Photo by M.L. Johnson/AP.

This past Wednesday, CALS plant breeders held the first of three summer field days for chefs, farmers and foodies to taste and provide feedback on vegetable and fruit varieties being improved for local restaurant and fresh market uses.

“I think it went well,” says organizer Julie Dawson, an assistant professor of horticulture and UW-Extension urban and regional food systems specialist. “We had about 35-40 people there who were all interested in the trials, and they asked good questions. The tasting was [so] popular, we ran out of score sheets.”

Dawson and her fellow CALS plant breeders will use the field day ratings and other feedback to help guide their breeding efforts, with the goal of developing improved vegetable and fruit varieties that Wisconsin farmers like to grow and that local chefs are excited to serve.

Reporter M.L Johnson from the AP also showed up at the field day and wrote a nice article describing the broader effort. Here’s an excerpt:

Participating chefs receive weekly deliveries of produce that they evaluate on a 5-point scale for qualities like sweetness and texture.

Dan Bonanno, the chef at A Pig in a Fur Coat, estimated he’s tasted 80 varieties of tomatoes — “I never knew there were so many different tomatoes” — since mid-July. For him, the big find has been a sweet corn bred to have a less sugary taste and firmer texture than most popular varieties.

“I ripped open the husk, took a bite, and it was like eating a pear,” Bonanno said. “It was so juicy … I’m like, wow, you can make a very nice sauce or gelato with it because it’s already naturally sweet and buttery and it had so much water.”

According to Dawson, 10 farmers have been participating in the project this summer by growing vegetable trials on their farms, and four chefs have been receiving—and offering feedback on—weekly produce deliveries. She’s looking for more participants for next year.

The next veggie-tasting field day is set for Monday, September 22 and will focus on beets, carrots, onions and tomatoes. The third and final one is on Tuesday, October 21st and will feature potatoes, winter squash and carrots. Both run from 3 – 5 p.m. at the West Madison Agricultural Research Station, 8502 Mineral Point Rd, Verona WI 53593,