The Seed of an Idea

Breeding vegetables for better flavor.

January 29, 2014

What gardener, cook, or shopper at the farmers’ market hasn’t dreamed of being able to order up a vegetable to her own specifications? Say, a lovely ivory-colored carrot that actually has flavor, or a purple string bean that doesn’t wash out to gray-green when boiled, or a celery root that doesn’t have a dozen knobbly outcroppings that mean you waste a quarter of it as you pare? You fill in the blank. Every cook has a wish list.

So does every chef—and for the first time, chefs are realizing that they can make their dreams come true. The future has begun to take shape on both sides of the country with two groups that for the past few years were working in parallel and recently joined forces: the Culinary Breeding Network, in and around Portland, Oregon; and, near New York City, cooks, growers, and researchers associated with Dan Barber, who has become the country’s best-known chef who wants to advance farming techniques.


One man has been the bridge between both coasts: Frank Morton, of Wild Garden Seed, in the Willamette Valley, an hour and a half south of Portland. As a beginning farmer specializing in growing exotic salad greens and selling them to restaurants across the country, Morton began to save his own seeds and grow out unusual lettuces—for instance, a red one that appeared one day in a seed flat. With the help of plant breeder John Navazio, Ph.D., senior scientist of the Organic Seed Alliance in Port Townsend, Washington, Morton changed his amateur experiments to more deliberate and informed methods. Wild Garden Seed, the company Morton started with his wife, Karen, now lists 220 seed varieties in its catalog, including 85 lettuces, and supplies many other companies that sell organic seeds. Unusually, all the seeds Morton sells are grown on his own farm. That means his seeds are adapted for the cool but temperate climate of the Oregon coast. Morton encourages farmers who buy his seeds to improve them so they’ll work in the farmers’ own climates. He actively encourages them to do that—the opposite of how most commercial breeders behave.

A key to his international success, Morton says, is breeding on an organic farm. He points to a seed he’s particularly proud of, for lacinato kale, which beat other varieties in various field trials, including one conducted by the Organic Seed Alliance. “It turned out we had flea-beetle resistance,” Morton says. “We’d never bred for that. This is the beauty of plant breeding on organic farms. Corporations are breeding only for the growing systems in which plants will be used, which generally involve a heavy use of soluble fertilizers and crop-protection chemicals like fungicides and insecticides.” On organic farms, plants have to get tough about insects—“they’re not slurping up soluble fertilizers.”

Why not have chefs try some of Morton’s samples, including discards, to see what they liked? In her work with Jim Myers, an Oregon State University professor of vegetable breeding and genetics, an enterprising agriculture researcher named Lane Selman noticed that the criteria for new varieties were usually uniformity, disease resistance, and high yield—not flavor. So in 2010 and 2011, she organized tastings of different varieties of peppers being evaluated in field trials with a group of local chefs. Of the dozen varieties, three of Morton’s came to the fore—and these three, Jim Myers says, “fell out as being really good in flavor. Also, they performed well in the field.” Soon farmers were advertising Morton’s ‘Stocky Red Roaster’—an Italian red pepper bred to have a smooth skin that, after roasting, peels in one-fifth the time, Morton claims--and chefs were demanding them. “In 2 months,” Selman says with satisfaction, “Frank’s pepper-seed sales doubled over the previous year.”

Myers and Selman are now looking to expand initial USDA funding for the Culinary Breeding Network. Selman wants to be able to teach chefs the basics she says they need: “There’s so much confusion due to incorrect information out there,” she says. “What’s the difference between hybrid, open-pollinated, heirloom, and genetically modified varieties?”

The chef who has probably done the most to educate him-self is Dan Barber, of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, on a Rockefeller estate in Westchester County, New York. The property includes an organic farm that supplies Barber’s restaurant. Barber, Lane Selman says, “knows more than any other chef I’ve met. He speaks our language.”

Last fall Barber, working with the Basque Culinary Center, the research arm of the famous Catalan chef Ferran Adrià, convened a group of breeders, including Morton, Myers, Steve Jones of Washington State University, and Michael Mazourek of Cornell University, as well as chefs and writers from all over the world. Among the crop-breeding advances discussed were malted wheats that taste like chocolate; whole wheats that can produce puffy, not leaden, loaves; and the powerfully flavored ‘Honeynut’ squash that Barber and Mazourek collaborated on.

Is this where nonindustrial seed breeding is going? It should be. Once the few breeders left who are not blindered by the concerns of the corporations fixated on short-term profits can watch a chef in action, they can start working on varieties we’ll all want to cook with.

The first step? Opening the doors to the labs and the gates to the fields where tomorrow’s produce stars are languishing, dormant and forgotten. With the help of the researchers and chefs who are starting to talk to each other, new wonders will come to life in our gardens and our kitchens.

Photo: Rob Cardillo