Federal funding leads to new commercial varieties of organic beans


The financing of the USDA Biological Research and Education Initiative and Western SARE (Research and Education in Sustainable Agriculture) helped plant scientists at the University of California, Davis to develop organic dry bean varieties that taste good, can survive bean common mosaic virus, and are viable in organic systems.

Travis Parker, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at UC Davis, worked on the Bean Project as part of his thesis. He said the impetus for better organic dry beans came from a producer in Southern California who was interested in heirloom varieties for their taste, appearance and history, but “knew they had problems on the ground ”. Some of the old beans had low yields in addition to being susceptible to mosaic virus. But, Parker said, “there are also varieties that are naturally resistant to it.”

The goal of introducing virus resistance struck Parker and colleagues as a “handy fruit” as it is relatively easy to cross with bean varieties and UC Davis already had a few types to use as a generation. ” kinship “. Greenhouses allowed researchers to grow a generation in about two and a half months, so they had up to five generations to work with in a year. That, Parker said, meant they could “really make some serious progress pretty quickly.”

Travis Parker, UC Davis researcher (courtesy UC Davis)

A single gene determines whether the plant is resistant, so Parker said that in addition to physical observations that confirm whether the virus is showing up on the plant, the researchers used genetic testing to see if the necessary gene was present. After that, they had to test the new varieties for yield and, most importantly, taste. When seven varieties “looked promising in yield trials,” Parker said, he invited chefs and growers to come in for a taste test. The results showed that all of the beans were “at least as good as the heirloom parent except one.” And that’s why UC Davis first released just six new varieties. Parker said some “have very high yields” and that overall the newer varieties perform similarly to the high-yielding parent UC Davis generation. He added that he expects more varieties to come from the project.

Mike Reeske from Rio del Rey old beans in northern San Diego County, it was the grower who first asked the Davis Group to look at old organic beans, and he’s also helped fund the research. During the field trials, Reeske grew 52 test plants on his farm, which he described as dedicated to research and development. He grew a variety that was initially very sensitive to changes in daylight. But with that feedback, the breeders made a cross that diminished this trait, and in the final year of the trial it didn’t fail to produce well in October. Reeske said for the first time that he was able to offer this bean in the winter.

Parker said this kind of cooperation between researchers and producers is fundamental for a public sector breeding program. “Sometimes it’s a bit to our advantage,” he said, to hand out packets of seeds and see how they behave for many growers then. This generates a lot more data than a small university program can create, he said.

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Now that the new varieties have been released, Reeske is growing them on his farm for end users, like restaurants, and a Canadian seed company. He said he had not approached other seed companies, but that “there is no problem selling” organic heirloom beans because there is a strong market. And the seeds come with no patents or restrictions on their storage from year to year.

Parker said UC Davis is making small amounts of the new varieties available to the public free of charge because it is the organic community and taxpayer funds that have fueled the research. The funding and field-testing partnership with Reeske was a “handshake,” Parker said, and researchers handed out 1,000 free seed packets at an organic growers conference in February 2020. Unlike more lucrative crops such as strawberries, Parker said, dry beans offer little return on investment.

UCDavis-organic-beans836x627optimized.jpgNew varieties of organic beans bred at UC Davis. (courtesy UC Davis)“Nobody really expects kidney beans to be a huge source of money for the university,” he said. Trying to enforce any kind of intellectual property related to bean varieties would have been very difficult, he said, moreover, the organic community prefers public varieties and seed saving.

Reeske said one of his goals is to have more people growing the beans, which is easier to achieve when the seeds are readily available. Once organic growers have planted the commercial seeds, they can simply harvest a few for planting year after year.

The six new varieties have been tested across California, but Parker said if demand spreads to other locations, it’s likely that additional selection will be beneficial to develop crosses that can thrive in different locations.

“We invite producers to try them out on their terms,” Parker said. Resistance to bean mosaic virus may not be sufficient for a variety to be successful, for example, in a more humid area. Or the differences in the length of the growing season could impact the results. For the most part, he says the newer strains do well in disparate places, but “we don’t necessarily breed for things that work well in all possible places.” Since the varieties are in the public domain, other breeders are free to customize them further if demand warrants.

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