Walk through your local farmers’ market and take a look around. Odds are that many of those luscious tomatoes, green beans, peas and corn are vegetable varieties developed at Oregon State University.
Take those sun-ripe tomatoes, for example, the ones that grow large fruit and turn a perfect crimson despite Oregon’s chilly nights. More than a dozen modern tomato varieties grown by commercial and home growers in cooler areas around the world originated with OSU’s Agricultural Experiment Station vegetable breeding program.
How about those crisp edible pod peas? OSU vegetable breeders have changed the way we like to eat peas, with snappy varieties such as Cascadia and sweet snow peas such as Oregon Sugar Pod II. From Summertime head lettuce to HoneyBoat winter squash, OSU vegetable breeders have made it a pleasure for Oregonians to eat their vegetables.
Vegetable breeding has been a part of OSU’s Agricultural Experiment Station for generations, but it really made its name with the dynamic partnership of two people. William “Tex” Frazier came to OSU in 1949 as a professor of horticulture. Jim Baggett studied with Frazier, then joined the horticulture department as a professor in 1956.
Before this partnership, for example, Oregon’s green beans were grown on poles. These tall, viney plants had to be staked up and hand picked five or six times during the growing season. With Baggett’s help, Frazier revolutionized Oregon’s green bean crop by breeding beans that grew on bushes rather than poles. Bush beans didn’t require staking and could be harvested inexpensively with machines. Today, ninety percent of Oregon’s green beans, an industry worth about $26 million, are a result of research by Frazier and Baggett.
Their research partnership lasted until Frazier’s retirement in 1973. Baggett continued to lead OSU’s vegetable breeding program for another two decades, releasing more than 45 varieties and lines of green beans, squash, edible pod peas, lettuce, broccoli, carrots, peppers, corn and cabbage as well as many of the early-maturing tomatoes popular throughout the Northwest. He continued some of his long-term projects, including the release of Legend tomato, well past his retirement in 1995.
But when Baggett retired, Oregon’s processed vegetable industry began to worry.
“We’d been so reliant on OSU’s vegetable research over many years and we didn’t want it to end,” said John McCulley, administrator of the Oregon Processed Vegetable Commission in Salem. “OSU-bred varieties have been and still are the foundation for the processed vegetable industry in the state.”
To ensure the continuation of valuable research, the Oregon Processed Vegetable Commission helped to establish a permanent endowed professorship for vegetable breeding at OSU. Funded in perpetuity, it is among a handful of privately funded endowed faculty positions at OSU. And every year, seed companies, growers, agricultural cooperatives and food processors continue to support the endowment. In 1996, James R. Myers became OSU’s first Baggett-Frazier Professor of vegetable breeding.
Myers’ vegetable breeding program builds upon the Frazier and Baggett legacy with two main focuses: (1) breeding vegetables for disease and insect resistance and (2) improving the nutritional quality of vegetable crops. Most of this work takes place at the OSU Vegetable Research Farm, in rows of experimental vegetables just across the Willamette River from Corvallis. Working closely with students, staff and field crews, Myers develops hundreds of experimental lines and grows them here to evaluate their potential for commercial or home garden markets. Traditional plant breeding is the main tool used in his vegetable breeding program.
“Plant breeding is all about big numbers and keeping good records,” explained OSU horticultural research assistant Deborah Kean. “We begin a breeding program with a huge number of plants so that we can have a chance of getting one that we want, eventually, many generations down the line. Every year we cull out most of what we’ve grown, because they’re susceptible to disease or they have undesirable physical traits. We save seed from only a tiny fraction of what we grow for the next generation. But we have to have a good system of record-keeping and be really careful.”
Breeding vegetables does not bring instant gratification. It can take up to 15 years of painstaking work and record-keeping to develop a new line or variety.
“But sometimes if a trait, such as disease resistance, is controlled by a single gene, then we can have a new, disease-resistant variety in growers’ hands in about 4 to 5 years,” said Myers.
But Baggett pointed out that historically, “most or all of the OSU vegetable varieties have taken ten or more years to develop.”
Although some tout genetic engineering as key to the future of agriculture, Myers says traditional plant breeding—crossing plants and growing out generation after generation of new lines—remains the backbone of his program and the preference of his stakeholders.
“The vegetable industry prefers traditional, hands-on plant breeding,” said Myers. “This is because our processors have overseas customers who have strict requirements about GMO contamination. Until the social and political aspects of genetically modified organisms are sorted out, we will see few GMO cultivars deployed in the vegetable world.”
Myers uses the latest molecular techniques to research the genetics of vegetables and improve the efficiency of the breeding process. But incorporating biotechnology into breeding programs is not for every project, he says.
“Biotech breeding is expensive,” he said. “Traditional breeding is much cheaper.
“Many breeding programs at other universities focus heavily on the biotechnical aspects of plant breeding,” continued Myers. “Graduates of those programs often don’t have any idea how to conduct a breeding program in the field. All their experience is in the lab with molecular markers. Seed companies have had to institute their own training programs to bring new plant breeders up to speed.
“Students who come out of my program are in high demand, because they actually know how to do field work, which is what most of the vegetable industry does,” Myers said.
As a teacher, Myers nurtures the Northwest’s next generation of plant breeders through his OSU course, Vegetable Crops. He brings bushels of vegetables from the research farm to class for his students to dissect, evaluate, taste and classify. Whether it is testing the hotness of peppers, the sweetness of melons or the toughness of root crops, students get first-taste experience with more types of produce than they’d ever find in a store.
As a researcher, Myers continues to improve the quality of vegetables in Oregon and around the world. He is developing green bean lines with better germination in cooler Oregon soils. He’s investigating ancient Central American and Andean lineages of snap beans to improve snap beans for the Pacific Northwest. He is developing improved pest resistance in dry beans by transferring resistance from hardy scarlet runner beans to the common dry bean. He has started to develop a bush Italian “tromboncino” type of summer squash. And he’s working on machine-harvestable broccoli, disease-resistant corn, more vigorous edible pod peas and more nutritious tomatoes.
Further afield, Myers works in Africa as part of the East African Bean/Cowpea Collaborative Research Support Program, to improve disease and pest resistance in dry beans in Tanzania and Malawi.
“In the tropics they have diseases we haven’t even dreamed of,” he said. “When I go to Africa I see all sorts of diseases and problems. I learn a lot. You might not think that it would have any application back here in Oregon, but it keeps me current in the genetics of disease resistance. If we get similar problems here, I’ll know where to go to get good breeding material for resistance.”
Each year, Myers, Kean and colleagues grow and test hundreds of vegetable varieties commercially available in the United States to see how each variety performs in Oregon. The OSU Extension Service publishes the results of their tests in their yearly vegetable variety recommendations and in an annual Extension report, “Results of Vegetable Variety Trials (EM 8777).”
Myers and Kean are both quick to say that they love their jobs.
“I feel like OSU-bred vegetable varieties are like my children,” laughed Kean. “When I visit nurseries and garden centers around the Pacific Northwest and I see Legend tomatoes or our Oregon Giant snap pea, I feel a lot like a proud parent. And it’s fun to go to farmers’ markets and see piles of our vegetable varieties being sold. I’ve enjoyed my work the whole 28 years here.”
Myers says he loves the constant variety of the work. “It changes hour to hour, day to day, week to week and season to season. There’s always something new. And I get a feeling of satisfaction that I am doing something of value to society.”