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Plant Breeders Talk Variety Development with New York Chef

Award winning New York Chef Dan Barber led a panel discussion with NDSU plant breeders at the 40th Annual Northern Plains Sustainable Food and Farming Conference on January 24, 2019.

February 26, 2019

Award winning New York Chef Dan Barber was a keynote speaker at the 40th Annual Northern Plains Sustainable Food and Farming Conference organized by the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society (NPSAS) on January 24, 2019. He challenged traditional and sustainable farming operations to examine current plant breeding parameters. Barber, co-owner and executive chef at Blue Hill Restaurant in Greenwich Village and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, moderated a panel comprised of four North Dakota State University Department of Plant Sciences plant breeders titled, “A Chef in Conversation with Breeders”.

The four panelists were Andrew Green, wheat breeder and assistant professor; Richard Horsley, barley breeder and department head; Mike McMullen, oat breeder and professor; and Asunta (Susie) Thompson, potato breeder and associate professor.

Barber’s interest in variety development began when he realized that heirloom, or “retired”, plant varieties that are extremely flavorful and desirable for chefs are not readily available for conventional production. He began searching for breeders who could help him and that led to visits to NDSU.  Barber began the panel discussion saying that the panel members are “fountains of information” and he appreciates their helpfulness and openness in talking about new ideas.

Barber’s key question to the panel members was, “Are there varieties you have discarded through breeding selection that you wish you could examine more closely, and do they have flavor properties that might interest chefs?” All four panelists said yes, and that they would enjoy the challenge of studying the discarded materials. They commented that finding unusual and interesting materials is part of the fun of plant breeding.

Horsley remarked on changes he has seen in the beer brewing industry. Because of lobbying efforts by craft brewing and malting organizations, he said that “industry demand for certain malting barley varieties led to changes in our program, including graduate students wanting to do research specifically on flavor in malting barley varieties.” He added, “If that is important to malting barley consumers, why aren’t we taking about it in other breeding programs?”

Thompson’s potato breeding program is a good example of a program that produces attractive and delicious foods the culinary world may like, even if they do not meet the potato industry’s processing parameters. She said that many of the “discarded clones from research are beautifully colored and flavorful” and that people in her project have even used some of these never-released lines to make dishes such as a tasty yellow lefse (a Scandinavian type of flat bread). Thompson also shares some of these varieties with colleagues and friends for family garden production.

Andrew Green said that as he studied for his doctorate, he learned that plant breeding includes a lot of failure because a high percentage of the genetic material that is evaluated does not meet the selection parameters and is discarded. He said, “Being able to spend more time testing varieties that look promising but don’t necessarily meet those standards would be fun and interesting and we would like to do it.”

The problems of marketing low-acreage crops were illustrated when the group talked about oats. McMullen said that he has seen a huge decrease in oat acreage in his years as NDSU’s oat breeder and explained that the market is limited and impacted by international trade. Barber said that he has a hard time understanding why more organic farmers do not grow oats in rotation with other organic crops. Farmers in the audience and McMullen commented that the market is very complicated and making a profit on oats is generally very difficult. Barber concluded by saying that in his kitchen, “McMullen is considered a rock star” for developing the very delicious oat variety named “Paul”.

The discussion lasted about an hour and Barber thanked the panelists for sharing their knowledge and for their willingness to keep the conversation going in the future.

Barber’s keynote address at the conference was titled “Breeding for Flavor: A New Blueprint for Cuisine”.

For more information on Barber, see

For more information on the NPSAS, see

Author: Karen Hertsgaard, 701-231-5384,
Editors: Rich Horsley, ; Kamie Beeson,

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