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Plant Breeders Aim To Save Northwest From Bland Veggies

You know the beautiful, mass-produced tomatoes you can buy at the grocery store? You can drop one and it'll bounce back unharmed, but doesn't taste like much.

Now in greenhouses, small farms and research plots across the Pacific Northwest there's a flavor renaissance afoot. Conventional breeding is being used to create tastier and more colorful veggies.

Greenhouses, not test tubes

Oregon State University plant breeder Jim Myers said this isn't some miracle of genetic engineering.

"What I do is conventional breeding -- or traditional breeding, if you will,” he explained. “There is plenty of genetic variation out there for us to work with."

Myers' lab in Corvallis cross-pollinates related plants with desired traits. During a recent visit to the warm, humid greenhouses, graduate research assistants wielded fine tweezers to insert specific pollen into the blooms of broccoli plants on one bench and pole beans on another.

On some plants, the researchers taped the blossoms closed afterwards to make sure no other genetic material intrudes. Hanging tags which describe what varieties were crossed make the broccoli row look like miniature Christmas trees.

The plan is to select the best of the results for commercialization. OSU has already released trademarked tomato varieties with names such as Indigo Rose and Indigo Cherry Drops. The deep purple fruits contain higher levels of nutrition.

Focusing on taste

About two years ago, a research coordinator with Myers started the Culinary Breeding Network to connect breeders around the region with consumers such as chefs. Network director Lane Selman said the aim is to create the heirloom plants of tomorrow.

Another phrase tossed around is "designer vegetables." An Idaho Statesman columnist labeled some of it, "this year's garden fad."

Alice Doyle co-owns the wholesale nursery Log House Plants near Cottage Grove, Oregon. She said the Pacific Northwest is a "hotbed" of what she calls artisan vegetable breeding.

"There are artisan breeders and seed companies that have sprung up all over the place,” Doyle said.

A few that often get mentioned as examples include Adaptive Seeds, Siskiyou Seeds and Wild Garden Seed in Western Oregon and Uprising Seeds and Nash's Organic Produce in Northwestern Washington.

Planting is in full swing in Log House Plants' greenhouses, in part using some of the novel, regionally-tailored seed varieties developed recently. Wrap your head around starts like mint vanilla quinoa and lacinato rainbow kale.

"The main thrust is the focus on taste,” Doyle said.

‘It's all about the flavor’

Long before the first guests show up in the snug dining room of Le Pigeon in Portland, restaurant chef Andrew Mace takes inventory in the walk-in cooler.

Mace said diners should notice a transition from winter to spring vegetables this month. Longer term, he's hoping for another transition: to vegetables that taste better.

Take, the eggplant.

"How cool would it be if they could selectively breed that eggplant skin to be thinner, or to be more edible, or not as chewy or something like that,” Mace said.

Mace works in a high-end restaurant, but he said everybody wants the same thing by the time it’s on their plate.

"Something that's not compromised for storability, or shape or disease resistance,” he said. “It's all about the flavor and it's a more pure flavor."

That’s what he asked plant breeders for. And he may get more of what he’s after this year. That's because more than 100 Northwest breeders, farmers, chefs and seed growers are collaborating on more flavorful vegetable varieties -- some with more vitamins too.

What’s next?

OSU's Myers said his next release may be a mild habanero pepper. He gathered his team together in the greenhouse for a taste test of multi-colored pickled peppers.

You normally wouldn’t eat a habanero straight. But in this case there was just a little bit of kick, but not overwhelming heat. My mouth was not burning and the pepper had a little bit of smokiness.

"A little bit of sweetness too I think," observed Lyle Wallace, one of Myers' students.

"It's much more floral of a flavor than your regular roasted red pepper," added Abi Graham, another lab assistant.

Doyle said some of the new vegetable varieties with dialed-up flavor and nutrition are available in seed catalogs and independent garden centers now. Others, like parsleys, Asian greens and that mild habanero pepper are still being refined.

On Marrowstone Island in Puget Sound, Organic Seed Alliance executive director Micaela Colley recently checked on a trial evaluation of purple broccoli and other new crop varieties. The project at the Washington State University Extension research farm is one of several breeding partnerships her organization is involved in.

"We've been selecting for cold hardiness," Colley said, describing another direction vegetable breeding is going. This goal is an attempt to extend the growing season in the Pacific Northwest.

"We've been trying to support year-round availability of crops," Colley explained. Storage onions, chicory and cabbage are also part of those trials.

Colley said large vegetable producers "didn't breed flavor out intentionally" over recent decades. As she sees it, it’s a matter of what components of plants received priority.

"There's more of an emphasis on shipping, handling and uniformity,” she said.

Colley’s OSA has been breeding for other traits like flavor, color and optimal performance in the local climate for years.

"It's not a brilliant new light bulb that just went on, per se,” she said. “It's a light bulb that went on with the public."

Alice Doyle said what’s new is “the confluence of movement" and new companies involved that have "really escalated it.”

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.