VERONA — As heavy rains poured down around UW-Madison’s West Madison Agricultural Research Station on Aug. 20, students, professors, community gardeners and vegetable farmers gathered for the Organic Vegetable Variety Research Showcase — a special event held to highlight the many organic vegetable trials being conducted on the station’s 30 acres of certified organic land.
Speaking loudly over the rain, Julie Dawson, assistant professor in UW-Madison’s horticulture department, invited several university students to the front of the building to explain the various research projects they are involved in at the station.
The first project is being conducted by a master’s student who is interested in heirloom sweet corn varieties and the preferences people have when it comes to enjoying sweet corn. Her project aims at studying the characteristics of sweet corn and the preferences of people to determine the best varieties for culinary use. At her station, she asked attendees to sample several varieties of sweet corn, indicating on a checklist how the corn appeared, how tender it was, how sweet it was and if there were any unique flavors or textures.
A second project showcased during the field day related to work being completed for the Carrot Improvement for Organic Agriculture Project, a collaborative effort between UW-Madison, Organic Seed Alliance, Purdue University, University of California, USDA and Washington State University to develop carrot cultivars adapted to organic growing conditions with market qualities favored by consumers. At their station, students had a variety of carrots in a range of colors, each with unique traits, including visual appeal, flavor and agronomic potential.
The carrot project is in its second phase, and on-farm trials will now begin with organic farmers and organic seed companies in six regions across the U.S. to assess cultivar performance in a number of environments. Input is welcome for this project, with more information available at eorganic.info/carrotimprovement.
A third project focused on bringing together researchers and organic farmers in northern U.S. states through the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative, also known as NOVIC. This collaborative includes researchers and educators from three universities and the Organic Seed Alliance. Through the program, NOVIC representatives are partnering with organic farmers to breed new varieties, identify the best performing existing varieties for organic agriculture and educate farmers on organic seed production and plant variety improvement.
Crops being studied through NOVIC at UW-Madison include sweet corn, cabbage, tomatoes, winter squash and sweet colored peppers; attendees to the field day had the opportunity to taste-test some of the sweet corn involved in this project.
A fourth project highlighted beets; at this station, attendees were asked to select the best beet varieties based on their high or low “earthy” flavors. To determine the four different beets on display at the showcase, the researcher behind this station first surveyed 29 farmers on their preferences, then asked chefs about their preferences. Finally, at a farm-to-table dinner event, participants were asked about their beet preferences as well.
A final station at the field day allowed for attendees to learn more about the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative, a UW-Madison-led collaboration of farmers from the Upper Midwest, chefs from the predominantly Madison area and plant breeders to develop full-flavored vegetable varieties with high culinary quality. The collaborative is in its fourth year, growing vegetables at the research station and working with chefs and farmers for trial runs.
The Seed to Kitchen Collaborative will be hosting its next Farm to Flavor event on Sept. 26 at the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at https://dawson.horticulture.wisc.edu/chef-farmer-plant-breeder-collaboration.
Although the rain kept attendees from visiting the fields at the station on this particular day, the gardens at UW-Madison’s West Madison Agricultural Research Station are open every day from dusk until dawn. Anyone interested in learning more about the gardens or the many trials being completed at the station are encouraged to call 608-829-1162.