Patrick Dunn - Sep 05, 2017

On Farm Variety Trials: Keeping Your Organic Farming Operation Ahead of the Curve

In today’s ever expanding organic market, the importance of optimizing your farm's production and marketability is extremely important. Keeping up with new trends and studying up on new research can be discouraging and exhausting. But with a little curiosity and good ole fashioned science experiments, farmers can stay well ahead of the pack in markets while giving farms added stability and improving profitability. Through on farm variety trials, organic producers: increase and optimize for yields; identify climate adapted varieties; increase marketability; manage risks of pest and environmental factors; identify organic seed sources required by the National Organic Program (NOP) and most importantly increase security for individual farms as well as the greater sustainable agriculture community.

Seed catalogs list countless varieties, each one boasting disease resistance, yield capabilities and season specific qualities. It is difficult to really know whether a variety will perform as written in a catalog. Additionally, environmental factors such as pest pressure, soil type, climate and resource availability all play a massive role in the success of producing a specific crop. By taking the time to trial several different varieties within the production fields of a farm, farmers can find the varieties that are perfect for them.

Many farmers have their tried and true varieties. Growing the same carrots, from the same seed company, every year is convenient and safe. As organic farming gains popularity, seed companies are increasing varieties offered and promoting new breeding programs in order to fill demand and assist farmers. Therefore, the variety a farmer has grown for a decade may actually be far less superior in the new market. Exploring new varieties creates the opportunity to not only increase yields but also find something that tastes better, looks better and even grows better during a specific time of year.

Experimenting with new varieties also improves marketability by attracting new customers to a farm stand or adding a new component to an established wholesale customer. Bringing unique items to markets is exciting for customers and can set farmers at the front of the newest trends. Perhaps one has had trouble with consistent salad mix harvests through the winter months. Trialing new lettuce varieties to find the ones best suited for winter production or that have a more vibrant and unique look or taste can help bridge the seasonal gap and maintain customer relations as well as increase profits.

Another major benefit to variety trials is the opportunity to identify specific organic seed sources in order to comply with organic certification. The NOP requires growers to use organic seeds except when organically produced seed is unavailable. Trialing new organic seed varieties helps a farmer identify organic sources that work best for them and will help them prove to certifying agencies when a conventionally produced seed is the best or only option.

Overall, on-farm variety trialing gives farmers the opportunity to increase the stability of their farming operation both financially and physically, by further understanding their markets, their land and the environment. Experimenting with new varieties and sharing results within a community and the greater organic farming world also increases food security and strengthens the movement as a whole. The more information farmers have makes for a more successful farming operation as well as a greater and more positive effect on the world around us.

There are many resources out there to explore and find more information about variety trials. For specific how-to guides and past trial reports, visit the Organic Seed Alliance Publications page. High Mowing Seeds also has bountiful and entertaining articles on seed variety trials. For instructional and informative videos check out the NPSAS Farm Breeding Club YouTube Channel. This interview, with an OSA board member on Greenhorns Radio at the Heritage Radio Network, explores the importance of farmer involvement in seed production and trialing. Ultimately, connecting with a local farming community, attending regional agricultural conferences and talking one on one with your farmer neighbors and friends is the best way to learn and share information on varieties for your farm.

Helpful Links:

Organic Seed Alliance Publications:
http://seedalliance.org/publications

Farm Breeding Club YouTube Channel:
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC5rdEz17pAaMt-d8MWsPppA

Heritage Radio interview:
http://heritageradionetwork.org/podcast/greenhorn-radio-episode-118-sebastian-aguilar/

Trial by Farmer: On-Farm Variety Trialing at the Intervale Community Farm:
http://www.highmowingseeds.com/blog/trial-by-farmer-on-farm-variety-trialing-at-the-intervale-community-farm/



Patrick Dunn has been farming for over 9 years and his experience ranges from production scale market farming to community-based urban agriculture. He studied at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at UCSC and co-founded Emerald Street Community Farm and Master Street Farm in Philadelphia, PA. When Patrick isn't farming, you can find him dangling from ropes high on the granite walls of Yosemite or jetting off to the mountains for solitude in the wilderness.

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