Breeding for Taste with Lane Selman
Today on Rootstock Radio, host Theresa Marquez speaks to Lane Selman —director of the Culinary Breeding Network. Lane created the Culinary Breeding Network to increase communication and collaboration between plant breeders, seed growers, fresh market vegetable farmers, produce buyers and chefs to improve quality in vegetables with a focus on public and independent open-source organic breeding work.
One of the major programs which Lane is working on is the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC). NOVIC is a collaborative effort among researchers and educators from top universities who work together to grow all of the material and breeding lines for various vegetables to see how they perform in different environments. The breeders are looking for traits which specifically organic farmers need, since seeds bred for conventional farmers don’t always hold up under organic conditions.
Lane says that when they ask farmers which traits they look for most in their breeding “great flavor is one of the first things that come out of their mouth.” But she also says breeding better plants is “as much about flavor as breeding for organic systems.” Even though it’s difficult and expensive to test, Lane says they also aim to breed for nutrition. She also has a theory (though it isn’t scientifically proven) that when farmers and breeders are selecting aesthetically pleasing and tasty varieties of crops, they are inadvertently selecting them for nutrition too—she offers some examples to support this theory.
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Lane Selman, agricultural researcher at Oregon State University and director at the Culinary Breeding Network. Lane is also an education and outreach coordinator for Organic Seed Alliance and on the steering committee of the Portland Chefs Collaborative. She manages the market for Gathering Together Farm at the PSU Farmers Market in Portland and is co-founder of Get Dirty Farm Tours, which takes farm-curious folks out to connect with farmers, ranchers, and culinary craftspeople. Whew, boy, she clearly is a busy, busy woman! Welcome, Lane!
LANE SELMAN: Thank you.
TM: It is such an honor to have you here, and it is so fascinating to see all the things that you’re involved in. And I’m just wondering, I know, from reading your bio, that you’re Sicilian and that your grandparents came here from Sicily and went into the citrus business in Florida. So is that what they were doing, then, in Sicily—they were citrus growers?
LS: Yes, they were. They were, and it was my great-grandfather and his wife, my great-grandmother, that came over from Sicily in the early 1920s. And they came with four kids. They had six—it’s kind of mysterious what happened to the other two. One had pink eye and I think they had to leave her there with some family. They came over here. They first went to Ohio, and that didn’t really work for them—it wasn’t the climate that they were used to. They were farming people, and so they made their way down to Florida with just a quick stop in Ohio.
TM: No citrus in Ohio.
LS: No. And then they just proceeded to go to a very swampy area that is actually where Kennedy Space Center is. It’s called Merritt Island, Florida—it’s on the Space Coast. And then my great-grandfather’s brother and his family came over, and so there’s large Italian presence there that is… My family’s name is Cristofoli (?). And we grew up, all of us—I always call it, I use the hashtag when I put pictures on Instagram, I call it the Sicilian Sweatshop, because we grew up, the kids, working with our grandmothers and our aunts and our mothers in the back of the packing houses, packing fruit that was shipped all over the country.
TM: Well, you know, I often like to start out with interviews saying, what brought you to the Good Food movement? But it’s sort of enough for me, to say, “I’m from Sicily.”
LS: Right, exactly! I know, people ask all the time: How did you get involved with food? I’m like, what do you mean? You know, it’s always been such a focus on food. I mean, everyone knows about the Italian lifestyle and what we spend our time doing.
TM: You know, leave it to the Italians to really give this to us, I think, as a cultural thing, that food is more than just stuffing your mouth. How did the Culinary Breeding Network actually come to be? Such a fascinating project.
LS: Yeah, so I work for Oregon State University, as you know, and they are the lead on a big project that we call NOVIC, which is the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative. So that’s Oregon State University; Organic Seed Alliance, which is a nonprofit that I collaborate with that’s up in Port Townsend, Washington; University of Wisconsin at Madison, where Bill Tracy, who is the first endowed chair, is the head of the agronomy department; and Cornell University. And so there’s a large project that we have, that there are plant breeders at each of those universities, that is focused on breeding for organics.
