t … who knows? … you know all these conventional wisdoms-

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Margaret: … and folk ideas and so forth and oh,  “Always start your squash on black plastic.” Who knows? Any things about either one or both of those crops that you want to share with us in the last two minutes?

Rachel: I guess I would just say that both of those crops are really easy to save seed from.

Margaret: Oh!

Rachel: If anybody is planning to grow them in their garden, they could be a great starting point for doing seed saving on your own, if that’s something that you haven’t jumped into yet or are looking to expand in because both of those crops, we harvest them when the fruit is mature.

Margaret: Right.

Rachel: You don’t have to wait any longer. You don’t have to wonder whether the seed will be mature when you get into it. You can just save the seed from the fruit that you’re already harvesting. And if you are growing more than one variety of that crop, then you could do a little bit of work to make sure that that flower only gets pollinated from its own variety … by taping a bag over the flower of peppers because they’re self pollinated-

Margaret: Mm-hmm.

Rachel: … or, by doing hand-pollination in squash–which I would say I would recommend anyway doing some hand-pollination with squash because there are, your listeners probably know very well, there are two different types of flowers in squash. If you don’t have a lot of plants of the squash in your garden or you don’t have a lot of bees visiting, you might not get a fruit from every female flower, and so in the garden, I know I have to go out and look for the male flowers when they’re open and shedding pollen and physically move the pollen onto the female flower so that I get a good fruit set.

Margaret: Yes.

Rachel: And that’s something that I did quite a lot in a large field-

Margaret: I bet you did.

Rachel: … when I was doing my Master’s, but it’s also something that I do now on a much smaller scale.

Margaret: Well, Rachel Hultengren, thank you so much for taking the time and as I said I’ll give links to the podcasts that you did with all these wonderful seeds stories with seed breeders.

more from rachel hultengren

I ASKED Rachel Hultengren for more places to explore seed stories like the ones above, and that she included in her podcast series, from organic seed breeders.

“The community seed work that Ken Greene and the folks at Seedshed are doing is worth reading about,” she said. “‘Free the Seed!’” was inspired partly by a talk that Ken gave a few years back about Seedshed’s Kitchen Cultivars program.” Ken is co-founder of Hudson Valley Seed Company, and now runs the nonprofit Seedshed.

In addition to the seeds that they sell and the new varieties they’re developing like ‘Dulcinea’ carrot, Rachel said, Fruition Seeds has been creating lots of content for gardeners, including how-to webinars by Petra Page-Mann.

Plus, Rachel gave me a list of other “Free the Seed!” podcast guests whom we didn’t discuss and link to in the podcast transcript above, that you may wish to explore, too. All her podcast episodes are at this link, or free on Apple Podcasts and other services. Other guests of Rachel’s we didn’t get to in our conversation:

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the February 17, 2020 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Alice Peach says:

    I was fascinated by this program.

    I don’t particularly like celery–the stalk that is. I like the flavor, but I hate the texture of the stalks, either raw or cooked.

    But the leaves are delicious!

    I would love for a celery to be developed just for its leaves, to be used in salads and soups and as a garnish. That could be grown as a herb. Better flavor than parsley.

    I’m one of the 10% of people who hate cilantro; it has to be hereditary because my sister describes cilantro as “a dish soap lozenge.” But we love coriander. I would use celery leaves rather than cilantro.

    Perhaps you could send this on to a plant breeder. I’d be the first in line to purchase a celery leaf plant.

    Thank you!

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