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Where Good Food Comes From: Vegetable Variety Trials

Sarah West

By Sarah West

This fall and winter, we will explore where good food comes from: the net of institutions, organizations, and activism that helps keep our local food community robust.

As farmers’ market shoppers, we’ve come to know many of our foods by name. Gone are the days when a tomato was just a tomato; now we want Brandywine, Purple Calabash, Oregon Star. Anonymous berries just won’t do anymore and we wait in line for Chesters, Triple Crowns, or Hoods. We make the effort to remember these names because we remember the flavors that come with them.

A marketplace of flavor—of vegetables with names—is infinitely more exciting than one that focuses on appearance or price point alone. Diversity brings depth and possibility, along with the thrill of new discovery. Home cooks and chefs alike are attracted to novelty, the next charismatic flavor to inform and enliven their craft. Small farmers and seed breeders help to provide and create that diversity. Behind every choice you make at a farmer’s booth, there are a hundred other choices that have already been made not only regarding how to best cultivate and harvest a high quality vegetable, but how to choose which of a myriad possible varieties to grow and how to select for traits that will attract both farmers and eaters.

Our local OSU agricultural research station, NWREC (North Wilammette Research and Extension Center), has recently restarted an old tradition of public vegetable variety trials. Unlike the secretive work of seed breeders developing new (often patentable) varieties, a public trial consists of varieties already released (or near release) and its purpose is to compare attributes of similar plants. I recently attended an open field day at NWREC with a group of area growers to have a look at the crops and taste the differences. The one-acre site is planted in a patchwork of varieties and doubles as a learning garden for the center’s educational programs (including the excellent Growing Farms course that helps landowners evaluate and develop their small ag ambitions).

This year’s trials focused primarily on the Asian specialty market, with Thai basil, leaf celery, cilantro, yu choi, and gailan. We also got to taste a selection of soon-to-be released beets from breeders at the University of Wisconsin, and still-in-development mild habaneros, a project of OSU breeder Jim Myers.

While the majority of the varieties we tasted and discussed are not the newest releases, most farmers don’t have the time to grow out test plots to compare which leaf celery or cilantro performs best in our local climate. When a public institution (or non-profit organization like the Organic Seed Alliance) invests the time and acreage into trials such as this, it provides local farmers with valuable information that allows them to more efficiently grow and bring to market the best in quality and flavor. Such meetings provide the secondary benefit of gathering farmers to share their experiences and resources about specific crops.

   

Vegetable trials like NWREC’s are open-ended, designed to create a pool of information rather than definitive conclusions. The outcome of such a trial is the experience of seeing varieties side-by-side, tasting them one after the other to pinpoint why one stands out among the crowd. If you have ever tried comparing a pool of samples with a group of friends or coworkers, you know that there is rarely a consensus. A public vegetable trial such as this allows farmers and chefs access to the resources they need to make their own decisions.

   

Doing the slow work of finding out what grows (and sells) best is part of a farmer’s job, and our country has a long tradition of assisting them with development and field testing. Though almost all publicly funded breeding work assists commodity agriculture (and associated big businesses), a small fraction of that work is returning to its roots as a vehicle to enhance local food systems. In a scenario where money and market share are usually the guiding principles, a test plot of Thai basil starts to seem like a good omen for the future.

Farmers markets are a collection of businesses, a temporal grocery store where each shelf comes with a smiling face and a wealth of knowledge about the products they produce and sell. Weíre giving our vendors the spotlight to share more about their role in the Hillsdale market community.