Dr. Carol Deppe
Thursday, February 13th, 2020, as part of the 2020 Organic Seed Growers’ Conference
Camas Country Mill, Eugene OR

Scene setting: In a one room school house that has been restored and maintained by the owners of the mill, there’s a little stage at one end, where the teacher would stand. Carol sat on a chair, wearing a headset microphone, facing the audience. There weren’t enough chairs for the group, so some people stood in the back by the door. In addition to Carol speaking and the audience’s reactions, you’ll hear two other sounds: the ceiling fan circulating the air, and the ticking of the clock on the wall just behind Carol.

Names of people you’ll hear speaking:
Laurie McKenzie, Organic Seed Alliance
Carol Deppe, Open Source Seed Initiative
Rachel Hultengren, Open Source Seed Initiative


Laurie – (Over audience chatter) So Carol is someone who needs very little introduction. Most of us in the plant breeding and seed world are familiar with Carol Deppe’s fame and have probably read at least one of her books. Which, I believe you brought with you, somewhere?

Carol – Yeah, the books are up here on the table if anybody wants to look, and they’re undoubtedly at the Grassroots bookstore, the bookstore associated with the conference. And, of course, they’re available on Amazon and so on.

Laurie – Are you on? Is your mic on? Yeah!

Carol – There you go.

Laurie – So these should be available at, there’s gonna be a bookstore at the conference for the next two days. Breed Your Own Vegetables, if you have not read it or do not own it, you should –

Carol – Bless your heart.

Laurie – because it’s foundational, inspirational book by Carol. So some great literature, fantastic experience and knowledge here with us today. Carol’s going to share some music with us, some of her experience, some of her knowledge. We’re gonna go old-school with some whiteboard drawings.

(Audience members woo!)

Laurie – And we’re going to try to leave plenty of time for question-answer. Do you want interaction along the way, or do you want to wait?

Carol – Let’s have people hold questions until the end, but we’ll make sure there’s plenty of time for questions at the end.

Laurie – Can everyone hear Carol at the back?                  

(Various audience members say, “Yes”)

Laurie – Great, alright! With no further ado, Carol Deppe!

Carol – Thank you.

(Audience claps, woo’s)

Carol – Hello, everyone! I didn’t tell them I was going to bring a guitar and play some songs, because that way they wouldn’t have any chance to say, “No.” (Laughs)

(Audience laughs)

Carol – And I’m gonna start us off with three songs, and there’s a reason for these three songs. The first one is a song that goes to the tune of The Stars and Stripes Forever, and it’s We Don’t Want to Eat GMO. And I thought that would be a good way to start us, because the fact is, the thing that we all have in common, whatever our role in the organic community, the thing that all of us have in common is the fact that we are committed to organics, that we think this is a more sane version of agriculture than most of what is out there. And we’re working to do our part to make that a stronger and more vibrant sector of the seed community. We want more – we want more organic seed, we want more organic plant breeding, and we want more organic food out there.

Audience member – Yes!

Carol – So I thought I’d start with my little song, my version of ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’.

(Guitar music:
We Don’t Want to Eat GMO’s
Lyrics by Carol Deppe (2016) Creative Commons License
(Sing to the tune of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” the part that starts, “Hurray for the flag of the free…”))

Carol – (singing)

We don’t wanna eat GMO.
We really don’t care how they tout it.
It’s all under corporate control.
And as for its safety – we doubt it.

We can’t live on just food alone,
But we also can’t live real long without it.
Control of our seed means control of our food
So let’s take back both seeds and food and shout about it.

(Audience woo’s, applauds)

Carol – Rachel Hultengren, who’s responsible for the Open Source Seed Initiative-sponsored podcast is here. Rachel, stand up. She’s going to be recording a number of the events where the Open Source Seed Initiative is involved. Open Source Seed Initiative is having its own meeting on Sunday morning, 9-12, at the, uh…

Laurie –  Alumni Ballroom C.

Carol – Alumni Ballroom C. Okay, so if you have a chance, drop by. There’s a free shin-dig and free breakfast, and you can visit with other people who are involved in the Open Source Seed movement, or who want to know more about it. And it’s a chance for people who are growing seed, for example, to find people who buy seed, especially of OSSI-pledged varieties and so forth. Our idea of an agenda is about a five-minute introductory talk at the beginning, and then we just visit with each other. Because we figure that everybody’s kind of burned out on regular talks at that point. So come if you have a chance.

I will be talking about plant breeding, but it will be very definitely plant breeding dedicated to expanding the organic sector of the market, of breeding varieties that are particularly good for growing in organic conditions. The critical thing, though, that actually comes along with plant breeding is seed saving. You can’t do any plant breeding at all unless you know how to save seeds. On the other hand, you can’t save seeds very well unless you actually know how to plant breed, too. So I thought I would do a song that has to do with seed saving. And this one is based on the tune ‘Scotland the Brave’, and I call it ‘Seed-savers Brave’. Because, basically, most of the commercial seed sector, the big multinational seed corporations, are working very hard to get farmers worldwide – farmers and gardeners – to quite saving seed and just buy it every year. We need to do everything possible to resist that trend. That means growing open-pollinated varieties, when good open-pollinated varieties are available. That means doing trials of our own in order to find good open-pollinated varieties that are as good as the hybrids, and a lot of them are. And in addition, when people sell things like pelleted seed, realize that’s another thing that locks you in to having to buy seed from them every year. The minute you adapt your operation to pelleted seed, you, at that point, are subordinate to big commercial seed companies that can produce pelleted seed from then on.

