Sep 1, 2020
Seed to Kitchen Collaborative to help small organic growers in Michigan
Michigan boasts a thriving conventional vegetable industry consisting of large wholesale growers who are well-supported by trade organizations, as well as Michigan State University research and extension programs. However, smaller vegetable growers in Michigan have historically received less support from trade organizations and MSU for their research and education priorities. For example, many small vegetable growers in Michigan are using organic practices and direct marketing to add value to their products. A 2017 survey of direct market vegetable growers in our neighboring state of Wisconsin identified flavor, disease resistance, yield and early maturity as the most important vegetable traits, in that order. Yet, traditional vegetable variety testing programs do not focus specifically on cultivar performance in organic production systems, nor on sensory characteristics, like flavor and texture, that drive marketability in a direct market vegetable business.
In 2020, the Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center received funding from Organic Valley – Farmers Advocating for Organic to address the limitations of traditional vegetable research and outreach by implementing the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative project in Michigan. Seed to Kitchen Collaborative, started by Julie Dawson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, brings together vegetable breeders, seed companies, researchers, organic vegetable growers and professional chefs to evaluate the productivity and quality of elite vegetable varieties in organic research station and on-farm trials. This year, the North Farm at the Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center is growing 43 different varieties of six vegetables (cucumber, tomato, sweet pepper, onion, carrot and lettuce) in replicated variety trials. Two Upper Peninsula farmers are also growing subsets of these vegetables and collecting observations on their farm to capture the practitioner’s point of view.
If vegetable variety trials at the Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center and cooperating Upper Peninsula farms aren’t exciting enough, something that makes Seed to Kitchen Collaborative especially unique is taste-testing. Customers buying local produce at a farmers market, the local food co-op or for use in a restaurant expect that the vegetables they buy will not only be plentiful and beautiful, but also tasty. That is why Seed to Kitchen Collaborative collects sensory (tasting) data post-harvest in addition to yield and quality data in the field. In 2020, the Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center worked with Taste the Local Difference to recruit eight local chefs to participate in Seed to Kitchen Collaborative sensory evaluation. Their expert palates will provide valuable feedback on the flavor, texture and desirability of our many vegetable varieties.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, collecting sensory data will look a little different from the group tasting event we originally planned. The process starts at the North Farm with harvesting, washing and packing the produce for tasters. The North Farm is certified organic and GAP certified annually to ensure the highest standards for food safety are consistently maintained. At the time of packing, individual vegetables are sanitized and labeled with an alpha-numeric variety code so as to not bias tasters who may be familiar with certain varieties/variety names. Tasting boxes are then delivered to local chefs on Fridays with masking and distancing protocols observed. When chefs receive a box, they scan a QR code inside to access the tasting survey, taste the produce, and enter their responses online. The sensory data is then summarized and reported alongside yield and quality info generated on the farm.
Seed to Kitchen Collaborative is a game-changer for vegetable research at the Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center and across the state of Michigan. This project represents some of the first grant-funded vegetable research conducted at the Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center North Farm since its founding in 2014. It is also some of the first vegetable variety performance testing at MSU to focus specifically on the needs of small, organic and direct-market vegetable growers.
Finally, Seed to Kitchen Collaborative data is reported in a unique qualitative way that make the information usable for any farmer, gardener, chef or consumer. Varieties are ultimately assigned a rating (poor, acceptable, good, best) on four aggregate parameters of flavor, production, disease and earliness. By summarizing data in this manner, it can be quickly and easily applied by the end user.
Many thanks to our partners and funders who have made this project possible! Keep an eye out for Seed to Kitchen Collaborative reports from the North Farm at the Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center later this fall.
This article was published by Michigan State University Extension. For more information, visit https://extension.msu.edu. To have a digest of information delivered straight to your email inbox, visit https://extension.msu.edu/newsletters. To contact an expert in your area, visit https://extension.msu.edu/experts, or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464).
Above, chef Kris Stunkard and staff at Delft Bistro in Marquette, Michigan, taste Seed to Kitchen cucumbers. Photo: James DeDecker, MSU Extension