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Mark Sorrells

Nov 14, 2014
Dr. Mark Sorrells at Aurora Field Day

Dr. Mark Sorrells at Aurora Field Day

How did you become interested in plant breeding?

I became interested in plant breeding by studying genetics both as an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University and as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. Plant breeding is a great discipline for realizing the benefits of your research program. Using genetics and knowledge from related disciplines to develop new, superior varieties of plants useful to people is very rewarding. When I see a field of wheat and recognize it as a variety that I developed, it reminds me of its history and how we identified it from among the thousands of different lines generated in the breeding program. Each variety has a personality, interesting attributes, blemishes, etc., just like people.

What is involved in breeding a new plant variety?

Oberkulmer spelt

Oberkulmer spelt

The most important component is a source of genetic variation. There are various ways of generating genetic variation but the most common is to cross two different parents (varieties) with complementary, desirable traits. The goal is to combine the desired traits from each parent in one of the offspring. That can be relatively easy for simple traits such as seed color or plant height. However, most of the traits of interest are quantitative in nature and complicated or difficult to evaluate. Grain yield is a good example. In order to determine if a particular plant selection or line has good grain yield, we first have to produce enough seed for planting research plots in replicated trials and in multiple locations. Because year-to-year variations in climate can change the relative rank of different lines, we also have to test them over three to four years before we have enough confidence in the data to determine if a line is worthy of release. So from the time a cross is made until a release decision is made it can take 10 years. We have a continuous pipeline of materials so we have candidates for release each year. On average, we identify a new variety about every three to five years. At that point, we provide a small amount of seed to an organization that is responsible for producing enough seed to sell to farmers, and that usually takes another three years.


OREI Field Day

OREI Field Day

How can plant breeding be used to benefit farmers and consumers?

Plant breeding provides a direct benefit to farmers and consumers. Farmers depend on varieties that have high economic return in one form or another. Varieties can have unique characteristics desired by consumers or they can be high yielding. It is also important that varieties perform well for processors such as companies that make food products. Often, processes such as baking have very stringent requirements for functional properties for products made from the raw material. The next time you go to the grocery store, take a look at the variation in the fruits and vegetables. They all had their origin in a plant breeding program. It’s also important to remember that, in addition to food and beverage products, plant breeders produce forage varieties for livestock and biofuels for various uses.


One of your current projects focuses on evaluating small grains for use in organic farming systems. Tell us about this project.

Planting research plots

Planting research plots

In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in consumer demand for organically grown food products. As a result, for the past  several years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture has had a grants program called the Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI).Three years ago, we applied for funding and were granted $2.3 million over four years for a project titled “Value-added grains for local and regional food systems.” We have several important collaborators in NY, PA, and ND. The primary goal of this project is to enhance the market value of organically grown grains such as heritage wheat, emmer, spelt, and einkorn (ancient grains). The project will specifically evaluate how well suited these grains are for production in organic systems, and assess these crops for their grain and baking characteristics, including flavor and nutritional quality. The project seeks to help those working to develop regional food grain systems, including 

  • Organic farmers, both those currently growing grains and those who want to expand into grain production (including vegetable growers)
  • Artisan bakers, chefs, restaurateurs
  • Organic millers and other food processors 
  • Consumers interested in eating locally and regionally grown grains, and
  • “Backyard” growers who want to grow their own grain.

To bring back economically viable grain production to our region, we are focusing on adding value to grains in multiple ways: by growing organically, growing grains with high-market potential (specifically heritage and “ancient” wheat), and processing grains to create even higher-value products. The lessons learned from this project should help the development of other locally grown food grains such as oats, barley, corn, buckwheat, quinoa, and more.


Why might organic farmers be interested in growing small grains?

Plot combine

Plot combine

Most organic farmers are fruit and/or vegetable growers because these tend to be high-value crops. Organic farmers focus on high-value crops because organic production is more costly and labor intensive than conventional farming practices. However, the benefits of crop rotation are well known and widely practiced by most farmers. Grains provide an excellent choice for crop rotation with vegetables but commodity grains are relatively low in value and therefore are not a desirable option. Consequently, we aim to provide organic farmers with options for growing high-value specialty grains so that they can realize an economic return comparable to their profits from growing vegetables. Some of these grains can bring five- to ten-fold higher prices than commodity grains.


Harvesting sprout samples

Harvesting sprout samples

What metrics do you use to evaluate the suitability of a grain for organic production?

This is an interesting question because the answer might not be what people would expect. Normally, the response would be high grain yield and good agronomic characteristics. However, grains for organic production need to have a high value for some characteristic such as flavor that is not available in commodity grains. Also, because organic farmers do not use pesticides or herbicides, diseases and weeds can be major problems. Consequently, organic farmers need varieties that have disease resistance and can out-compete weeds. Wheat varieties that have high seedling vigor and large leaves that quickly cover the soil surface are better for limiting weed competition.


What types of organic small grains do you expect to become more widely available to consumers as a result of this project?

Jensen Winter Wheat

Jensen Winter Wheat

We will be able to recommend one or more varieties of emmer, einkorn, spelt and heritage wheat for organic production in the northeastern U.S. Also, our collaborators in Pennsylvania and North Dakota will be able to make sound recommendations based on the results of our research. Our collaboration with GreenMarket NY City is facilitating the acquisition and distribution of these grains to farmers’ markets and buyers over a 200-mile radius around NYC.



What other grains are gaining interest?

Emmer OREI Field day

Emmer OREI Field day

In 2012, the New York State Legislature passed a Farm Brewery Bill that is creating enormous demand for an old crop: malting barley. The law allows small-scale beer makers to receive a special lower-cost and simplified license in return for sourcing their ingredients from New York farms. This year, craft brewers are required to source at least 25 percent of their hops and 40 percent of all other ingredients from New York, but the ratio will increase incrementally to 90 percent in ten years. The New York State Legislature saw the opportunity to develop an industry, but it didn’t foresee the lack of information on malting varieties in New York so we are bringing in malting barley varieties from any place we can find them for testing in NY. There is an estimated demand for up to 30 million pounds of malt per year, but so far there are only five or six malt houses producing about one ton of malted barley per week. In addition, I have discovered that one of our white winter wheat varieties, Medina, is excellent for malting and making wheat beer, and that is stimulating demand for that variety. Some of the malt houses are experimenting with other grains such as rye, emmer, and spelt to produce novel beverages.

Another old crop that is enjoying a rebirth is rye. Normally, rye varieties are highly variable “synthetic” varieties but two years ago I heard about hybrid rye varieties (like hybrid corn) that were being developed and marketed by a company in Germany. I brought in a dozen of those hybrids and tested them in regional trials in NY. The yields were unbelievable!  They out-yield current rye varieties by at least 25 percent and were 50 percent higher yielding than my best winter wheat variety. There are at least 35 distilleries in NY, and they want to purchase as much rye as NY farmers can produce. Rye is also used to make certain craft beers.

To wrap up, small grain cereals are enjoying a revitalization of interest in their benefits to agriculture and consumers in this region. The extraordinary variation in agronomic and culinary characteristics is contributing to the increased popularity and diversity of food products made from grains.

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