The story of how Tessa Peters ended up snagging one of the nation’s first graduate fellowships in organic plant breeding begins in an unlikely place: the middle of the ocean.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in physics, she set out as a geophysicist, mapping the ocean floor aboard a large ship, working five weeks on, five weeks off. During her time off, she traveled widely and stumbled upon her new career path.
“Oftentimes I found myself staying on farms or talking to farmers or just trying to find out about the local food system where I was visiting – just out of my own curiosity,” says Peters.
One thing led to another-a stint on an organic farm in Ecuador, a second bachelor’s degree in agroecology, and finally, becoming a graduate student in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s plant breeding and plant genetics program.
Peters chose the UW based on the program’s strength and the faculty’s efforts in organic plant breeding. In addition to running a breeding program for conventional sweet corn, for instance, Peters’ advisor Bill Tracy, professor and chair of the agronomy department, breeds sweet corn for organic farming systems. These same things also drew the attention of Seed Matters, an initiative funded by the Clif Bar Family Foundation, which selected the UW to receive one of four organic plant breeding fellowships that it granted earlier this year, the first such fellowships ever awarded in the nation.
“We believe it is important to expand the presence of organic research at land-grant universities and colleges, and to have this research lead to new varieties that meet the growing demand for organic food and fiber,” says Matthew Dillon, director of Seed Matters. “The fellowships also support the next generation of leadership in organic research, entrepreneurship and agricultural policy.”
Public plant breeders who improve vegetables and other crops for organic systems are few and far between, even though there’s growing demand for organic products in the marketplace. In fact, many organic farmers are forced to grow varieties that were bred for conventional farming systems, so are less than optimal for their farms.
“One of the underlying paradigms of plant breeding is you should breed for the conditions under which the crops are going to be grown. But to date there’s been very little breeding for organic conditions, so there are opportunities and needs out there that aren’t being met,” explains Tracy.
The fellowship given to UW-Madison, which was entrusted to Tracy to bestow, is designed to help fill this gap. Tracy selected Peters for her academic excellence, diverse experiences and work ethic. “I need students who want to work in the field,” he says. “She’s worked on an organic farm, and she likes farm work, so Tessa was a very good fit for my program.”
With Peters on board, Tracy now has two out of six graduate students working on the organic side of things.
The fellowship will provide Peters with five years of support. At this point, she’s still learning the ropes-the fieldwork and lab work involved in organic plant breeding-and meeting with Tracy to try to nail down her main research project. The fellowship gives Peters and Tracy a lot of freedom to choose what to work on, and the two are searching for a high-impact project that can solve a major problem faced by organic farmers.
Tessa is eager to get started on her project — and her new career path.
“I love working on farms, and I love working with farmers,” she says. “I’m excited to start working in a scientific field where I can incorporate all of these things.”