So, anyway, this ‘Seed-Savers Brave’, of course, has got Open Source Seed Initiative in it, and, you know, if you invite me to give a talk you’re stuck with hearing a lot about Open Source Seed Initiative. I don’t apologize for that.

(Audience laughs)

(Guitar music:
Seed Savers Brave (AKA “The Free the Seed Song”)
Lyrics by Carol Deppe (2015)Creative Commons License
(Sing to the tune of “Scotland the Brave”)
Capo 2nd fret: chord forms G, C, D7.))

Carol (singing)
We are the bold seed savers.
We are the planet changers.
Join in our noble labors.
Grow OSSI seed.

Let OSSI be a fertile haven.
Tolerate no corporations,
that with chains of patents craven,
threatens our seed.

Let OSSI be fertile haven.
Tolerate no corporations,
that with laws and litigation,
threatens our seed.

Let OSSI spread to every nation,
every farm and every station,
Let the OSSI pledge, so sacred,
protect our seed.

We are the bold seed savers.
We are the planet changers.
Join in our noble labors.
Grow OSSI seed.

Let OSSI spread to every nation,
every farm and every station.
Let the OSSI pledge, so sacred,
protect our seed.

(Audience applauds)

Carol – So when you do your seed saving, when you learn seed saving, when you apply plant breeding in order to do better seed saving – when you’re doing plant breeding, seed saving is essential for it – think of it in those terms. There’s a multi-, mega-national corporate movement trying to strip you of the knowledge and the practice of saving seed. And it’s our job to resist and reverse that.

The third song I’m gonna do is not… it has to do with growing beans, ‘cause I’m gonna be talking about growing beans. And I think everybody should grow beans, everybody should grow dry beans and every other kind of bean there is. It’s such fun, it’s so easy, uh, a number of my plant breeding projects are beans. I didn’t plan it that way.         A lot of time beans will just kind of breed themselves, and all you have to do is sort of notice what they’re thinking of doing and just help them along a little bit. A lot of plant breeding projects are a lot of work; a lot of bean breeding projects are really pretty easy.

I thought I’d talk about… How many people here are either Pacific Northwest or California? Dry summer place? Okay. This is an absolutely marvelous place to grow dry beans. I think all of you that raised your hands should be growing dry beans. Usually, when we’re thinking in terms of staple crops, very often we’re talking about corn. And I grow corn too, flint and flour corns. However, the beans are actually a whole lot easier in a lot of ways. Corn is not really all that well adapted to places that have got very little summer heat and have got frigid nights. There are plenty of heirloom bean varieties that actually think that that’s just a really fine way to grow. A major trick in doing well at growing dry beans in our area is realizing that you want to do is plant your beans somewhere where you can cut the irrigation off. In other words, don’t mix it into an irrigated garden, where you’re going to have to irrigate the garden all the way through August. That way, just as the beans start drying down – some of the pods start drying down… because once pods have dried down, once they get rained on, they’re subject to molding. So we can produce a quality of bean seed that is outstanding compared to what can be done in most of the rest of the world, because mostly it just doesn’t rain in the summer, and we either dry farm our beans, or if we irrigate them we can irrigate them up to about August 1st then cut the water off on them.

There’s some details in this song – this song is based on the song ‘Deep River Blues’, and it’s ‘Bean Growing Blues’, of course. (Audience members chuckle) And it’s got some details in it I’m going to come back to. Now, let’s see if I can do this. This is sort of a stretch for me.

(Guitar music:
Bean Growing Blues
Carol Deppe
Lyrics Copyright: January 1, 2020 Creative Commons License
Tune: Deep River Blues)

Carol – (singing)

Let it rain, let it pour.
‘Cause we’re already in the door.
We got them bean growin’ blues.
Let that rain come driving down,
‘cause our bean seed’s all in the ground.
We got them bean growin’ blues

First we till. Then we sow.
Weed and water, watch ‘em grow.
We got them bean growin’ blues.
Four inches high, time to thin.
Unless the cucumber beetles get ‘em…

(Pauses, sighs, audience chuckles, Carol chuckles)

In which case we got to plant ‘em all over again…

(Audience chuckles)

We got them bean growin’ blues.

August first. We stop irrigatin’.
Our plants are drying down. We’re just waitin’.
We got them bean growin’ blues.
Cut the plants, get ‘em in before the rain,
or the whole covfefe crop will be down the drain.
We got them bean growin’ blues.

Let it rain, we don’t give a darn.
Our bean plants are all in the barn.
We got them bean growin’ blues.

