Talk about amazing jobs: Breeding carrots that taste great!

Breeder portrait Noémi Uehlinger

Noémi Uehlinger (born 1984) was studying environmental sciences at the ETH in Zurich when she got really excited at a carrot juice tasting – about carrots, about breeding and about Sativa Rheinau AG. “I thought, talk about amazing jobs, to be able to work on making carrots taste good and be good”,

Noémi tells us about this first unforgettable encounter with varieties from organic breeding. “That brought me to my first internship at Sativa Rheinau AG.

Porträt Noémi Uehlinger 2021
Portrait photo Noémi Uehlinger

The way to breeding

After working here for a full season, she decided to study Organic Agriculture and Plant Breeding at Wageningen University in the Netherlands to pursue a double Masters. At the end of her studies, she did another long internship at Sativa and ended up taking a permanent position, which she still occupies today. That was ten years ago.

“Back then at Sativa, there wasn’t a growing team and a breeding team with separate responsibilities, as there is now. Friedemann Ebner [also a plant breeder] and I did a lot of the gardening work. That was very instructive for me, since I had no gardening training,” Noémi reflects. After Friedemann Ebner’s departure at the end of 2020, she took over the coordination of the breeding department at Sativa.

Friedemann Ebner bei der Möhrenselektion2016
F. Ebner selecting carrots

Cross-border cooperation

Together with Friedemann Ebner, Noémi took care of the breeding of a variety of cultures. After a few years she took over the main responsibility for several breeding projects: early carrots, broccoli, fennel and zucchini. The breeding of fennel and zucchini specifically aimed for varieties destined for cultivation in Italy. The impetus came from the Italian wholesaler Ecor, which wanted to expand its range to include pure lines varieties of organically bred crops.

Cross-border cooperation still plays a special role at Sativa. The company is always actively looking for breeders abroad who specialize in a certain species and are willing to develop organic varieties together with Sativa. “Since many crops are grown south of the Alps during the winter months, we cannot develop all varieties in Switzerland alone,” Noémi explains.

Courgette Inizia, cultivated in Spain

Breeding with and for other locations

When it comes to developing varieties for other growing regions, Noémi and her colleagues first gather experience with a culture in Rheinau and at other nearby locations, then start selecting and cross-breeding. Only when there are a number of promising breeding lines are these then cultivated abroad in parallel in order to observe their behavior under different climatic conditions. Noémi coordinates several of these projects, for example she is currently working on fennel and tomatoes in Rheinau.

In parallel, there is one breeder in Italy who works on behalf of Sativa. “This creates a very close and fruitful exchange. Both sides can expand their expertise and we learn a lot about the regional or local requirements of a culture.” Of course, there are also close exchanges within German-speaking countries with the breeders from Kultursaat e.V. or saat:gut e.V.

Uehlinger with fennel breeder Elena Avite

In search of new methods

The carrots, which gave the initial spark for her professional career, have become a focus of Noémi’s work. Even though there are now a number of new carrot varieties from organic breeding, 16 of them aleady with bioverita certification, the breeding work goes on. “Since we are reaching our limits with intensive mass selection at various locations, we are thinking about other methods and trying out a few things. That’s a big part of my job,” says Noémi, describing her complex tasks.

She is currently supplementing her many years of breeding experience with an additional course at the so-called Plant Breeding Academy. This is organized by the University of Davis in California for practicing breeders in Europe. This brought the breeder many new contacts and methodical insights, which are now being tried out step by step in the team.

Möhren Nantaise 2Milan, Vitella, Fynn, Dolciva
Carrots Nantaise 2/Milan, Vitella, Fynn, Dolciva

Varieties put to the test

But why do we need more carrot varieties at all? “Carrots have different marketing forms: fresh for sale individually or in bunches, stored carrots for the winter months and industrial carrots for processing, for example in purées or soups. In addition, it is important to take into account different cultivation periods and climatic differences during cultivation,” she explains.

She was directly involved in the development of the Amiva variety, others only have code numbers at the moment because they are still pending registration.

Karottensorte Amiva
Carrot Amiva

The challenge of cabbage

The situation is different with broccoli. So far, breeding a variety that meets the requirements of commercial cultivation and has reliability comparable to that of the hybrid varieties has defied the breeders. Homogeneous growth and the simultaneous ripening of the heads pose a special challenge to the breeders. With carrots or kohlrabi, we eat the vegetative part of the plant. With broccoli or cauliflower, it is the head just before flowering. “That’s the crucial difference, because at this stage an incredible number of processes take place in the plant. There’s a lot more going on than the vegetative part of root vegetables which overwinter,” explains Noémi.

In commercial cultivation for wholesale, it is essential that the broccoli or cauliflower to be harvested ripen at the same time. The harvest window is usually short, everything has to be harvested after two or at most three passes within ten days. Anything that takes longer is too expensive and not profitable. Luckily, there are a growing number of alternative forms of marketing that do not prioritize profitability. Co-operative farming or market garden operations in particular appreciate the pure lines varieties from organic breeding.

Blumenkohlköpfe in unterschiedlichen Stadien
Cauliflower in its different stages: from the closed head to the flowers to seed formation

The next steps

What does breeding work mean to you? “For me, there are two sides to organic breeding: a theoretical one that requires planning, reflection, questioning. Then there is the practical, hands-on side during the growing season, when many things have to happen at the same time in the fields or in the greenhouses. Both aspects are important and one cannot exist without the other,” Noémi sums up. At the same time, she says, there are areas of tension between yield and quality as well as current and future requirements:

“Today’s market requirements call for specific earnings targets. At the same time, I would like to deal with future cultivation and marketing systems and contribute to shaping them,” as Noémi describes her daily balancing act. The fact that there are not yet enough varieties for the specific requirements of organic farming motivates her to continue. With the aim of creating alternatives in view of the high concentration in the seed and breeding world, her work also has a specific political dimension.

Uehlinger selecting broccoli

Fascination for carrots

Despite all the challenges, Noémi is still fascinated with carrots: “Every year it is fascinating to see what carrots are capable of. The specimens that we have selected for propagation are stored all winter.

Then you cut them, plant a small piece and an umbel grows from it, which blooms for a long time in the summer and finally produces seeds. It’s always an experience!”

Möhren nach der Überwinterung
Carrots after winter storage

Photo credits: photo 1 and 7 bioverita, photo 3 Naturkost Schramm, photo 5 (Collage of carrots) and 6 Bingenheimer Saatgut AG und Sativa Rheinau AG, photos 2, 4, 8 and 9 Sativa Rheinau AG