And so what we do is we grow out all the material that they’re working on, so different varieties. They’re not varieties yet, right—they’re breeding lines. So the breeding lines that they’re working on for various vegetables, we grow them out in all those different areas of the country on actual organic farms. So we grow them out at the university farms but also on the organic farms that we collaborate with. So we get a really good sense of how they perform in a lot of different environments that are all organic, right? And so we trial them with varieties that we know perform really well and that organic farmers are already growing. We grow out new varieties and we grow out these breeding lines, all side by side. It’s a very, very farmer-driven project, so we have our farmers identify exactly what they look for in each of these varieties, so that we are evaluating for the right thing.
So that’s been a really fantastic project. We’re in our sixth year now. We have eight years of funding, so we’ll keep on doing that. It is also, I should say, about season extension. So when we’re looking for, like, sweet corn, which we work with a farmer, a fantastic farmer up in Minnesota named Martin Diffley, and he works closely with Bill Tracy, that you already mentioned, who got the endowed chair, to create new varieties of sweet corn. So we’re looking at season extension. So for sweet corn in particular, we’re looking for something that you can plant the seed into cold, wet soil; it jumps straight out of the ground and grows very fast so it out-competes the weeds that we have the pressure of on organic farms.
So we’re looking for all these traits that are specific to organic farmers, that they need. And so they all are about season extension. So it might be broccoli that does well in heat, because it normally doesn’t. So that’s another one of the focuses.
So we’re evaluating these all on farms. We know how they are performing on the farms. And we also have a farmer’s choice. And so this one year, in 2010, the farmers I was working with wanted to work with sweet peppers. They said, “We’re growing this hybrid call Gypsy and it’s getting really hard to find the seed for it. There’s not enough quantity of seed.” It was something that they just purchased every year and it worked for them. So they said, “You know, we’ve tried all these other commercially available varieties; they don’t really do really well for us on these organic farms.” Which, that is a big problem, where there might seem like there’s a lot of choices when you open up a seed catalog of, say, peppers, but really not all of them perform very well on organic farms, because they’ve been bred in systems where they’ve had a lot of chemical inputs—they’ve had a lot of assistance. John Navazio, who’s a plant breeder that a lot of people know about and now works for Johnny Seeds, calls them the prima donnas. He’s like, you’re creating these, when you’re breeding in a conventional system and you give them all kinds of assistance and every single thing in the optimal environments, then you’re breeding a prima donna. They’re not really going to do well when they have to be put to the test and they have some stress, like not enough water or not enough nutrients, or they have a lot of weeds that they have to compete with. So we want to find those varieties that perform really well when they are actually put to the test.
So we decided to grow out all these different peppers to see which ones performed well for organic farms, many of which were Frank Morton’s peppers from Wild Garden Seed, who’s an independent plant breeder and seed grower—Wild Garden Seed here in Oregon, in Philomath. And grew them out, and his peppers—of the nine that we were growing, he had four, and they were absolutely fantastic out in the field, just beautiful. They didn’t lodge over, they didn’t get sun scald, they had nice full canopies. They were just really perfect. They were very prolific—they were awesome.
And so we didn’t have any kind of protocol for how we would evaluate for how well they tasted or didn’t. And I thought, well, you know, every single time I talk to these organic growers, when we get them in the room together every year, the first thing out of their mouth when we talk about anything—broccoli, peppers, sweet corn, whatever it is, what do you want in this—flavor, great flavor is one of the first things that comes out of their mouth.
LS: Exactly, right? I mean, what’s happening with flavor, you know? When you don’t think about it in the breeding process you lose it.
So I said, okay, well, I’m going to put something together so that we’re actually evaluating for flavor. And I didn’t want to be the only one that was deciding whether or not it tasted great or had good texture or whatever. So I was also working back then—I’m not any longer—but I had a long stint of time where I worked for Gathering Together Farm. I still collaborate with them quite a bit. I worked at the market, and there were all these chefs that would come in and purchase from us. So I just asked all of them, like very informally, “Hey, you guys want to get together and taste some peppers?”
Oh, well, what is every chef going to say? “Yes!”
LS: Yeah! So one of the chefs gave his space and said, “I’ll prepare all the peppers for you.” I handed over nine different types of red peppers, and he cut them up, and we tasted them raw, we tasted them sautéed, and we tasted them roasted. And then we had samples that were the visual samples, right? So people could actually see the peppers whole and halved, and they tasted them all these different ways. And they just evaluated them simply with like a 1 to 9 scale for flavor, sweetness, and texture for all those applications.