(Guitar music ends)

(Audience applauds)

I started to say that Rachel was going to be recording a session of folks associated with OSSI, and give us a few weeks and the songs will probably be up on the website. The OSSI fight songs, which include two of those and three others.

Okay, so. Why do we plant breed? There’s two major goals involved in breeding plants, there’re two major purposes you might have for breeding plants. One is that you want to take some material, a variety, and you want to change it. Develop something new out of it. The other is that you want to take a variety and not change it. You don’t want something new, you like the variety the way it is. In order to develop something new, you need to do plant breeding. And in order to avoid accidentally producing something new and ruining your established variety, you need to do plant breeding.

So, when it comes to breeding for organics, there are a bunch of approaches. And a lot of times, people think in terms of , “Oh, we need resistance for this specific disease and that specific disease,” and sometimes, in fact, that’s true. But a lot of times, we can take a much more generalized approach. If we breed for extreme, fast growth and vigor on organic soil, basically the plant can just outrun all the problems. So you can actually not have to breed for specific resistances in a lot of cases. There’s still some specific things you might need, but… So that’s one approach, is to just have plants that are so well adapted to growing in an organic system, and are so well adapted to your region, that they just jump out of the ground. You can plant whatever hybrids you want next to them, and the hybrids will look like wimps.

Now, you see, I’m saying something different from what you usually hear, here. ‘Cause people are usually trying to say, “Oh, we want to be able to breed stuff that’s organic-adapted that does as well as the hybrids.” And I say, “Bullshit. We can beat the hell out of the hybrids. That’s a low bar. We can do a whole lot better than that.” But it requires us taking our organic plant breeding to a different level. Now, I think one of the things that that requires is, uh, different and more powerful selections specifically for organic systems. I think another thing that it requires is paying appropriate attention to the issue of genetic heterogeneity in plants. The problem as it stands now is that varieties that are sold commercially are generally very inbred. And this is particularly a problem with varieties such as squash, for example, where, in order to develop something that is uniform enough to meet the standards for being able to put intellectual property on them, like Plant Variety Protection, the plants have got to be uniform. The leaf form has got to be uniform, everything’s got to be uniform. All that uniformity is not necessary if what you care about is the fruit. In order to market the fruit, you probably are going to need uniformity for the fruit and for flavor. But you… And you’ll need uniformity for some agronomical characteristics in order to be able to grow it easily. But you don’t necessarily need – and are harmed, in fact, by breeding for – uniformity for every possible trait.

So I’m going to talk a little bit about some of my own plant breeding projects, and illustrate these ideas in the course of these projects. I’m going to start with beans, and that’s why I wanted to get you all fired up about beans. I’ve ended up getting fiercely committed to cowpea breeding. Now, this is not something that I actually spent my childhood and my young adult life thinking, “Oh, I want more than anything else to breed cowpeas in the maritime Northwest, where no one even knows how to use cowpeas.” (Audience laughs) And where, basically, nobody grows cowpeas. No, that’s not how it happened. I was looking for, I was just trying a whole lot of beans, different species, and obviously one of the ways you can diversify with respect to your legume crops and diversify with respect to your overall farming patterns is to grow legumes throughout the year so you’re growing different legumes in different niches. Some of them you’re overwintering, like you could overwinter your Fava beans, for example. And then you’ve got the Phaseolus vulgaris, the common beans that you could grow in the summer. And, well, the beans – even the beans that supposedly are relatively inbreeding – have a tendency to cross, especially if you have got an organic garden or farm, especially a long-term organic garden or farm. Most of the isolation distances are from university fields that are relatively sterile and have very low insect diversity and insect pressure. So they can… When I first started working with beans here, back when Jim Baggett was the plant breeder, his standard isolation was three feet apart. You know, just enough, six feet apart, something like that. Just enough to keep from physically mixing the beans together. Well, I pretty rapidly found that just about everything crossed at that distance. In fact, I could get crosses of beans to start breeding projects with by just interplanting them. I would almost always get crosses. So I got involved in cowpea breeding ‘cause I thought it would just be nice to have another species. I had spent some, a piece of my childhood in Georgia, and so I was familiar with eating cowpeas. I thought, “Well, that would be nice. Let’s just look for all the earliest cowpeas varieties you can find, and see if they can live here.”  Well, the very earliest variety of the ones that I tried was called ‘Lady Pea’, and it’s a little white cowpea. The pod’s about that long (holds hand up with fingers apart). And it’s sort of a bush type. It had runners, but they were short enough that you could call the whole thing a bush. It was still too late to finish before the rainy season started, and from my point of view, I really want my dry beans to finish off in August, so I’m not irrigated at that point. When you cut the irrigation off, it helps the plants dry down quickly and just ripen all the rest of their pods all at once. And you don’t have the problem with moldy pods and stuff you’ve got when you’re growing a longer season bean into the rainy season. So I considered the beginning of the rainy season as the cut-off. It’s not very practical, it takes a lot more work to grow dry beans if you’re going to have to grow them into the rainy season. So this one, the earliest cowpea variety that I could find, this ‘Lady Pea’, as it’s called – these are also known as ‘southern peas’ – was still a couple of weeks too late. I came and looked at the plants a couple weeks into the rainy season, and they were still green. Except for one plant. One. (Laughs) You know, out of maybe a hundred plants or so. Well, now, if you’re an optimistic, a cheerfully optimistic person, you immediately say, “That’s probably a dynamite new mutation to something that’s earlier.” If you’re a 73-year-old, or even back at that point, maybe a 53-year-old old codger who’s somewhat cynical, you say to yourself, “Fifty-fifty, that thing’s diseased. It died because the disease killed it off.” (Laughs)

