This week on Rootstock Radio we speak to Dylan Bruce, associate research specialist in the department of plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is passionate about organic food and agriculture as well as involving his Millennial generation in the revitalization of our food system. While in school at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California, Dylan worked with the college to change the food options offered in their cafeterias. He was also involved in the college’s participation in the Real Food Challenge, a movement that aims to shift university food budgets away from industrial farms and junk food and toward local, fair, ecologically sound and humane food sources.
Dylan says that his current work with organic seeds is especially important given that “there aren’t very many varieties of vegetables out there that have been bred for organic production.” The research being conducted at UW-Madison, and other projects like it, is crucial for the continued development and expansion of organic agriculture.
However, seeds bred specifically for organic production aren’t enough. You need people invested in eating the food those organic farmers produce, too. This is why Dylan got involved with the Real Food Challenge and changing the way his college approached food. He believes that “if you can make sustainable food, and especially sustainable food procurement, a part of the social etiquette that a student is learning in college, then that’s really powerful.”
Interview with Dylan Bruce
September 12, 2016
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here with one of my favorite millennials, Dylan Bruce. It’s really, really exciting to have Dylan with us. He is actually an associate research specialist for the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Dylan also is a recent graduate of Occidental College in Los Angeles and is involved with a very exciting initiative, the Real Food Challenge, which we’ll also hear more about. Welcome, Dylan!
DYLAN BRUCE: Thank you. Good to be talking to you today.
TM: Thank you so much for taking some time out of your job. So I’m really excited to be talking to you about your work with the Department of Plant Pathology. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
DB: Sure. So I work under Dr. Erin Silva. She’s housed in the Plant Pathology Department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, but really her role is as the organic cropping systems specialist. And so she works with researchers throughout all sorts of departments, really, on any project that’s relating to organics. And she will kind of consult on it, get involved in it. She has a really broad scope of work, and so we work with everything from traditional field crops such as soy and corn to intensive vegetable production. And although it’s not an Extension position, all of our work is very focused on the farmer, and so we always have an eye towards making sure that the research projects that we take on are things that are going to produce information that’s actually applicable and useful for the farmer and not something too abstract.
So my role is mostly managing the vegetable production, the vegetable research. And we do everything from winter squash, carrots, solanaceous crops, cabbage, beets and chard, celery…
TM: Wow, what an exciting job to have right after graduating from college. I have to ask this: what did you study at Occidental that you feel like prepared you to get this job?
DB: Well, I think it was almost less what I studied and more the jobs I had, which I think unfortunately is a classic scenario these days. But I was a double major for theater and biology, and the biology certainly gave me a decent foundation, and the plant physiology gave me a decent foundation for understanding some of the more technical aspects. And I think part of why they hired me rather than someone who was a horticulture major or something to do this field management is because I have some of the more experimental design and statistical skills. So that fed into it.
But I think more so was managing our campus garden, our student garden at Occidental, and I was the president of that student club for three years and really saw a lot of growth and taking on new projects and stuff there and a new sort of role within the college for it. And then also I was the sustainability intern, or lead intern, for Campus Dining and did a lot of institutional procurement. And so I think the combination of that management and the scientific skills is sort of what found me here.
But you know, I have to lay my full hand out and say my dad definitely had something to do with it, introducing me to Dr. Silva last summer when I was researching the agroecology program here at UW.
TM: Tell us about the crops, your vegetable program.
DB: The crops that we work here are mostly related to one project, which is called NOVIC, which stands for the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative. And that’s a project that’s headed up by Dr. Jim Myers at Oregon State but works with a whole host of researchers there, at the Organic Seed Alliance, at Oregon State, at Cornell University, and here at the UW-Madison. And it’s all working on this idea that there, or off this premise that’s fairly pressing, I think, for organic vegetable farming, which is that there aren’t really very many varieties of vegetables out there that have been bred for organic production.
So, you know, organic seed, it’s, you know, I think, more commonly known that organic seed is often in short supply, and especially for key varieties. And that’s partly because seed is such a sensitive thing to produce—so many diseases can be seed-borne—that a lot of seed ends up being produced under conventional management. And so you end up year after year with selection pressures that are only within conventional systems, really, and just relate to conventional systems. And so most of our common vegetable varieties, even the ones where now there is seed produced organically and enough of it to go around, many of those varieties were originally bred for conventional management.
