New Pepper Variety in the Making -- Local Farmers Participate in the Research

"Local food needs local seed," says Kathy Rothermel, one of four Ontario seed growers involved in a project to develop an early red pepper for this region.

"This pepper project is the first step in identifying the gaps in currently available seed -- for instance, a short season, blocky pepper, like this one, for our market."
"It is also the beginning of participatory plant breeding projects in our area," says Kathy Rothermel.  "We want to build resilience into our crop genetics, with the end goal of encouraging more farmers to grow on-farm seed for their own production, and potentially, for commercial sale."

Last spring, four growers in Ontario each received 150 seeds of a cross of Aristotle and Ace sweet peppers; they are growing out the seeds this season and will save seed from the best plants.
The seeds from all four growers will be mixed together and grown out again next year.  The objective is to eventually release and name a new open-pollinated variety, adapted for growing in Ontario.

The four farmers participating in the project are Kathy Rothermel (Wolfe Island), Annie Richard (Kingston), Greta Kryger (Ottawa) and Rebecca Ivanhof (Guelph).  Other farmers could be included in the project if enough seed can be saved to expand the number of participants.

Plans for the pepper project started during a workshop at last fall's conference of the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO), says Annie Richard.  She talked with Cornell University  professor in plant breeding and genetics, Dr. Michael Mazourek, who has been working on developing varieties that are suitable for organic production in northeast United States.  He offered to share seeds to begin the project here in Ontario.

Kathy Rothermel, chair of the Kingston Area Seed System Initiative (KASSI), and the owner of Mouse Seeds, is interested in "re-establishing the relationship between our universities and the farmers in our food system.  There is growing science-based evidence that farmers, working directly with university plant breeders, can improve or develop new varieties appropriate to local regions. This approach recognizes local knowledge of production practices and markets." 

KASSI is a grassroots organization, founded by local farmers, backyard and market gardeners and others, to promote responsible stewardship of our seed heritage and to build the regional seed system.  "Our goals are to ensure sustainable local food production by growing out and distributing heirloom and locally-adapted seed, and by creating a vibrant network of regional growers," says Cate Henderson, vice-chair of KASSI.

Cate Henderson, gardener at the Heirloom Seed Sanctuary at the Sisters of Providence Motherhouse, Kingston, says the pepper project "is about developing the heirlooms of the future.  Heirlooms are the plant varieties that have been or are worthy of being passed down through generations."

Annie Richard is growing her pepper plants at Patchwork Gardens, Battersea, which will be the location this week of a farmer workshop on developing new varieties for organic market gardens.  Sponsored by EFAO and the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, the workshop will focus on the red peppers project and will be led by Dr. Mazourek, who will share breeding and varietal improvement techniques that can be applied on farms.

"Much of the investment in both improving our crops, and for maintaining availability of cultivars that growers depend on, has focused on relatively few regions of the continent," says Dr. Mazourek.  "Local food depends on a focus on seed that thrives locally."
"Seeds are fundamental to farming, but are all too easy to take for granted," he says.  "Empowering growers to have seed sovereignty should be viewed as a fundamental right in our food system."

The workshop runs Thursday, August 25, from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm.  For more information and to register, go to www.efao.ca.

For more information about KASSI, go to www.seedsgrowfood.org

For more information, contact:
Annie Richard, 613-770-9276annie.richard99@gmail.com
Kathy Rothermel, 613-385-8569foxcreek@kos.net


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