31 October 2011

Pick a Pepper

By Jaret Foster, Senior Market Manager of Portland Farmers Market

A few weeks ago I had the good fortune of being invited to attend a sweet pepper tasting conducted by my friend Lane Selman. Lane works with the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC) cultivating, among other things, sweet pepper varieties on several Willamette Valley Farms. NOVIC is a joint project between Oregon State University, University of Wisconsin, Cornell University, the Organic Seed Alliance, the USDA and over 30 organic farms in Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin and New York.

Through NOVIC, researchers, farmers, plant breeders and seed growers collaborate to breed and perform variety trials to select vegetable cultivars best adapted to organic growing conditions and with traits conducive to fresh markets with a focus on season extension.  A primary project goal is to increase the amount of organic seed available to farmers.  Access to quality organic seed is a challenge.  Currently, many certified organic farmers use conventional seed because their preferred varieties are not available organically.

The NOVIC breeding goals include developing an open-pollinated broccoli that can thrive in summer heat; a weed-competitive, cold-tolerant ‘Nantes’-type carrot; a disease-resistant, heat-tolerant stringless snap pea; a cold-tolerant, sugar-enhanced sweet corn and a butternut squash with good storability.  There is a sixth slot open as a “farmers’ choice” where collaborating farmers in each region chose a crop to work on; the Oregon region has chosen peppers.  The goal of the pepper trial is to find an early sweet or bell pepper as a substitute for the current standard variety.

Farmers and researchers collaboratively determine varieties (commercially-available varieties as well as those local breeders have developed) to be included in NOVIC trials.  Development of the evaluation criteria for each crop is also a collective effort.

Outreach goals of NOVIC include hosting field days, participatory organic plant breeding, on-farm variety improvement and organic seed production workshops, variety testing under organic conditions, and high-quality organic seed production.

In order to establish measures of marketability Lane brought together Portland chefs, food writers, myself and photographer Patrick Barber to taste, rate and discuss the properties of 13 different sweet peppers on a recent autumn day at Tabla restaurant. Chef Anthony Cafiero hosted the event and prepared each pepper whole, sliced, sautéed, and roasted.

Lane introduced us to the program goals of her work with NOVIC and Dr. Jim Myers, Professor and Plant Breeder at OSU. After a brief video piece featuring the farmers involved and describing the seed trials we were asked to rate each pepper on appearance, texture, flavor, color etc. Lane provided us with sheets and clipboards for collecting information and showed us to the table laden with the prepared samples.

In order to see statistically significant differences, we were asked to first taste all samples before assigning a “9” to our favorite and a “1” to our least preferred, then using the full scale for all those in between. This system of evaluation was used for each preparation (e.g. raw, sautéed, roasted). The idea being that the samples were judged against one another rather than against all peppers we had ever tasted in our lifetimes.

It was incredibly difficult to say which pepper was a favorite when they were all so tasty and beautiful, but as I went along and sampled each preparation I began to detect their subtle (and not so) differences. My overall favorite in the tasting was Joelene’s Red Italian. It had a succulent flesh with a subtle sweetness that won my 9 vote. Below are some photos of the day. Thanks to Patrick Barber for the generous use of his images. Enjoy!

Interested in more information?  Please contact:

Lane Selman
Research Associate
NOVIC Coordinator
OSU, Dept. of Horticulture
laneselman@gmail.com

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