And so NOVIC is looking at certain traits that are more key for organic production systems. So we might value disease or pest resistance more highly; or the outlet for organic vegetables is often different, so we might be looking for different flavor profiles in our tomatoes—because they’re more specialty, they’re thought of as more specialty as organic—than a conventional breeder might be looking for. So the NOVIC project happens in five-year cycles, where five crops are chosen. This year we have peppers, tomatoes, winter squash, sweet corn, cabbage. And there’s an associated project with it which is looking at breeding a variegated pepper, striped pepper variety, which right now the plants aren’t yielding very well, but man, there are some pretty peppers! So that’s pretty exciting.
TM: An organic variegated striped pepper.
DB: That’s right. Talk about a specialty crop!
TM: Well, I’m curious. I’m sure that for many of us, gee, isn’t a seed a seed a seed? And how would you breed for organic? But I’m thinking besides that you would want to breed for resistance to pests, since organic does not allow neurotoxic and some of the more lethal synthetic pesticides. Are you also looking for water traits, given that we’re looking at a world where if you’re not in drought you’re flooding?
DB: Well, what we do actually is less breeding and more variety trialing. So what we’ll do is we’ll take breeding lines from breeders or from… So for instance, the corn that we work with, the sweet corn, comes from, is chosen, kind of comes out of Bill Tracy’s sweet corn program here at the UW. And so he would be working on issues more like that, and then what we do is we take those varieties and put it in organic management. So we try and sort of mimic the industry standards of management for each crop. And so while we aren’t specifically taking data on water management, we use conservation irrigation practices like mulched drip irrigation, which has much less evaporation and is a good way to get consistent water supplies. But then our crops are also responding to the abnormal fluctuations of the water, and that sort of becomes one of the influences on the selection in our crops.
So this year has been a really wet year for us, and so one of the biggest things that’s going to come out of this year of our pepper research is resistance to soft rot, which has to do with it being too wet. And the soft rot, we’re not seeing necessarily… You know, we’re not necessarily also measuring the soil humidity to double-check, but that’s going to be one of the things that we say. And again, this is all very Extension focused, so that’s going to be one of the things that we can turn around just to the farmers and say, “Okay, in 2016 we had a super wet year that was also really hot; tons of soft rot for pepper growers all over the region. Here are the two varieties that seemed to be most resistant to it.” And so in that way we might get something like water management. And really, in that same way, we get something for pests. But it’s really about taking these and taking data on them, doing very careful management in industry-standard organic production systems.
TM: It sounds like you have a very, very important job because you’re actually testing—I mean, I know that Dr. Tracy’s also probably doing some of these testing, but it sounds like you’re doing some pretty good job of testing these things and then also deciding which ones go to other places to test.
I just want to back up for a second and, for our listeners, very exciting that Dr. Bill Tracy, who is the first organic-endowed chair in a university extension at UW-Madison focused on developing breeds for organic. So that’s been a very exciting year for us to see that position in place. And then how wonderful then that there is now this other, Dr. Silva’s, it sounds to me like you and her group, testing these varieties. So very, very exciting. What are you seeing in some of the other tests that you’re doing?
DB: Sure. So one of the things that we look at is late blight resistance is very important for organic tomato production because the organic pesticides to deal with late blight… Or, sorry, I guess, to back up, late blight can be really devastating because it’s a really quick killer for tomato plants. It’ll often come on at the end of the season. It’s particularly problematic in the Northwest, but it’s also all across our latitudes here, it’s kind of a problem, and it can really just wipe out a crop when it does hit, very quickly, and totally end production. Whereas with early blight, you kind of get a phase-out and the tomatoes still get to ripen a bit, and what-not.
So we’re looking at late blight, which is [unclear] one thing with the tomatoes. And because there aren’t, again, there aren’t great pesticides except for, you know, the classic copper, which is pretty toxic, and so we avoid using that. But we haven’t had late blight happen here, but we have had Septoria leaf spot, which is characterized by lots of small, very circular spotting on the leaves that can kind of then spread and become bigger lesions and eventually totally dead brown foliage, where the stem is still a little bit green or yellowing and the leaves are browned and dying. So we’ve had that quite severely here, which I think is common to a lot of organic production across our region, again, as well as early blight. And we get to see a very differential thing between the different varieties. And so when we lay out these research plots, they’re actually just in little lengths of twelve plants at a time.
TM: Boy, now I know what’s wrong with my tomato leaves—it’s Septoria leaf spot. Dylan, did you know all this stuff before you started working? I have to ask you.
