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Photo: Hairy vetch.
ARS has licensed two hardier and earlier flowering varieties of hairy vetch, a common cover crop for farmers that holds in moisture, prevents weed growth, curbs erosion and reduces the need for nitrogen fertilizer. Photo courtesy of John D. Byrd, Mississippi State University,

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ARS Licenses Hairy Vetch Varieties

By Dennis O'Brien
November 14, 2008

The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) has entered into licensing agreements with four seed distributors interested in marketing varieties of a new hairy vetch developed by an ARS scientist and cooperators.

Hairy vetch is a common cover crop planted in the fall that lies dormant throughout the winter and flowers in the spring. It can be tilled into the soil or rolled onto the soil surface, leaving a mat of protective stems that hold in moisture, prevent weed growth and curb erosion.

The two new varieties, Purple Bounty and Purple Prosperity, were developed by geneticist Tom Devine with the ARS Sustainable Agricultural Systems Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., and cooperators. The two new hairy vetches are hardier and flower earlier than traditional varieties, adding up to two weeks to the growing season for corn, tomato, pumpkin and other summer crops.

ARS has licensed Purple Prosperity to Ted Weydert of DeKalb, Ill., and has licensed both Purple Prosperity and Purple Bounty to the Albert Lea Seed Co. of Albert Lea, Minn., Kings AgriSeeds LLC of Ronks, Pa., and Allied Seed LLC of Nampa, Idaho.

Organic farmers have been using hairy vetch for decades because it adds nitrogen to the soil without the use of synthetic or manufactured fertilizers. But previous earlier flowering varieties had limited use north of Maryland because they cope poorly with northern winters. The new varieties allow farmers to grow earlier-flowering vetch as far north as Ithaca, N.Y. The plants, named for their striking purple blooms, may also be attractive to conventional farmers because they cut in half the need for synthetic fertilizers, which are made using expensive natural gas.

Devine spent the past decade breeding the varieties at ARS fields in Beltsville and at the University of Maryland farm in Keedysville, Md., using traditional breeding techniques with seed kept in the U.S. National Plant Germplasm System.

ARS is a scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.