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An ode to seed breeders and farmers

(post, Katherine Deumling)

The piles and piles of peppers cascading off the farm stands at the markets are seductive. Every year I'm surprised and delighted by how long the peppers stick around. And I cling to those summery peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants as long as those tenacious veggies cling to their vines. There will be plenty of time for butternut squash and parsnips and cabbage — all of which I love, but none of which have a poignant effect on me. But peppers do!

So I jumped on the chance to participate in a pepper-variety tasting, a project of the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC) — a mouthful of a name and a group intent on keeping our mouths and bodies happy and well-fed and organic agriculture thriving. 

We blind-tasted 12 different kinds of peppers. Four of the peppers had been bred by Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed. If you've never heard of Frank or his seed company, you should know that Frank is a national, no maybe global, treasure. Frank does all his seed breeding at Gathering Together Farm in Oregon's Willamette Valley. 

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Frank and his wife, Karen, have developed an extensive line of seeds tailored for the certified-organic market farmer. Their seed lines are hardy plants and distinctive and beautiful. Virtually all of the catalogues carrying seeds for market growers — including High Mowing, Johnny’s, Seeds of Change, Fedco, Nichols, Territorial, and Chef’s Garden — carry the Mortons’ seeds. In the seed catalogues, Morton is an icon, one of the few plant breeders consistently identified by name.

[%image jolene float=right width=300 caption="A new pepper named Jolene."]

One of the farm managers at Gathering Together Farm was frustrated with the peppers they were growing, and Frank took up the challenge to develop something better. We evaluated this pepper, named Jolene (after said farm manager) and many other sweet Italian varieties, developed to produce flavorful, beautiful, and prolific peppers a bit earlier in the year. They are also being bred to have strong, upright plants with a good canopy to prevent the peppers from burning in the sun. All these varieties will be developed further, brought to market, or discontinued based on our analysis and that of many other groups and tasters. 

We ranked color, structure, overall flavor, sweetness, and texture of each pepper in three states: raw, sautéed, and roasted. And I paid close attention to something I rarely give much thought to — the immense amount of work and passion it takes to develop these varieties so that farmers can have a thriving, profitable crop and eaters like me can enjoy such a variety of local produce year-round. 

I left the tasting feeling grateful, grateful in a slightly more informed way, for this serious, challenging, and very skilled work that farmers and seed breeders do every day. 

[%image feature-image float=left widith=400 caption="Katherine Deumling (left) and others tasted 12 varieties of peppers."]

It was a geeky, analytical, and delicious 90 minutes, and it made me want to evangelize a bit about this work that goes on in relative obscurity.

And it made me want to cook. On the cooking front, it inspired a dinner of peperonata — one of my favorite Italian dishes. I'm sure there are dozens of peperonata recipes, but I'm particularly fond of Peperonata with Potatoes that doubles as a main dish with the inclusion of potatoes and takes full advantage of the last of the season's tomatoes and sweet peppers.


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