SOSS 2016 was held on August 5th-8th at the Colby College campus in Waterville, Maine. A total of 41 graduate students, speakers and guests participated in an optional Friday full day tour of Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, ME. The employees at Johnny’s gave a comprehensive tour of packing facilities, the seed quality lab, the inventory warehouse, field trials, and research plots. 

Photographs by Tiffany Fess

Photographs by Tiffany Fess

The official SOSS event commenced Friday evening and continued through Saturday and Sunday with a total of 48 participants. We heard from Neil Lash of Medomak Valley High School’s Heirloom Seed Project, Jim Gerritsen of Wood Prairie Family Farm, Dr. Kristine Nichols of the Rodale Institute, Dr. Janny van Been of Global Crop Diversity Trust, Kiki Hubbard of the Organic Seed Alliance, Dr. Bill Tracy of University of Wisconsin-Madison, Jane Rabinowicz of the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, and Theresa Podoll of Prairie Road Organic Seed. We took a field trip to Wild Folk Farm in Benton, ME to learn about their experimentation and production of organic paddy rice. We visited a Fedco Seeds cooperative member’s farm where Fedco seed trials were being conducted. Every year the highlight of SOSS is hearing from the graduate students about their research projects as they stand amongst their breeding material in the field. This year’s student trial plots were planted and maintained by Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

The four-day event came to a close with an optional full day of field trips on Monday with 25 participants. The morning was spent with Eliot and Clara Coleman giving a tour of Four Season Farm in Brooksville, ME followed by a lively organic seed discussion and hoe prototype reveal. The day concluded with a tour of the Somerset Grist Mill of Maine Grains in Skowhegan, ME. 

Take a look at participants’ photos on Instagram with #SOSS2016!

SOSS 2016 was made possible by the generous support from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, The Ceres Trust, Seed Matters, Organic Seed Alliance, Vitalis Organic Seeds, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Lundberg Family Farms, University of Wisconsin-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences department, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and Albert Lea Seed. 

The graduate student organizers of SOSS 2016 were Ginny Moore (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Jared Zystro (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Julianne Kellogg (Washington State University), Lauren Brzozowski (Cornell University), and Sara Kammlade (Colorado State University). 


In 2015, over 50 graduate students, faculty and seed industry professionals gathered at the University of Wisconsin-Madison the 4th annual student-run Student Organic Seed Symposium (SOSS). The year’s theme, “Growing the Organic Seed Spectrum: A Community Approach,” was explored through lectures from organic community experts and field trips showcasing the Midwest's organic seed spectrum - from locally focused to globally integrated. 

The symposium’s speakers were innovators in the organic seed sector. Founders, owners, and breeding staff of Johnny’s Selected Seeds, High Mowing Organic Seeds, and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange provided perspective on the history, current status, and future potential for the organic seed industry. University researchers presented their work on breeding vegetables and grains specifically for lower-input ecologically-based farms and flavor-focused consumers. In addition, Michael Sligh from Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) offered the perspective of a nonprofit organization working to promote a diverse, improved, accessible public seed supply.

The field trip took the SOSS group to organic food and seed companies of several sizes. At Organic Valley, a national-scale farmer cooperative in La Farge, WI, attendees learned about the cooperative’s effort to strengthen organic seed, soil, and pasture systems. Next, the group visited Vermont Valley Community Farm and Organic Seed Potatoes in Blue Mounds, WI. There, they discussed the unique challenges of producing certified seed potatoes in organic conditions and heard about the rigorous record-keeping involved with both variety trialing and successful farming. The trip ended at A.P. Whaley Seed Company in Mt. Horeb, where the group viewed and sampled heirloom and newly-bred tomato varieties.

SOSS places high importance on sharing the work of student plant breeders. Varieties bred by participating students - from beets to quinoa to watermelon - were planted in demonstration plots for in-the-field discussion, followed by a hands-on cooking workshop with three Madison chefs.

The public joined SOSS participants for two interactive events: a day-long, field-based Organic Seed School on Sunday, August 9 and an informal evening Science Cafe on Monday, August 10. Organic Seed School is focused on providing farmers and gardeners with the practical knowledge needed to start breeding their own vegetable varieties. The Science Cafe, called Green Genes: Seed Breeding for Organic Agriculture, provided a place for informal conversation between organic plant breeders and Madison community members. This free event featured seed trivia, snacks, and a moderated Q&A about seeds, breeding, and the future of our food system.


SOSS members rating different kale cultivars at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, NY in 2014

SOSS members rating different kale cultivars at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, NY in 2014

The 3rd Student Organic Seed Symposium was held in 2014 at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, hosted by Dr. Michael Mazourek and his graduate student Lindsay Wyatt and postdoctoral associate John Hart. The theme for the symposium was “Regional Adaptation for Sustainable Food and Seed Systems."  As with past events, a diverse, interdisciplinary group of speakers and graduate students was assembled to focus on plant breeding and related disciplines, by coming together and sharing experiences in applying their work towards moving agriculture in the direction of increased sustainability and regionalism. 


In 2013, the second annual meeting was held, this time at Washington State University’s Mount Vernon Agricultural Experiment Station, where Dr. Stephen Jones carries out breeding for organic, regional bread wheat production. The area had the added attraction of being a center for the production of beet, spinach, and brassica seed. Students were able to visit numerous seed production, cleaning, and trialing facilities ranging from large scale to small, and also tour farms doing innovative participatory breeding work in collaboration with the Organic Seed Alliance on the Olympic Peninsula. Again, the event was a success and the community broadened and strengthened.

Indicative of the growing importance of organic seed, some of the 2013 symposium speakers, including Kristina Hubbard of the Organic Seed Alliance and Dr. Bill Tracy of the University of Wisconsin, travelled to Washington, D.C. following the Student Organic Seed Symposium to meet with the USDA about the future of public breeding and the growing need for organic seed. In the coming years, organic certification will require that organic growers use all organic seed, prompting continued growth of the organic seed sector. Likewise, as movements towards re-regionalizing food production, further diversifying fields and diets, increasing the nutrient density in crops, and breeding for a changing climate grow, the need for the kinds of breeders that the students involved in the Student Organic Seed Symposium aim to be becomes apparent.



In 2012, a group of graduate students working in plant breeding for organic agricultural systems organized the first Student Organic Seed Symposium, held in Hardwick, Vermont at High Mowing Seeds. The gathering brought together students from multiple universities with public and private breeders, organic seed advocates, and seed industry representatives. While interest in organic research has grown exponentially in the last decade, recognition of the importance of organic seed has lagged behind. The purpose of this meeting was to bring together the disparate people working to advance this crucial aspect of organic agriculture. In particular, it aimed to create a network of support, encouragement, and training for graduate students interested in organic food and seed systems. The three-day event was a great success and a community was born.