You know, because that’s what we do, right, at the university? As a researcher, basically my job is to collect numbers, put them in a program to spit out statistics. So I needed that for my job. And so, you know, I got that. I didn’t explain to the chefs anything, what was behind this—not much about the project, not much about really the issue of like the seed going away or being hard to find any more of the Gypsy, which was a hybrid, which can’t just be replaced, because only that one company can supply it. So once they decide to drop it, it’s gone. So I wasn’t telling them all this kind of things.
But they tasted these, they gave me all the numbers. The chefs started just talking about what it was that they liked about these. And it was traits—there were genetic traits that they were identifying. And it was specifically, for the peppers, the rounded shoulders rather than the sunk-in, concave shoulders that you often see in the more like Renaissance style of roasting pepper; the straight walls. They really started pointing out these things that drew them, before they even tasted them, drew them to their preferences. And I thought, you know, mostly it really was being naïve. Like Frank Morton knows this. He worked with chefs for a very long time, he knew what they wanted, and so he was breeding that. But on a larger scale, do all the plant breeders know this? Do they understand this? This was a conversation that I thought, this is where plant breeders need to be. The plant breeders need to be in the room with these people that are using what they—and not that…that we had farmers, we had chefs, we had produce buyers, and we had people from the farmers’ market that were in that room.
So that’s kind of where it started, with this very informal tasting. And then the next year, because, you know, for statistics reasons you have to repeat it, and so I repeated it, brought them all to them again. And then I actually told them a lot more about the project and what we were doing. And they became very empowered. Like right now, chefs are really, really interested in agriculture and being a proponent of sustainable and organic agriculture, and doing the right thing and supporting the people. You know, as we’re seeing more and more companies and seed consolidation happening, they wanted to be empowered to make the good decisions. They’re already going to the farmers’ market, they know their farmers, and it’s like what is the door behind the farmers that are actually creating these, and like creating the varieties and providing the resources for that seed? And they wanted to be able to then go that next step, right, and support the seed companies that we really want to support, just like they support their farmers they want to support.
So the one other thing that we did that kind of started this Culinary Breeding Network was we had them taste the commercially available varieties, as we did the year before, but then we brought them the mild habaneros, which you know about and you’ve tasted.
TM: (laughing) I went, “No, no, please don’t make it a mild habanero!”
LS: So there’s—well, we still have the hot one. So there’s a mild habanero project that’s going on with Jim Myers, who’s a plant breeder down at Oregon State University, who I work with, who is the lead for this NOVIC project. And he… So it was an out-crossing of habaneros in his population where he found some that had no heat to them. So they had all the flavor, amazing flavor and aroma—
TM: That delicious fruitiness and the aroma of the habanero.
LS: Yes, yes, right, that you cannot access very well when it is so pungent, so much heat, you know? So you could actually use some of those and a little bit of…you could then more control, you know—you could add a hot habanero if you’re a huge fan of habanero, like you are, to that.
So he was working on that, but his population was just like it would be a population of dozens of siblings. They looked phenotype, right, the way that they appeared. They looked different from one another, so there were some that were orange, there were some that were red, there were some that were yellow. There were pointed bottoms, there were blunt bottoms, there were crumply walls or straight walls. And he thought, well, he’s like, “Who am I? I’m the plant breeder, I’m breeding, I’ve done all this work to breed, to make sure that has the agronomic qualities, the qualities that the farmers want and that they’re going to perform really well in the field.” But he said, “I don’t know what consumers want. What color do they want? This or that?” So you know, a breeder like he, it’s like he’s making those big decisions on his own, largely.
TM: In a vacuum, huh?
LS: Exactly, or maybe, you know, sometimes they’re down at Corvallis and he’ll invite all the graduate students in his lab. But still, it’s a very small group of people. And even Frank Morton, who has worked with chefs and he understands what chefs want, mostly, I usually, when I do a presentation, I show them, and you know, just standing alone in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of their field, where they’re growing seed, and they’re doing their breeding work. So they don’t have a lot of interaction. So this idea of the Culinary Breeding Network is to provide that, you know, provide venues for this interaction.
