Participatory plant breeding for urban food systems
The growing interest in high quality local foods presents an opportunity for local farmers, and a need to focus on flavor and fresh-market quality in addition to agronomic performance on diversified direct-marketing farms. In addition, one of the key motivations for urban gardeners and farmers is to provide high quality, nutritious food in areas with limited fresh produce access. This has resulted in many farmers, gardeners and chefs choosing to use heirloom vegetable varieties known for their flavor. Gardeners, farmers and early plant breeders developed heirloom varieties by selecting varieties that grew best in their climate and that had high quality. Heirloom varieties have recognized qualities, but have not been selected for modern organic agriculture, urban agriculture, or current climatic conditions, including new pathogens or pest pressures. We are working with farmers, gardeners, plant breeders and farm-to-table chefs to evaluate varieties for diversified direct-market farms where flavor and adaptation to organic, urban and low-input agriculture are of primary importance. We have used a regional-satellite trial model of participatory research which allows for more detailed testing of varieties on research stations and university-managed gardens, and more flexible trials on farms and in gardens. This collaboration among chefs, farmers, gardeners and plant breeders presents a unique opportunity to focus on vegetable variety characteristics important to local food systems.
Our results from the first year of trials are preliminary in terms of the flavor and agronomic performance data we collected. The interest among farmers, gardeners and chefs in participating has been much stronger than expected, and the project has proven to be a successful platform for engaging citizens in research. Flexible participatory trials provide a direct link between end users and researchers and are a tool for improving research relevancy and outreach possibilities. We identified several varieties that performed well and also improved our methodology for balancing researcher needs for data and participant needs for actionable information. Based on the interest and results from this year, we are expanding to reach more farmers and gardeners, increasing involvement of community gardens and non-profits working on food access issues and creating an online platform for participants to directly exchange results with each other.