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HONORING PLANT BREEDER

Tim Peters

If Tim Peters has his way, we may someday enjoy a new member of the brassica family that’s even odder than kohlrabi. Steve Solomon, founder of Territorial Seed Company in Oregon, once referred to Peters as “our local Burbank.” Peters has achieved his most notable commercial successes with broccoli, a vegetable so difficult that it could justly be called a plant breeder’s nightmare.

Broccoli has a genetic incompatibility mechanism that prevents self-pollination and also exhibits strong inbreeding depression, which means that using inbreeding alone as a technique for genetic uniformity will result in small, weak plants. Peters had to use a whole tool chest of techniques, including bud-pollinating, crossing, inbreeding, selecting, pooling, mass-selecting and reselecting. When he released Umpqua in the late 1980s, it was the only decent open-pollinated broccoli available. In the mid '90s Umpqua gave way to #3310 Thompson, a Peters improvement which we have offered the past four years. Peters reports further developments which he hopes to have available soon.

Since early childhood, Peters has been fascinated by the workings of heredity. The summer he turned 14 he figured out how to cross pollinate tomatoes. From then on, he was a plant breeder, learning by trial and error. By 30 he was working with Territorial Seed Company as their trials manager and later research director, grounding him in the varieties available and giving his breeding work a practical focus.

In addition to broccoli, he’s introduced an intriguing line of “Treasure” storage tomatoes. Currently he’s working on turnip-rooted napa cabbage, kales that make broccoli or cauliflower heads, and perennial grains including sorghum, wheat, rye, triticale and millets.

Peters laments the slow pace and high costs of his research. He has yet to find a way to make his work pay financially. He regards most of his introductions to date as “just genetic steppingstones in the path to something better. Just as we wish our own offspring to excel, so I wish the offspring of my varieties to excel–to do all that their parents did and more.”