DB: You know, I knew some of it. And I must confess, I’ve learned tons at this job while I’ve been here, just in the few months. But I must confess I’m kind of a serial reader on all this stuff. I love just learning about it. Even though I don’t manage my own farm yet, I’m just managing these research sites, I always am trying to read up on what the newest and best management method is, and what’s most exciting. So some of it I did know.
And I tell you, managing the garden at Occidental College in LA, you know, it’s hot and sunny all year round, which is great for the people, but it also means we have pretty much every pest in the book.
TM: I bet. And then also some water problems there as well.
DB: Definitely. We had to very carefully manage our water, and we used subsurface drip irrigation, which is about as good as you can get, because it has the minimum evaporation and delivers water right to the roots. So we tried to use the best practices we could there, for sure.
TM: And you saw that working pretty well, that subsurface drip irrigation?
DB: It does work well, but not for direct-seeded crops. And so when we would direct-seed crops we’d still have to get that very surface moisture and we would have to water them in just to keep the soil moist. And it’s especially hard for real small seeds that can’t really absorb and hold much water. So like carrots, you know, we still had to surface-water multiple times a day just to keep that surface moist.
TM: For our listeners out there, we are talking to Dylan Bruce, who is an associate research specialist for the Department of Plant Pathology, and we’re learning a lot about how the University of Wisconsin at Madison is helping farmers and trialing different organic seeds and vegetables and corn and soy, and with some great success.
Well, you know, while we’re talking about Occidental, I’ve been reading about the Real Food Challenge and am fascinated by it and excited by it. I love the idea of the college students and the youth trying to improve their food situation, like, i.e., taking their food into their own hands, so to speak. Can you tell us a little bit about the Real Food Challenge? You know, how did it get started? How did you get involved in it?
DB: Sure. So the Real Food Challenge was started back, I believe, in 2008 at Brown University by a few students. And it was started during their contract renegotiations with—don’t necessarily quote me on this, I believe it was Aramark. But one of the sort of big three, what’s known as the big three management companies.
TM: Aramark, Cisco, and—
DB: Aramark, Sodexo, and Compass Group. And those three, and then working in cahoots, I guess you could say, with big distribution companies like Cisco to big production companies like Tyson. So these students really saw this whole feedback of giant corporations that really had sort of a stranglehold on their food system, their college food chain, all the way from the production down to the kitchen at their school cafeteria. And so they eventually, I think, successfully negotiated the contract away. You can read more about all the inception of this online at realfoodchallenge.org. It’s a really cool organization, cool story.
But they, through that process of fighting this big company, they kind of came to realize how much power college campuses and other institutions of higher education could have in terms of just their buying power, and how much really the voice of college students could force their institution to vote with their dollar and slowly change the food system that way. And so they started this grassroots organization that’s sort of composed of little student club groups all over the country, wherever a motivated student can be found to start one, at different colleges, universities, I think even some two-year institutions now, but really with a focus on changing the institutional procurement practices to prioritize local and otherwise sustainable food. And they have the stated goal of changing 20 percent of college and university food budgets to what they call “real food”—essentially economically or ecologically sustainable food. So 20 percent of food budgets going to real food by 2020, which is coming right up here. But they’re making really good progress, a lot of traction, more and more schools signing on to it.
And so they designed this pledge that schools can sign on to called the Real Food Campus Commitment. And it’s sort of modeled after the Presidents Climate Commitment, if you’re familiar with that. But the idea is to get an institution to commit to buying 20 percent sustainable food by 2020. And so you can sign on to 20 percent or above. I was actually able to talk with our dining administration and our school president, our college president at Occidental, and we signed on with a goal of 30 percent real food by 2020. And I’m super happy to report that this last year, we ended up with 26 percent real food, which is very exciting and actually one of the highest numbers you’ll find in the nation. So I’m not afraid to brag about that; it was really exciting for me.
But the idea being that there’s this trickle-down effect from institutions that are serving… You know, even at our small school of two thousand people they were serving three thousand meals every day out of two different cafeterias, essentially. And so that’s a lot of food going through there. And not only do you have this enormous purchasing power but you’re also shaping and helping students’ practices for later in life. And college students are, most of them are out of the house for their first time and forming their own practices and habits of how they’re going to live on their own, and if you can make sustainable food, and especially sustainable food procurement, a part of that social etiquette that a student is learning at college, then that’s really powerful because they carry that forward, both in their buying power and spreading it word-of-mouth themselves.
