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Getting Texas into the Organic Crop Breeding Game

Getting Texas into the Organic Crop Breeding Game

Texas may not be known as a big organic commodity supplier, but Texas A&M AgriLife is working to change that with the addition of a new organic and specialty crop breeding program.

A clear path is laid out for moving Texas up in the ranks of organic suppliers and markets after a year of building the organic program to include research and specialty crop breeding at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Vernon.

Directing that movement in Vernon are Rick Vierling, Ph.D., center director, and Waltram Ravelombola, Ph.D., the new Texas A&M AgriLife Research specialty crop and organic crop breeder in the Texas A&M Department of Soil and Crop Sciences.

“As we look at trying to help farmers be more economically sustainable, we want to offer them as many options as possible,” Vierling said. “Organic crops are one of those options. Texas is a leader in consumption of organic food, but we are near the bottom of organic production.”

Certifying organic land and building a program to become a leader

“We had our first organic acres inspected this year, and we will be bringing additional acres into the organic program in future years. Eventually, we want the new Organic Research Station to be a Texas A&M AgriLife-wide resource, where researchers from all over the state can conduct breeding programs and other research on certified organic acres.”

AgriLife Research recently purchased 99 acres that will be converted to certified-organic land for research, breeding and education. It will take three years for that land to be fully organic, Vierling said.

In the first year, Ravelombola said, the team has been evaluating genetic materials in a wide variety of crops. Summer crops include guar, cowpeas and indigo, and winter crops include lentils and barley.

“Right now, Texas is behind in terms of organic production,” Ravelombola said. “We would like to fill that gap by providing farmers with high quality organic seeds that are adapted to the region.”

Most available crop varieties are bred for traditional agricultural production. Organic producers need varieties that have good pest and disease resistance because chemicals are not allowed in organic production.

“For guar and cowpeas, the plant materials are from our own program,” he said. “The lentils are from several other programs and the barley is from Penn State University.”

While it will take several years of testing, Ravelombola said they expect to release the first organic guar and cowpea varieties in the country.

“We have to breed for weed competitiveness, and we have to breed for yields that are comparable to conventional crops,” he said. “But we also want to concentrate on breeding for nutritional content and traits that are important to food companies.”

Ravelombola is trying to contact organic farmers to supply testing locations that will provide a broader range of environmental conditions.

Finding an organic place in the crop rotation

“The most exciting thing is we know the system works,” Ravelombola said. “We know these organic crops can fit in the existing agriculture system in Texas. It is a huge opportunity for farmers because the demand for organic food is continually increasing.”

Each crop Ravelombola has selected to start with has a purpose and a place in existing cropping systems.

Texas producers are beginning to look at organic production. First, there is a price incentive — organic produce is sold at slightly higher prices compared to conventional. Second, domestic demand is increasing for organic produce. Whether that demand is for more guar, because the U.S. is guar’s No. 1 consumer but has to import most of it, or for barley to supply Texas’ growing brewery industry, these crops are finding a steady spot in the market.

Organic produce is consumed in every country, and Texas A&M AgriLife plans to help Texas farmers embrace the growing industry.

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