So the first thing that you do is look at the plant and you say, “Why are you early?” You know, you want to see what its productivity is like compared to the later plants. I’m not talking about trying to measure anything, because you’re talking about comparing one plant to the rest. But the question is: Is this a disease? Well, diseases are – viral diseases, the Willamette Valley is famous for its aphid-transmitted viral, legume-virus diseases. So it would not be very surprising if it had a virus disease. Sometimes you could see signs of viral disease by distinctive patterns, like mosaics or marks or wrinkled leaves or something like that. But even if the symptoms are completely invisible, there’s one thing that’s pretty distinctively true. And that is, if the plant is seriously diseased, it doesn’t yield well. So the first question was: how’s it doing in terms of yield? Well it had almost the same amount of beans on it and almost the same weight of beans on it as the plants that were a couple weeks later. You know, slightly less, as you might expect with a bean that’s a couple of weeks earlier.

That two weeks made all the difference in terms of making this practical. So the next question: is this, uh, could it have been earlier because something nipped the root off, so it died faster at that point? Is this genetic? So you know, the first thing you do… Now, if you’ve got no curiosity, what you do is you simply dig under the whole planting, because one bean plant out of a hundred, you know, obviously this variety is not what you want. If you’ve got a little bit of curiosity, what you do is the opposite. You say, “Well, I’ll save the seed from that one, and dig under all the rest.” This is called selection. Sometimes selection is very sophisticated. Sometimes selection is just, “Well, I saved the seed out of that one because it was the only one to produce seed.” That sort of thing happens all the time. So my sophisticated genetic selection program was – there was only one plant that produced seed, so I saved it! (Laughs)

Okay, so I planted it out the next year. Well, all of the plants finished off their seed in August. So I grew it a few years just increasing the amount of total seed available. And each year, I discarded maybe, or ate, the half the plants that were later, and kept the half the plants that were earlier. You know, each time inspecting and making sure that the yield of each of the plants that I was keeping was good. Easiest plant breeding project I ever did. You know, it was pure breeding at that point. Obviously, what had happened is: there’d been a recessive mutation, made the plant a little bit more determinate, and that made it a little bit less of a short-vine plant, and a little bit more of a bush. So then, of course, I needed to come up with some sort of jazzy name, so I called it ‘Fast Lady’, instead of ‘Lady’. So it’s ‘Fast Lady Northern-Southern Pea’ instead of ‘Lady Southern Pea’. That’s sold by a number of seed companies now, including Fedco. It turns out to be – it was southern adapted to start with, it tolerates cold nights better than most, so it actually grows in New England. And it’s sold by Southern Exposure (Seed Exchange) because the people, it… They have dozens of cowpeas, and it’s their very earliest cowpea, and that means it can be grown by south-easterners in the Appalachian Mountains, you know, where they have cold weather, too.

It was just a simple matter of saving seed from one bean plant. All I was looking for is a variety that would develop seed here. Sometimes plant breeding is exactly that easy. So this bean has actually extended the range for production of, you know, practical production of cowpeas. And it would be very nice if I could say, “Well, that’s because I’m so smart and sophisticated as a plant breeder.” (Laughs) But it wasn’t my idea at all! (Laughs) It’s just one of those things that happens. That’s one of the main things that a plant breeder needs to do, is to be opportunistic. Appropriately opportunistic. You never know, when you see an odd plant, in fact, whether that’s actually genetic at all. Because you could have gotten a little bit of spray from the neighbor’s, so it got some herbicides on it and it, you know, is looking funny because of that. Plenty of times things will show up that, they might have a genetic component to it, but it’s pretty vague and it doesn’t show up consistently and so it’s not something you can depend on.

