The Culinary Breeding Network consists of plant breeders, seed growers, farmers, chefs, produce buyers and others in the food community engaged in developing and identifying varieties and traits of culinary excellence for vegetables and grains.
Its mission is to break down the wall between breeders and eaters to improve agricultural and culinary quality in vegetables and grains. The goals are to:
- Increase communication and collaboration between stakeholders in the food community in order to create more relevant and desirable cultivars
- Identify cultivars and traits of superior performance, flavor, texture, culinary attributes and overall quality
- Promote and expand awareness of cultivars created by public and independent plant breeders using traditional plant breeding processes for organic systems
- Provide greater access to organic seed and open-pollinated cultivars
The Culinary Breeding Network stems from the idea that plant breeders, farmers, buyers, chefs, distributors and eaters have a lot to teach one another. The seeds for the project were planted when Lane Selman, an agricultural researcher at Oregon State University, observed chefs and plant breeders sharing knowledge during a taste test of nine different sweet pepper varieties in 2011.
As part of her work at Oregon State University, Lane manages the Oregon group of the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC), a partnership that uses on-farm trials to identify varieties of vegetables that will thrive in organic systems. In 2010, farmers were scrambling to replace a dependable hybrid sweet pepper that many feared was being dropped from production, so peppers were chosen by participating farmers as area of NOVIC focus.
Among the sweet peppers trialed were several varieties developed by Frank Morton, breeder and owner of Wild Garden Seed in Philomath, Oregon. In the field, Frank’s plants made an impression on Lane. They had exceptional architecture, producing strong, tall plants with no lodging (falling over). The abundant fruits were a consistent size and shape, and protected from sun damage by a full leaf canopy.
Flavor is a high priority for organic farmers, so organic breeders have often evaluated the flavor of the various lines they’re working on. But breeders aren’t chefs, and those flavor evaluations usually take the form of “bite testing” raw crops right in the field. It’s a romantic picture, but it’s not how most of us eat vegetables.
So Lane decided to tap her connections to the restaurant community and organize a formal taste test, preparing the crops in a way that reflected how they might actually be eaten. Portland area chefs and farmers gathered to evaluate nine varieties of sweet peppers in raw, sautéed and roasted form. Frank’s varieties were found to be superior for flavor and texture, matching their excellent performance on the farm.
But even more interesting was the conversation that occurred following the tasting. Chefs mentioned traits like rounded shoulders and straight walls — traits that had not previously been selection priorities — made for easier kitchen processing with less waste. The following year, Lane repeated that tasting format, this time asking attendees to weigh in on Jim Myers’ in-progress mild habanero breeding project. She presented chefs, produce buyers and distributors with a selection of different habanero phenotypes, including variation in shape, size, color and flavor, and the resulting preferences were used to guide Jim’s decision making.
From these simple tastings, it became clear how important it is to involve a full range of stakeholders in the plant breeding process. When eaters share preferences like rounded shoulders in pepper fruits or deeply savoy leaves in spinach with plant breeders, breeders can produce more desirable varieties. And when end users get a full understanding of the complexity and potential of plant breeding, they walk away with a renewed appreciation for the foods they buy, prepare and eat. The Culinary Breeding Network’s intention is to facilitate more of those conversations and interactions.
Culinary Breeding Network events aim to break down the wall between eaters and breeders by offering unique opportunities to see and taste new and in-development vegetable and grain cultivars, share opinions, and be an active participant in the breeding process. By helping plant eaters, plant buyers, and plant breeders get to know one another, we’re working towards a future of delicious, beautiful, resilient, and diverse crops.