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Growers' Group to Work With USDA Seed Banks

By Jim De Quattro
March 25, 1999

A budding cooperative project of researchers, organic growers and others that begins this week could help replenish the nation's seed banks. More important, it could create market opportunities for new public and heirloom crop varieties.

The Agricultural Research Service, USDA's chief scientific agency, maintains the National Plant Germplasm System. Its 27 repositories now hold about 437,000 specimens of germplasm--seed, cuttings and other tissue. Thousands of accessions are added each year. Researchers worldwide use the germplasm to breed crops with improved yield, nutrition, resistance to pests, disease and environmental stress or other traits.

ARS is cooperating with the Farmer Cooperative Genome Project to test a new way for organic growers, farmer cooperatives and small seed companies to tap into this storehouse of genetic diversity. FCGP members will grow fresh supplies of germplasm, following NPGS guidelines. These ensure, for example, that regenerated seed is true to type--not contaminated by pollen from nearby crops of the same species.

FCGP members will also develop marketable new varieties from germplasm they may never have known about otherwise. For example, an ARS repository in Corvallis, Ore., has more than 400 heirloom pear varieties. In Pullman, Wash., ARS maintains more than 200 lines of garlic. These represent most of the crop's genetic diversity. Only a few varieties account for nearly all commercial production, according to horticulturist Richard Hannan. He's based at ARS' Western Regional Plant Introduction Station in Pullman.

On March 27-28 in Salem, Ore., Hannan, Corvallis ARS plant pathologist Joseph Postman and other scientists are among scheduled panelists at FCGP's first general meeting. Other plants with FCGP potential include heirloom varieties and wild relatives of tomato, lettuce, bean, broccoli, Egyptian onion, radish, blue and other Native American corn, blackberry, strawberry, Turkish grain legumes and little-known herbs such as black cumin.

More than 200 small family farmers, organic farmers, seed producers, breeders and others will participate in FCGP, according to J.J. Haapala. He is research and education director of Oregon Tilth, a growers' group in Salem that certifies organic growers and processors. Haapala administers a USDA Fund for Rural America grant to the FCGP.

Scientific contact: Richard M. Hannan, ARS Western Regional Plant Introduction Station, Pullman, Wash., phone (509) 335-1502, fax (509) 335-6654,