The other bean project I want to tell you about – I really, really wish I could take full credit for this one, but again, it was another thing that was pretty much just an accident. I was going… I was just trying to do a seed increase on black tepary, which is a bean that I had got from Alan Kapular. One of the few tepary beans, supposedly, that grows here. And I was simultaneously doing a seed increase on one of my very favorite heirloom varieties. Actually my very favorite heirloom variety is an Argentine heirloom called ‘Gaucho’. It’s a yellow bean that yields very well and it’s very early and has got a full, rich flavor. And so I had a little patch, about 15 by 15 of black tepary beans, completely different species, and this ‘Gaucho’, this common bean. And the next year I took my yellow beans and planted those out, and I got about 5% plants that had black beans on them. And I said, “Whoops”.  (Laughs) Well, I’m not much of a plant taxonomist, so I took my supposed black tepary bean, and gave it to a couple different people, one of them being Jim Meyers at OSU, to look at the flower anatomy and tell me whether this was really a tepary bean or not. And one of them said, “Well, looks like a tepary bean to me.” And Jim Meyers said, “Well, you know, the flowers look sort of somewhere in between a tepary bean and a common bean.” But he figured it was a common bean. That’s a matter of interpretation. I think what happened was that there was a spontaneous cross between those two species at some point in the past. In the long distant past. And what I got as black tepary was mostly common bean at this point. Well, I continued to increase the seed. The second and third generation I got seeds that was a mix of all the colors that you might imagine from the cross that I speculated had happened. That is, I got yellow beans, and – I should say that the so-called black tepary and ‘Gaucho’ were beans that were similar in size and shape. Black tepary was a black bean, and ‘Gaucho’ was a yellow bean. So by the time I was into the third and fourth generation, I had enough beans, for starters, to taste them and see what this mix of beans tasted like. And I had a very interesting mix of beans. They were all the same size – both parents had been the same size. Most of them were black, three-fourths of them were black. The other one-fourth was a mix of brown and yellow. When I tasted the beans, it was a really interesting experience. The beans tasted extremely beef-like. They tasted more like, you know, braised, properly-seasoned, or you know, dry-cured beef that’s been browned. That’s what they tasted like. And most black beans are a full-flavored bean, and have got a meaty flavor to them, but I’d never actually tasted anything – this tastes more like a beef stew. So much like a beef stew that when you add beef to it, you actually dilute the beefy flavor. (Laughs)

(Audience laughs)

Carol – Well, you know, a bean that tastes that much like beef, well that’s sort of fun.

(Audience laughs)

Carol – And the beefy flavor was all associated with the beans that had that black color. Michael Mazourek at Cornell and one his graduate students are actually, you know, they’ve tasted the bean too. And they agree that it tastes like beef, and of course that’s interesting. And they’re taking it into the laboratory to try to figure out how it manages to taste like – how and why it tastes like beef. So that’s a nice project for a graduate student.

But meanwhile, I’ve got this mix of beans. When I crossed the ‘Gaucho’ – ‘Gaucho’ was a very early bean, that was a tight bush bean, so it was very easy to harvest in August. And the so-called black tepary – which is clearly not completely tepary, it’s probably just a little tepary at best – was, uh, it had short runners, about two foot runners, but the runners actually all stick in the air, so it sort of like a, it grows like a bush. You can grow it like a bush. Except that the runners tangle up with the neighbors. And so instead of trying to harvest individual bean plants, you sort of need to just cut all the plants and roll them up.

But they had different maturities, because the parent material had different maturities. So it overlapped into the rainy season. So I started gently selecting for earliness, and I also started selecting for bush types. So I started off with this F4 and F5 material that I called, I think, ‘Beefy Resilient Grex’. Okay. And so I started reselecting for earliness, gently selecting, because I didn’t really want it to be quite as early as ‘Gaucho’, because I didn’t want to have to try to harvest whatever bean this ended up being at the same time as the ‘Gaucho’s. You know, I really like them staggered a little bit. So it’d be fine for it to be a little later than ‘Gaucho’, but not too much later than ‘Gaucho’. So I gently selected for earliness. I selected for bush, because even these short vines are agronomically a nuisance. ‘Cause what it amounts to, is it makes the plant indeterminate, even though the vines are short. That means it keeps producing beans. And so, when you’ve got most of the beans dried down, you still have got a lot of greenery, you know, biomass. You end up having to harvest the beans, and you know, put them somewhere in the barn or something to let them finish drying down. I would really prefer to have all bushes. So that’s the ideal material from which people can grow all, you know, can select different kinds of beans for different areas. But agronomically, I’d rather have bushes, so I selected for that.

So now I’ve got a selection out of that that I call ‘Beef Bush Black Resilient’, and I’m still working on improving that. And of course, there is a ‘Beef Bush Brown Resilient’. (Laughs) Well, one of the advantages to the ‘Beef Bush Black’ and the ‘Beef Bush Brown’, is that these are basically sister lines. They’ve got a genetically uniform background, basically, except for probably a one gene difference between them. But that one gene difference completely changes the flavor, so that the browns have got a meaty flavor, but it’s not beef-like at all. And the blacks have got a beef flavor, and the ‘Gaucho’ has got yet another flavor. So I grow  the blacks and the browns, you know, you can put the browns at one end of the row, and the blacks at the other end of the row, and you could eat the section of the row where they come together. And an occasional cross between the two is no big deal, since they’re derived from the same material. They’re sister lines, basically. Before you plant, you just, you know, separate any occasional off-color types out. And I call this… Sister lines really facilitates seed saving, because it means that instead of having to restrict the number of bean varieties that you grow to how many isolation niches you’ve got, if you’ve got, say, three or four sister lines – material that is essentially genetically the same, except for this color difference, but the color difference gives you all different flavors, that’s really cool, ‘cause now you’ve got several flavors of beans and you can grow them all in one patch. And I do that with corn lines as well as bean lines.