And so we brought these mild habaneros. We brought only like three different ones but they looked very different from one another. Those were his most promising lines. And he let, he had the chefs provide—and, you know, the farmers and the farmers’ market people that were there—to provide their input on what they liked best. And that was very, that was perfect for him because he got exactly what he needed and really understood what consumers were wanting. And they were so excited to be a part of the process. You know, this is something that happens like really far from the public eye.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Lane Selman, who I am so impressed with because she is actually bringing together the stakeholders in the Good Food movement—the breeders, the farmers, the universities, the consumers—to all get their heads around what kind of delicious and nutritious breeds can grow well in organic systems. What a great project, Lane, that is!
It is so amazing to me that we’ve been in agriculture for 2,000 years and here we are, the last six years, now bringing the stakeholders together and saying, do we really, really care about how they taste, besides how they perform? It’s just amazing. Now, didn’t all these farmers, chefs, breeders, and everyone just get together here in Portland just this last month?
LS: Yes. So this is the third year I did an event called the Variety Showcase, and we really took it to the next level this year. So it started, I want to say that it did start very much like this. So the first year, in 2014, OGC—Organically Grown Company—gave me $2,500 to put on an event. And the guy who’s the chef, Chris DiMinno, at Chris King—they make bicycle components and they have a lunchroom where my friend, the chef, is the chef—he does special events. So he said, “You can the lunchroom.” Cool, that’s all I need: $2,500 and a lunchroom! Let’s go!
So at the event—so I’ll tell you about that—the event had previously been like 14 tables, which at each of the 14 tables we had a plant breeder. And so that could be a seed company or they sell seed and they’re doing some breeding also. It could be a farmer who is growing their own seed and doing their own on-farm breeding, as people have been doing for 10,000 years. And then also there’s the plant breeders at the universities. And so we did, for the first couple years, have plant breeders that were coming in from Cornell or from University of Wisconsin, and that was about it. So this year we, I did 22 tables—22 tables, and as far as the breeders and researchers and seed companies and chefs that were participating at those tables, 53! It was a ton.
LS: And they came from all over. Yes, we had a lot of people from Wisconsin because, as you know, there’s a lot of incredible work being done at University of Wisconsin in Madison. So Bill Tracy was there—he is the first endowed chair; he is the head of the agronomy department; he is one of two remaining public sweet corn breeders left in the country.
TM: So important that we do this with corn!
LS: Yes. And that we continue to support and make sure that public plant breeding continues to occur. And that’s what the endowment does: to make sure that we still have public plant breeding, for one, but specifically for organic systems. And so that’s what that endowment does. It’s so incredible, it’s so different, [unclear] that’s ever happened.
TM: It’s so needed. With the GMO all around us right now, potentially contaminating seeds, it’s so critical that we start figuring out how we’re going to save seeds for the future generation that are… And we’re losing so many varieties. Isn’t that true, Lane?
LS: Yes. Yes. Well, as we keep seeing consolidation of companies, then it’s less and less choices. I mean, that’s the thing that—that is actually the problem that we are talking about with the Gypsy variety that started this Culinary Breeding Network. And so to me, the Culinary Breeding Network is more…it is about flavor, but it also is about, as much about breeding for organic systems and solving these problems that organic farmers face.
But what we see is varieties that are hybrids—and there’s nothing wrong with a hybrid. But the thing is that a hybrid is created by someone, and they are the only ones that can create that. So when it is decided, when a consolidation of companies occurs, and a company that wants more and more profit from a particular variety, when they don’t make as much money as they want, it might be something like… And Gypsy still is around, but it has happened with other varieties where it’s consolidated, it’s purchased by a larger company, and that doesn’t make as much money for them as what their expectations are or what their bottom line is, right, for a variety. And it might be very important for our growers, but it’s not important for them. So they decide, “We’re not going to offer it anymore.” And once they decide not to offer it anymore, it’s gone. It’s gone.
And so a lot of the work we do does focus on open-pollinated varieties, like what Frank Morton, with the peppers I was talking about, because that then allows us, it empowers the growers to be able to then grow their own seed if they want to, or someone else pick up that seed production.
TM: You know, as you speak, I am overwhelmed with the amount of different topics that all come together in this particular area that you’re involved in, of culinary breeding. But I’m wondering, I know there’s a lot of things that happen in organic production when you don’t use pesticides. For example, they find that antioxidants often are higher. So how about the nutritional side of that? Do you, and does your project, and just the whole Culinary Breeders, are they just looking for taste, or is nutrition part of this as well?
