Benton County farmer Hank Keogh harvests lettuce seed at Gathering Together Farm near Philomath. Photo by Tiffany Woods.
Greens are no longer just green and they are not just lettuce. No matter where
you live, the best arugula, Swiss chard, or baby beet greens haven’t traveled
far; they were probably picked this morning and delivered to your local market
within hours. But the seed that grew them was likely grown in Oregon. Oregon’s
diverse climate makes it one of the best places on earth to grow seeds. Fertile
soils and mild winters encourage plants to grow and flower; long dry summers
ripen and dry the seed. Combine that with care taken to control cross-pollination,
and Oregon seeds have earned a reputation as among the purest and best in the
world. Almost half of the world’s carrot seed is grown in central Oregon. Sweet
corn, bean, and pea seeds are grown in the drier parts of the Columbia and
Snake basins; seed for cool-weather crops such as spinach, cabbage, and chard
are grown in the Willamette Valley.
Oregon’s specialty seed growers work together to maintain that reputation
for purity. They protect their seed crops by mapping isolation zones around
fields where specialty seeds are grown. Growers use pushpins to mark locations
of their seed crops on large maps located at OSU Extension county offices.
These so-called pinning maps help growers maintain enough distance between
seed crops to ensure that wind-blown or bee-carried pollen from one crop does
not mix with a different crop.
An ongoing concern of many specialty seed growers is contamination by pollen
from closely related plants. So far the voluntary pinning maps have prevented
damaging cross-pollination. Debate continues in the Valley over the introduction
of canola and the possibility of its cross-pollinating with closely related
turnips, cabbage, and broccoli, or sharing pests and diseases.
The issue of cross-pollination becomes more complicated when closely related
plants have been genetically modified, increasing the chance that engineered
traits could show up unintentionally in traditional seed crops. Genetic contamination
in organic seed crops is a particular concern because the national organic
certification standards prohibit the use of genetically modified organisms,
Ordinarily, isolation among seed fields prevents cross-pollination. Crop isolation
also maintains the genetic purity of desirable traits that characterize many
new vegetable varieties, like the nutrient-rich red lettuce and purple tomatoes
in your salad. All of the vegetable breeding at OSU is done through traditional
methods, a process that takes years of selection and careful record keeping.
Traditional plant breeding crosses plants with desired characteristics and
selects the best of each generation. Those offspring that don’t measure up
because, say, they are off-color, prone to disease, or they just taste bad,
are removed as rogues before they have a chance to flower and produce pollen.
Careful breeding and protection from pollen movement ensures that the seed
in the ground—and the greens in your salad—contain no hidden surprises.
OSU vegetable breeders have produced a new tomato that is nothing like its pale, bland, anemic supermarket cousins. It’s purple. It’s flavorful. And it’s loaded with antioxidants—beta carotene, lycopene, and anthocyanin—and with phytonutrients that may help lower harmful cholesterol.
The new purple tomato variety is the result of years of vegetable breeding at OSU; it has not been genetically engineered. It will be released by OSU in the fall of 2009.