So this was another project where, basically, I was minding my own business, just trying to do seed saving. And I wasn’t expecting these crosses, but there they were. You know, I thought I was dealing with two different species. Well, if they were different species, they weren’t enough different species. And ended up with something really neat. The flavor of the black beans is just so magnificent. I really really wish I could take credit for it and say, “Oh, you know, I thought of this brilliant project that gave me a bean that tastes like beef.” But I didn’t. It just happened. The thing that I did was, when something just happens – I always taste them.  And I taste them every possible way. When I’m breeding winter squash, for example, I taste them as summer squash. When I’m breeding summer squash, I taste them as winter squash. Just, you know, be open to the possibility that even if this thing is not as useful as what you were growing originally, there may be other possibilities. Things that it’s really better for. So part of being a good plant breeder is being opportunistic. And part of it is being versatile enough to, instead of ask the question, “Why aren’t you what I was trying to grow?” you say, “What might you be that I didn’t think of growing? What might you be better at than anything that I was growing, or than anything that actually exists?”

So, let me see now. I want to talk about squash, some of my squash breeding projects at this point. And I want somebody to put on here, on the whiteboard for me, and I’m kind of tied down here…

Laurie – We will be your team aids.

Carol – Just give me a simple heterozygote that is, say, a large T and small t.

Laurie – Okay, you’re in front

Rachel – Oh, boy. Okay, what color do you want?

Carol -Make it nice and big so the people in the back can see it. So we just need a large T and a small t to represent something. Bigger than that.

Laurie – Are we doing a square?

Rachel – Do you want a Punnett square, or just…?

Carol – And just below that, put one-fourth large T large T, and one-half the heterozygote, and one-fourth small t, small t.

[Rachel hands the marker to Laurie]

(Audience laughs)

[Pause while Laurie writes ¼ TT + ½ Tt + ¼ tt on the board]

Carol – Now, this is actually the only thing I needed the whiteboard for.

(Audience laughs)

Laurie – Do you want me to draw the Punnett square?

Carol – No.

Laurie – But I really want to.

(Audience laughs)

Carol – So. Okay, so the way most squash breeding is done, is people will start off, say, doing a cross. And one of the major reasons, the situation that makes people do a cross is you’ve got a variety that’s got some characteristics that you really like, but it’s missing some characteristics that you would like. And you can find those other characteristics in some other variety. So what you do is you cross the two, and this basically brings the two genomes into one place. And in my Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, I go into ratios and technical details and so forth and so on. But I’m going to be very empirical in this talk, and say basically, what it amounts to when you do a cross – you’re merging two genomes. Now if the next step is that you go to the F2 and then you inbreed from there, the way most squash breeding is done, what happens is: when you inbreed you lose genetic heterogeneity. So let’s suppose that we started off here with one variety that’s large T large T [TT]. And another variety that’s small t small [tt]. So that the F1 is heterozygous, in other words it’s…

[Laurie stands up to write on the whiteboard]

Laurie – Keep going, yep. 

Carol – Okay, give me the F1. Write the F1 down here, really big.

Laurie – Well this is your F… no, it’s not. That’s your F2.

Carol – So I want the F1. So large T, small T. So this is what happens at one particular genetic locus that had a difference between the two parent varieties. So now it has one large T, because one of the parents had only large T’s to donate, and it’s got one small t because the other parent only had small t’s donate. So this has now got genetic heterogeneity in it for that particular locus, for that particular gene. Now, when we inbreed, that is we self-pollinate, what you get in the next generation, what you get is one-fourth large T large T [TT], one-half large T small t [Tt], one-fourth small t small t [tt]. But here’s another way to state it. I’ve lost half the genetic heterogeneity from one round of inbreeding. Because now, the half that’s large T large T is still heterogeneous [note: Carol meant to say ‘large T small t’], but one fourth of the plants are large T large T. They become fixed for large T. They’re no longer heterogeneous at that locus. One fourth of the plants are small t small t. They become fixed for small t. So just one round of inbreeding and we’ve lost half the genetic heterogeneity at this locus. The same thing is going on at every single other place that differed between the two parents. So if we had twenty genes that were different between the two parents, we’ve lost the heterogeneity – you know, if we just pull a random one out, we’ve lost the genetic heterogeneity for half of those genes.

Well, plants like squash have got a tendency to be a lot more vigorous when they’re genetically heterogeneous. A lot of times, you can start off with a cross, and you know, it’ll be very vigorous, and then you’re selecting for stuff that grows very well under your conditions, and you inbreed it for a number of generations to get uniformity for the flavor and the size and the color and whatever else you want and when you’re done, none of it is growing that well anymore.

So what do we do about that? I think we need, we… since we in the community who are breeding for organic-adapted varieties on our own farms and gardens are not usually interested in putting intellectual property on our varieties… If you want a Plant Variety Protection, for example, or a [Utility] Patent, you have to have very uniform material, because the rules as to what you can put intellectual property on require it. That’s deadly. Getting the thing that inbred, you give up a whole lot of vigor when you do that. It’s almost impossible to not give up a whole lot of vigor when you do that. We don’t need to do that. So one approach is, when we do a cross, instead of immediately turning around and inbreeding, do as little inbreeding as possible.

