This article originally appeared in Carrot Country (Spring 2019).
The U.S. organic industry continues to grow, with sales of organic food reaching $45 billion in 2017 and the number of organic farms estimated at over 14,200, an 11% increase in one year. Organic carrots increasingly make up a larger share of overall carrot production – 14% of the estimated 100,000 acres of carrots grown in the U.S. are certified organic (compared to 3% of total vegetables grown organically).
Growing carrots organically isn’t easy, however, given the extensiveness of major diseases and pests, and the cost of managing weeds. More than 80% of U.S. carrot acreage is infested with one or more of the most common pests or diseases: root-knot nematodes, Alternaria leaf blight, and other foliar and storage diseases, such as cavity spot. The future of organic carrots therefore relies on the development of effective, non-chemical methods for addressing these challenges, including managing weeds in this slow-to-establish crop.
“Organic farming takes a whole-systems approach to addressing plant nutrition and challenging weeds, diseases, and pests,” says Micaela Colley, program director for Organic Seed Alliance. “In important ways, organic growers rely on the genetic characteristics of the seed they plant even more than other growers, since most pesticides and fertilizers are not allowed under organic regulations.”
“That’s where plant breeding comes in,” Colley adds.
Seed provides growers the genetic tools to confront day-to-day challenges in the field, and breeding plants in the environment of their intended use – in this case, under organic conditions – can yield many benefits. Enter the Carrot Improvement for Organic Agriculture (CIOA) project, a multi-regional plant breeding collaboration between the USDA’s Agriculture Research Service (ARS), University of Wisconsin-Madison, Purdue University, University of California – Riverside, Organic Seed Alliance, and Washington State University. It is the first publicly funded organic carrot breeding project in the U.S., and the USDA’s Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) grant program recently awarded the project a second round of four-year funding – and for good reason. The project’s successes thus far are noteworthy.
Dr. Philipp Simon is the coordinator of CIOA and has been breeding carrots for 40 years. He holds a joint position with USDA’s ARS and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Horticulture Department. Simon has learned a lot in the last decade about the needs of organic carrot growers and how CIOA can turn their production challenges into breeding opportunities. To that end, CIOA’s main goal is to develop orange and novel colored carrots with improved disease and nematode resistance, improved weed competitiveness, and better nutrition and flavor. That’s quite the genetic package, but progress toward releasing new varieties has been efficient – and relatively quick – thanks to the project’s variety trial network that expands across the U.S.
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