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With the help of a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) small business grant, Wisconsin farmer-breeder Peter Pitts teamed up with Pure-Seed Testing, Inc., of Hubbard, Ore., to create a now widely popular variety of conventional grass forage that is also probably the first certified organic festulolium in North America.
Pitts worked with Michael Casler, who was at that time a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Today Casler is a grass breeder in Madison, at the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center operated by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS).
ARS is USDA's principal intramural scientific research agency, and the research supports the USDA commitment to sustainable agriculture.
Intrigued by Pitts' success with festulolium (pronounced "fes-tu-lo-lium"), a ryegrass (Lolium genus) with a small number of meadow fescue (Festuca) genes, Casler bred the grass with festulolium growing in old university nursery plots throughout Wisconsin. These plants had survived many years of "get tough or die" conditions like those on Pitts' old pasture on his 350-acre, mostly organic beef cattle farm.
Pure-Seed Testing's breeder, Crystal Fricker, screened the plants in Oregon for stem rust resistance, yield, and other desired characteristics. In 1996, breeder seed of the new variety, Spring Green, was produced.
Rose Agri-Seed, Inc., a sister company of Pure-Seed Testing, Inc., obtained exclusive marketing rights for Spring Green. The seed proved so popular that it is used throughout the world and is now sold by Land O' Lakes, Inc., in St. Paul, Minn. More than a million pounds of the conventionally grown seed were sold in its first five years on the market. It is becoming a staple ingredient in forage seed mixes.
Bill Rose of Rose Agri-Seed later had seed grown in Alberta, Canada, on land certified for organic farming. In its first few years on the market, 200,000 pounds of the organically grown seed were sold. Pitts, the University of Wisconsin and Pure-Seed Testing, Inc., share ownership of Spring Green.
The direct involvement of a farmer throughout the development and marketing phases of a new crop variety is rare in the United States.
Read more about this research in the November/December 2011 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.