I’m going to give an examples, a couple of examples from squash breeding projects of mine. One of them is a project I actually did on purpose. (Laughs) I really love Delicata. And the tan Delicatas, ‘Candystick’, or uh ‘Sugar Loaf’ Delicata that was bred by Jim Baggett and ‘Honey Boat’, very popular in the northwest, they’ve got a more intense flavor than the cream and green striped tan Delicata, or cream and green striped Delicatas.

And I just love them. But the problem with Delicatas in general, including these tan Delicatas, is, for starters, they’re dinky! And when I grow a squash, I mean for this to be the major carbohydrate. It’s going to be the only carbohydrate in the meal, it’s gonna be a big part of the meal. A Delicata that is only a pound and a half, and has got flesh that’s usually about only a half an inch thick, I’d have to prepare two or three of those, and eat four to six halves to get enough for one person. If I’m trying to feed company too, you know, forget it. It’s just too much work.

Well, what to do about that? Well, one approach would be, “Gee, if the Delicatas were just bigger, you know, if they were two or three times as big.” Well, I’ve tried in the past various crosses of Delicata to much bigger things but basically, once you outcross to something that’s not a Delicata, it’s really difficult to get the Delicata flavor and texture back again. Well, another possibility might just be thicker flesh. But basically, none of the Delicatas have flesh that’s all that thick. Well, so what about just crossing some of the Delicatas to each other, even though none of them have got fruits that are big particularly, and none of them have got flesh that’s particularly thick.

Now, see, this is somewhat different from what you usually aim for. So just by comparison, when I wanted to develop a better flint corn, for example, I got a flint corn that had the colors and flavors that I wanted, but it didn’t have good enough husk coverage. So it got very badly affected by worms. I crossed it to something else that had better husk coverage, so in future generations, I would be able to combine those two characteristics into one variety, so the best characteristics of each variety.

But notice now, I’m talking about crossing two varieties, neither of which have got the characteristics I want. Why would that make any sense? Well it does make sense. And it very frequently works. The reason it makes sense is because the two different Delicata varieties might be the size that they are for different reasons. So imagine that one Delicata variety has got, say, these three genes are contributing to it being a larger size. And this other Delicata is the same size, but it’s a different three genes that are contributing to that size. So if I cross the two, then I’ve got heterogeneity for six genes. That means that in future generations, I’ve got the potential for pulling out something that’s got six genes that contribute to size. That could be bigger than either parent. So while it’s usually the case that, when at all possible, you choose parents that complement each other, that improve each other, sometimes you don’t have that option. And sometimes crossing two things that you like both of them, but you… this sort of thing can work. Now, it can work on any sort of characteristic. So I could cross two different Delicata varieties, and if I lucked out and they happened to be that size for different reasons, I could pull out a bigger one. Same thing could work out for flesh thickness. They could happen to have that flesh thickness – they might have different genes contributing to flesh thickness. I might be able to pull something out with thicker flesh.

Well, there were four possible Delicata-style plants that I thought might make useful parents. One of them was ‘Sugar Loaf’, one of them was ‘Honey Boat’, those were the original two tan Delicatas that Jim Baggett developed. One of them was ‘Cornell Bush [Delicata]’, and I figured that was a more distantly-related population, because that actually had had some transfer of characteristics from wild squash in there, by breeders at Cornell. So that might make an especially nice cross. I mean, just as a guess, that would be more likely to contribute different genes to one of the tan Delicatas than the two tan Delicatas that had originally been one plant at one point, ten generations earlier. And there was another Delicata that I intended to try, but the seed was all… none of it came up, the seed was all dead, so that got eliminated. So basically, I had three Delicata varieties, crossed them in all combinations. Instead of, in other words, crossing just the, you know, making just the cross that I thought was the most likely to give me the results I wanted, I sort of said (adopts serious tone of voice), “Well, you know, theoretically, speaking from first principles and my vast genetic knowledge, this is the cross that would be most likely to do this.” Now, how seriously am I going to take that genetic knowledge? (Makes dismissive gesture) Try it all. You know, ask the plants. It’s a lot easier and more reliable to ask the plants. All I had to do was get F1’s from all possibilities.

Well, turns out that the F1 that was, that gave me the biggest fruits with the thickest flesh, and there was one particular combination that gave me substantially bigger fruits and thicker flesh, in the F1, and that was actually the cross of ‘Honey Boat’ and ‘Sugar Loaf’. So it’s exactly the cross that I thought was the least likely. And that F1, that gave me some plants that were half again as big as either the parent and that had one inch or an inch and a quarter flesh thickness. Now, partly I thought that the flesh thickness – lot of times, flesh thickness has something to do with just the vigor of the plant. So that might be part of what was going on. Those F1’s were just very good, just the way they were.