TM: That is just so fantastic to hear. I mean, it just makes my heart all warm, because you’re right: it isn’t just about learning about food, the food that’s better for you and the issues of local, but just the whole…they’re participating in democracy! It’s just fantastic to hear about that.
I can’t help but ask you this: I was just reading the most current Adbusters and there’s a quote in there that says something about we need a call for the youth of the Western world to step up and participate in their own lives instead of merely recording it with their iPhones. I think, one, you are proving that that’s not true, but I wondered if you’ve had a thought about that.
DB: Yeah, well, definitely. And it’s actually really interesting with this movement of the Real Food Challenge. So for instance, at my school, at Occidental—I guess my alma mater now—really the students were actually one of the biggest, I guess you could say points of opposition or bottlenecks in increasing our sustainable procurement, because we found, I found it wasn’t hardest to convince the dining services to up their plate price 3 percent and spend 3 percent more to be able to get organic eggs or something like that. But what’s hardest is convincing the students that they need to try something more.
And so, obviously, a big part of sustainable food is eating local, eating with the seasons. And that means you can’t have exactly what you crave every single time you go to eat. You have to kind of work with what ingredients are available on the market locally, what the chef is making, all of that. And so one of the biggest difficulties we had was just getting students to expand their palate. And so I think it’s totally true that millennials can be apathetic, in a way, to the plight of the world around them, which is, you know, I think, oxymoronic, given that we’re the ones sort of inheriting it right now and all the problems that are happening within it.
At the same time, I think that those tools of social media are also powerful for getting to our causes, if we can figure out how to use them. We made use of Twitter at our Dining Services. Every day we would tweet what vegan options were available, what the specialty salad was—we always had a deli salad that was made fresh daily. We would occasionally highlight local and sustainable items on our salad bar that would always be there for people to find; highlight our Thursday night all-organic dinner that people could do. And that really increased traffic, and it increases the visibility. And what it also does is it allows the college to highlight it on social media, which brings in more future students who are interested in that kind of thing, because actually students at Oxy have been quoted as saying that the high-quality food is one of the deciding reasons of why they came to Occidental.
And so you end up, it’s sort of self-reinforcing where you’re bringing people in who are kind of interested in it, making information accessible to them so that they can learn more. We would always have links—you know, we would have little tags around our cafeteria that said, “This product is organic and it’s sourced from this farm. Here’s a link with more info,” and people could follow it. So yeah, I think it’s really a double-edged sword, you know. There is the apathy—people do just want to look at pictures on their phone all day. But if you can put the right picture in front of them that can send a good message, it can also be a powerful tool.
TM: Right on! And I just love what you just said, because yeah, sure, I’m sure you could sink down into it, but at the end of the day it’s a tool. And when you use it and it doesn’t use you, then it’s going to be very valuable. And I so appreciate you mentioning that.
So Dylan, I’m excited about all these vegetables and trials that you’re doing, only because it’s so needed in organic. The organic community needs good seeds and needs to really start developing that diversity of seed that are organic seeds. So I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about your Field Days.
DB: Yeah, sure. So this is an initiative called OGRAIN, Organic Grain Improvement…again, I can’t remember the whole big acronym. [[Organic Grain Resources and Information Network]] But basically there is a huge demand for organic grain, both for feed and for human consumption, and there just isn’t the production, both regionally in the Midwest—especially regionally in the Midwest, given our potential—but also across the United States. And we’re importing a lot, a lot of organic grains from Eastern Europe, from all over the place. And so what this grant is focused on providing farmers, really targeting existing organic farmers but really especially targeting conventional grain farmers, to just highlight the market that is there for organics and sort of get people to take a closer look at producing organic, give them some of the tools for doing that. You know, all the way through enterprise budgeting for organics and how that differs from conventional.
And so my favorite moment, and I think this is what we’re talking about, is during the talk at the last Field Day we had at Mark Doudlah’s farm at the Doudlah family farm in Evansville—they run an amazing, spotless operation there. At the enterprise budgeting workshop, when the speaker from Badgerland Financial unveiled the enterprise budgeting numbers for conventional corn versus organic corn, when he unveiled the organic numbers you could really hear an audible gasp go up from the crowd. I mean, it’s a stark difference. The expected revenue of organic corn is way above the expected revenue of a conventional grower.
TM: Thank you so much, Dylan. It has truly been a pleasure and an inspiration talking with you about some of these hopeful agricultural ideas that you have. And I’m wishing you a ton of luck in your job and in all the different trials and things that you’re doing.
DB: Well, thank you very much. It’s good to talk to you.
TM: You too.
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