Grant expands the SCOPE of organic ag education

UC Davis’ student-led program in organic farming will expand to include new crops and new partners, with the aim of exporting its educational model to other institutions. The expansion is being funded with a $2-million grant from the Organic Research and Extension Initiative, part of the United States Department of Agriculture.

People who are involved in a new grant from OREI expanding the role of the SCOPE project include several from the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences. Top row from the left is Antonia Palkovic; the third from the left, are Charlie Brummer, Luis Salazar, Laura Roser and Allison Krill-Brown. Bottom row, from left, are Amanda Saichaie, Christine Diepenbrock and, at far right, Allen Van Deynze. Top row, second from left, is Kristyn Leach, owner of Namu Farm in Winters, who is working with SCOPE to grow celtuce, an Asian lettuce. Bottom row, third from left, is Colin Dixon, director of the UC Davis Student Farm.

At the university’s Student Farm, students already have been learning how to breed tomatoes, jalapeño peppers, dry beans, wheat, and zinnias using organic methods. They partner with Prof. Priti Saxena and students at Cal Poly Pomona to grow tomatoes in hotter, drier conditions. With the OREI grant, they will add to their fields spinach and celtuce – a type of lettuce grown for its stem and popular in Asian cuisine.

“This new grant will add a collaboration with UC Santa Cruz as an initial step to exporting our teaching model to other institutions,” said Laura Roser, one of the coordinators for the UC Davis SCOPE Project. That stands for Student Collaborative Organic Plant Breeding Education, and includes student and faculty plant breeders working with local organic growers. The program seeks to improve varieties specifically for thriving on organic farms in California and beyond.

At the UC Davis Student Farm are, from left, students Anham Rafique, Michael Talty, Toa Horikoshi, Lin Lim, and Kayden Delvo; SCOPE co-coordinator Laura Roser; and student Deysi Alvaro. (Courtesy Laura Roser/UC Davis)

The partnership with UC Santa Cruz allows cultivars to be tested in locations with different conditions. UCSC also has an organic farming education program, and it’s in a cool, coastal climate. A plant breeding program will be set up there, following the model developed at UC Davis. “We have developed, tested, and refined a set of resources and activities that we know engage students and is effective at teaching fundamental practices of organic plant breeding,” the SCOPE program’s grant application reads. Students, staff, and faculty at UC Davis, UCSC, and Cal Poly Pomona will work together to test new varieties in their respective fields and to develop educational resources for plant breeding.

Working with the SCOPE zinnia project at the UC Davis Student Farm are, from left, undergraduate intern Deysi Alvaro, master’s degree student and lead student breeder Juliet Han, and SCOPE co-coordinator Antonia Palkovic. (Courtesy Laura Roser/UC Davis)

The UC Davis model includes local organic farmers, seed producers, and farmers’ market managers, who help to choose and evaluate plants in the breeding program. Kristin Leach, owner of Namu Farm in nearby Winters, is working with SCOPE to grow celtuce as part of a larger focus there on Asian heritage crops.

Most food crops are developed for conventional agriculture, which assumes the use of chemicals that are largely banned under U.S. and international organic guidelines. SCOPE’s purpose is to help organic farmers be profitable by developing varieties that combine natural pest and disease resistance with great flavor and higher yield. The crops SCOPE is currently working on were chosen in consultation with organic farmers and industry leaders.