LS: Yeah, nutrition is part of it. And I actually have been working on trying to get funding with professors at different universities to have a larger project that does a lot of breeding for nutritional, higher nutritional content, antioxidants. It’s challenging, because to do that in a breeding system, it’s very expensive to do all that testing to make sure. But it is a major focus of, like Jim Myers has released the Indigo line; he’s the breeder at Oregon State University. He has the Indigo Rose, Indigo Cherry Drops, Indigo Pear Drops, a lot of Indigo tomatoes. And they—
TM: I’ve seen those in catalogs.
LS: Yeah, and they’re beautiful tomatoes. And the ones that he’s releasing, coming up, he just released two last year and there’s another one that’s coming up that I don’t know what the name is, but—he hasn’t selected a name yet—but it’s an Indigo that is green. And they have higher antioxidant levels, yes, anthocyanin levels. And then I know that Irwin Goldman, who is at University of Wisconsin at Madison, focuses quite a bit on breeding for nutritional content. So it is definitely on the radar, and that’s what breeders are doing, particularly at universities where they can get the funding to be able to do those tests, because they can be cost-prohibitive.
But I have to say, there’s a story about Frank Morton, who has been breeding—you know, he’s really well known for breeding greens, and he breeds kales. And I’ve seen, when we take seed from the university and we send it out to organic farmers that collaborate with us, and we have them grow them, and we have them do the selections as to which ones… You know, roguing out, like basically physically pulling out the plants that they don’t like—that have disease, that fall over, that don’t look the way that we want them to, they don’t taste good. Just physically taking those out so they don’t allow them to go to seed, they don’t allow their genetics in the gene pool. And then they save the seed from the plants and they send them back to us.
When we go out in the field and we look at that—say like for broccoli or for kale—we see that they select more for the purple and the blues and the ones that have greater nutritional levels in them, even though—
TM: So the color…
LS: Yeah, oftentimes that is like the indicator, right, of higher nutrition. So I see that other people are drawn to that. And Frank Morton has been breeding kales for quite some time, and he just loves beauty, too, right? And he really does feel like when you taste something and it tastes particularly good and it looks in a way that we as humans are drawn to, that that, you are kind of inherently selecting for higher nutrition.
So he’s been breeding these kales, and he also was growing kale not just for seed but for production that he would send to a supplement company, where they would take it and dehydrate it and powder it and put it into capsules. And I was writing a grant proposal with him once, and they wrote a letter of support, and they explained that… I can’t remember which chemicals they actually were, but in their letter of support for him they talked about how there are three different phytonutrient levels that were higher in his kales than any that they had ever seen and any of the kales that they’ve ever used. So he was doing that without knowing it, without doing the expensive tests, whatever. And he will tell you that he really does believe—
LS: —that it’s just how, you know, when you’re really paying attention to the thing and you’re tasting things, they taste better, and you’re like drawn to the way that they appear, that you’re selecting for higher nutrient levels.
TM: Well, I know that, you know, right now we don’t have the scientific proof for it. I think that those of us who have been organic always have this belief that the things that tastes the best and are the most beautiful are probably going to be the most nutritious. And I believe that science is now catching up with us.
Our listeners may want to know more about the Breeders Network and about the Seed Alliance. Where might they find more information?
LS: Yeah, so CulinaryBreedingNetwork.com, there’s a website. I’m redoing it right now, but that’s out there, and there’s information on there. I’m very active on Instagram, and so you can see all kinds of things, what people are doing, the breeders and chefs that we’re working with all over the country. I try to post a lot of information there. So that’s just, you know, CulinaryBreedingNetwork is the handle there. There’s a Facebook group, and it’s a group and not a page, so that it can be much more interactive so that everybody has a voice there. So there’s all those things. Organic Seed Alliance is a collaborator. They have a website, OrganicSeedAlliance.org.
TM: Well, I want to encourage all of our listeners to stay involved. In a lot of ways, this is the democratization of seeds. It’s creating the diversity and the acceptance of all kinds of seeds, and not trying to lose them but make it more diverse. So I think we need to all stay involved in it. And so please, think about and look for, you organic gardeners out there, some of these new varieties as we charge forward with the Good Food movement.
Lane, I just want to say wow, you are my idea of the Renaissance woman!
LS: Thank you!
TM: It’s been wonderful talking with you.
LS: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.