Future plant breeders from around the country are in town this week to talk about developing seeds for organic farming systems. About 32 graduate students have gathered to attend the fourth annual Student Organic Seed Symposium (SOSS), which runs Aug 9-12 in Madison.

While organic foods are popular among consumers, the organics segment remains a lonely field for future plant breeders. At many of the universities that offer graduate programs in plant breeding, there are only a handful of students focused on developing better varieties for organic farming systems. SOSS offers an opportunity for this widely dispersed group to gather.

“The conventional seed industry is very well stocked, and there’s a pipeline of students that go into the industry. But the organic seed industry is small and it’s just developing,” explains Irwin Goldman, professor and chair of the horticulture department.

Learning sessions at SOSS
The start of a learning session at this year’s SOSS. Banner photo: Participants visiting research fields at the West Madison Agricultural Research Station.

The theme of this year’s SOSS is “Growing the Organic Seed Spectrum: A Community Approach.” Attendees will participate in a variety of talks and tours, including visits to organic food and seed companies of various sizes and the West Madison Agricultural Research Station where they will observe—and taste—each other’s work in the field. They will also take part in an interactive chef-breeder workshop where local chefs prepare vegetable varieties bred by SOSS attendees and the group discusses how the upcoming generation of plant breeders can best serve regional culinary communities.

One of the major benefits of the symposium for graduate students is the opportunity to connect with other students, professional breeders and company representatives in the down time between scheduled activities. “We have a lot of one-on-one interaction during the symposium that you don’t necessarily get at other, larger conferences,” says UW-Madison horticulture graduate student Lynn Maher, one of the symposium organizers. “Those interactions lead to professional relationships and collaborations with other students.”

In addition to developing collaborations and a pipeline of talent, Goldman wants the symposium to serve the entire organic seed community. The students involved have been invaluable in that effort, he says.

“We’re serving a constituency that’s important in agriculture, and that’s part of our job,” explains Goldman. “We also have smart students who see the future in sustainability, and they push us, the faculty, to do more. This symposium represents a cohort of students from around the country who are pushing organic seeds forward.”