The greenhouse tables are crowded with pots of bean plants ready to reproduce. Their buds will soon open and the plants will self-pollinate if research assistant Deborah Kean doesn’t get to them first. Sitting on a stool surrounded by the eager beans, she works quickly and deliberately. The time is right, and she has more than a hundred cross-pollinations to do.
Her tweezers unfold the delicate petals that enclose the bud as she shakes in pollen from the flower of another plant. Then, carefully, she refolds the outer petals and seals them with tape to keep the incubating seed safe and sound, moist and enclosed.
So goes the first step in a vegetable breeding process that can take as long as 15 years before a new variety is released. The goal is to breed vegetables that are tastier, more nutritious, disease resistant, and easier to harvest, without using genetic engineering. Jim Myers leads the process as the Baggett-Frazier Professor of vegetable breeding in the Horticulture Department at OSU. Although it takes years to cross plants and grow out each new generation, vegetable processors prefer vegetables bred in the classical manner, Myers says, because overseas customers have strict requirements to avoid GMO contamination. “It’s demanding work,” he says, “and students who come out of the OSU breeding program are in high demand for their experience in this field.”
Thanks to a nurturing climate, wonderful soil, and a heritage of well-bred varieties, Oregon is blessed with high-quality vegetables. Myers and Kean and their colleagues are working to make them even better, to improve the vast vegetable cornucopia of Oregon. “I get such pleasure seeing these vegetables in the market, or in neighbors’ gardens, and knowing that I had a hand in developing them,” said Kean. Here are a few examples:
Tender and crisp, Blue Lake green beans are slender and up to 6 inches long. Their flavor suggests fresh greens and roasted nuts, the classic green bean that fills Oregon’s fresh markets in summer.
But make no mistake, these beans were made for processing.
One of the most productive discoveries by OSU vegetable breeders came in the 1960s, when they developed a commercial green bean that would retain its summery taste and color even when frozen or canned. Since then, the Blue Lake bush bean has become the industry standard and a favorite of home gardens in Oregon, as years of research continued to improve its taste, nutritional value, and yield. And research continues to develop resistance to white mold disease, which can devastate commercial vegetable fields, especially beans.
One of the earliest breakthroughs was to breed an easier-to-pick bush variety of Blue Lake to replace the original pole bean. Today, mechanical harvesters gather about 93,000 tons of green beans each year, mostly from the Willamette Valley, making Oregon the second-largest producer of green beans in the country, behind Wisconsin. Throughout the late summer, trucks laden with green beans deliver the fresh harvest to three primary processors in Salem, Albany, and Stayton, where they are quick frozen or packed in cans. Processed beans and other vegetables add more than $23 million to the value of Oregon agriculture every year.
OSU plant breeders took flat snow peas and pumped them full of tender sweet peas, and so created a vegetable that kids love to eat. Plant the big, round, kid-friendly seeds during spring break, and they are ready to harvest on the first day of summer vacation. And by “harvest” we mean standing in the garden, plucking pods from vines, and crunching them on the spot.
“This is the way peas will be eaten in the future,” quotes a British seed company introducing the Oregon delicacy to European gardeners and diners. “It just doesn’t make sense to go through the tediousness of discarding the pod if it’s so full of goodness and so delicious to taste.”
In many ways, a tomato is a tropical plant that comes into its full flavor with warm days and nights. Tomatoes love Hermiston and Medford, but for much of the rest of Oregon, cool summers can slow down tomato development and keep the hot-summer varieties from ripening.
With the goal of developing a cool-climate tomato, Jim Baggett, followed by
developed better and better varieties, including Oregon Spring and Siletz. Their breakthrough is the Legend tomato, an early-bearing tomato that sets rich-tasting fruit under the cool conditions of much of the Pacific Northwest.
Legend tomatoes are self-fertile, an advantage where chilly spring weather can keep pollinators from making their rounds at the critical moment. And they are resistant to late blight, a fungal disease related to the pathogen responsible for the Irish potato famine of the 1840s.
“Late blight is a difficult disease to breed against because there are so many different races,” Myers says. If a new race of late blight invades, or the old race mutates, then resistance may break down. So far, resistance has held up in the Legend tomato, which carries on the legendary reputation of OSU-bred vegetables.
Besides snowboarding, winter squash gives Oregonians a reason to love winter. Developed by legendary OSU vegetable breeder Jim Baggett, Honey Boat and its cousin Sugar Loaf are as much a signature of an Oregon Thanksgiving as Bandon cranberries and pickled green beans. A refined Delicata-style squash, Honey Boat is touted by seed companies as “the sweetest squash in existence.”
Organic vegetables aren’t simply the same commercial varieties grown without benefit of synthetic chemicals. Ideally, varieties produced organically grow fast enough to outpace pests, broad enough to shade out weeds, and sturdy enough to resist disease. Organic farmers from both the East and West coasts are working with OSU researchers to develop better organic broccoli varieties for fresh markets. Since 2005, Myers has sent more than 500 open-pollinated broccoli seeds to each participating farmer, who plants them and selects the best of the offspring to harvest for seed that they send back to Myers. Myers mixes the seeds from several growers and redistributes them for more testing.
“Our objectives are to develop broccoli varieties adapted to regional organic growing conditions and engage growers in plant breeding,” Myers said. In return, growers are testing new broccoli varieties that grow well under organic conditions.
Results have been applauded. “After three years of growing broccoli selected
from a mass cross of varieties made by Jim Myers, we may have finally gotten
it right,” according to Ken Ettinger of the Long Island Seed Project. “Broccoli
is not usually considered a sustainable organic crop, but this may change as
the OSU broccoli becomes more adapted to our Long
Island soils, climate, and cultural practices. In the three years of growing this broccoli we haven’t had to use any kind of pest or disease control.”