But there was something else that happened, too. And it happened right that very first generation. The flavor of that F1 between those two lines did not taste like either parent. It had some of the components of tan Delicata flavor, but it had a flavor I’d never tasted any time before in any squash ever. And it’s the flavor of a Medjool date. It really tastes like I took a Delicata squash and crossed it to a Medjool date tree. Well that was fun! (Laughs) My guess is that I picked up a recessive modifier that had changed the flavor. Not anything that I was expecting particularly, but boy was that fun when it happened.  So then in subsequent generations, without inbreeding at all, mind you – and I should go back one step. I didn’t simply cross those three varieties in all possible combinations so that I got three different crosses. I tracked the individual female plants and individual male plants and evaluated the plants at the end of the season. Because usually in squash varieties, there’s a fair amount of genetic heterogeneity. And that means some of the individual plants are much better than others. So I wanted not just a cross of, you know, the best cross, the cross of ‘Honey Boat’ and ‘Sugar Loaf’. I wanted the best ‘Honey Boat’ plant crossed by the best ‘Sugar Loaf’ plant.  And I probably would not have been able to get that bigger size and that thicker flesh if I had just made random crosses between the two varieties.

Well, so after that, I simply mass selected every year. I just kept the biggest fruits that had the thickest flesh, and tasted the flavor of them raw, and selected for a few years. And after a while, I released it as ‘Candystick Delicata’. That’s where that came from. That particular one is fairly widely-adapted. So how are we doing on time?

Laurie – We’ve got ten minutes.

Carol – Ten minutes left?

Laurie – Yeah.

Carol – Okay.

Laurie – Do you want to talk for another five minutes, or do you want to do some questions?

Carol – Yeah, let me talk for another, well, we’ve got ten minutes left. I’ll talk for five minutes more just to go real fast here.

Laurie – Okay.

Carol – One of the things that, uh, I want to talk about ‘Goldini Zucchini’. This is a cross that I bred to be, or a squash that I bred to be simultaneously a really good summer squash as well as a really good drying squash. Those of you who’ve read The Resilient Gardener – and I should mention all of my books have a lot of plant breeding in them, not just the first one. Those who’ve read the Resilient Gardener – I talk about drying squash, and go into figuring out what made a good drying squash. And you know, some squash when they’re sliced at summer squash stage and dried, they give you a really distinct delicious flavor. And if you breed specifically for that characteristic and play your cards right, you can end up with something that’s delicious in the summer squash stage but if it escapes and gets a little bit too big, you’ve got a wonderful drying squash. And you can dry that down, and you know, make a staple cross for the wintertime.

What I did with that – that is the most vigorous, organic-adapted variety I know. It’s fairly uniform for the squash characteristics. It’s a yellow zucchini squash. I bred it to be prime at that size [hold hands up to indicate size], ‘cause that’s better for a drying squash than littler, but I also bred it to be, as far as I know, the fastest-growing, most vigorous squash on the planet. I’ve looked at it side-by-side with hybrids, and it makes the hybrids look wimpy. It’s earlier than that hybrids. And all of my other squash, including the ones I’ve bred myself, by the time that the plants have emerged and are starting to produce their first true leaves, these are whole plants that are six inches high. Ridiculous.

Well, one of the things is, that comes down to, is thinning appropriately. I got the idea for how to thin and make this an integral part of organic plant breeding, again by accident. I was messing around with a pea breeding project, and a quarter of the seedlings that came from a particular plant were yellow. In other words, they were a chlorophyll-less mutant. They were doomed to die. But the fact is, they came out of the ground and they were yellow and they were growing just as fast as all of their siblings. They grew exactly as fast as all their siblings up until they were about two inches high. Two inches, almost three inches high. Then they just stopped dead.

Well, that was really interesting, because that told me that, basically, pea seed or bean seed or, you know, big seeds like that are actually getting by on the chloroplasts and the biochemistry that was laid down by the mother plant that produced the seed. So if you thin at an earlier stage than that, you’re not actually selecting for the genes that are in that plant. So in my song about, you know, four inches high and it’s time to thin – it might be three inches, but if you’re talking about selecting for corn, beans or squash, you want to lay down excess seed but you want to space them widely enough so that you can let them get that big before you do any thinning, ‘cause only after that point are they expressing their own genes. Up until then they’re expressing their mother’s genes. If you use that trick with your thinning, and you always lay down excess seed, you can lay it down in wide rows and then end up with a single row. You can get very strong selection for extreme vigor and fast growth. It’s a game-changer in terms of being able to select for organics. And I will, uh, I’ll stop there because we’ll have the rest of the time for questions. Questions.

Laurie – So, before we do questions, we are actually pretty tight on time, unfortunately. So I’m going to ask those of you who have been here this morning on bus A to gather yourselves and get on the bus so you’re not late to go talk to Andrew and Sarah at Adaptive Seeds. And we’re just gonna kind of transition – we’ve got to get Carol’s recording equipment off and back to Adaptive as well. So please join me in giving her a big round of applause.

(Audience applauds)

Carol – Thank you!  

(Audience applauds)


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