This beautiful photo from the 2017 Culinary Breeding Network Variety Showcase was taken by Shawn Linehan. All the photos in this post can be found at her on her website linked at the bottom of the page.

There is only one night a year where plant breeders and chefs manage to pull themselves away from their work, put down their hoes and knives, and come together to share in the literal fruits of their labor, some of the most unknown and unique foods grown in the Pacific Northwest. This is the night where the flavors of tomorrow are decided. This magical night is the Culinary Breeding Network’s Annual Variety Showcase, and the fourth annual meeting was held this year on October 2nd.

I have attended all but the first variety showcase hosted by CBN, and I hope to never miss one ever again. I’ve been working for Gathering Together Farm for the past six years, but before that I had never even set foot on a farm, having grown up in an apartment in a Portland suburb. Before I found farming, I was a very academic person and pretty much only acquired knowledge through academic avenues. Now that I have spent significant amounts of time both in highly academic settings and farming seasons, I know that I want to do work that embraces both, as the two very different knowledge-building styles used by these different disciplines help to bring the bigger picture into focus.

This is what is so valuable about multiple perspectives. Not only would diverse work like that make me feel fulfilled as an individual, but I also believe that interdisciplinary approaches are necessary if we are to tackle the larger problems facing the world today. That is why I am going for a Masters of Arts in the Environmental Arts and Humanities while continuing to work at a farm and maintain a farm of my own. I cannot even properly ponder the solutions to the problems of the world until I understand its innerworkings from a variety of perspectives. Diversity of thought is just as important as having biodiversity in our food system This is a concept that I think the Culinary Breeding Network is very successfully incorporating into the seed to table movement. The goal is not just to think bigger; it is to think bigger and smaller all at the same time, to maintain in one’s awareness the micro and macro factors that must be taken into consideration simultaneously.

There were four of us representing Gathering Together Farm at the showcase this year. We kicked out all our last-minute farm tasks, brushed the dirt off our clothes, and hit the highway. Though we started our morning out in the fields harvesting vegetables, we soon found ourselves riding an elevator up to the sixth floor in The Nines in downtown Portland. After name tags were pinned on, coats were hung, and goodie bags complete with heirloom seeds were dispersed, we were finally free to wind our way toward the source of an amazing mixture of aromas filling the floor.

Turning around the final corner of the hallway we were somewhat suddenly hit with the roar of over five hundred chefs and farmers talking over good food and drink. The banquet room was lined wall to wall with tables, and a central stage had more tables encompassing it as well. Behind each table stood a plant breeder and a chef and the occasional helper or two, and through their combined efforts each partnership displayed an either completely new or nearly forgotten food experience for people to try. With about thirty different showcase tables in total, the room was full of new flavors to be experienced, and even fuller with the couple hundred fellow food-lovers eating, laughing, and taking advantage of complementary wine. After all, these are all people who work sixteen-hour days. Farmers just work the morning shift and chefs work nights.

It took us hours to walk the perimeter of that room. There was not a dish that went uneaten nor a question that went unasked. To be able to taste something completely new to you and then to be able to ask the chef and plant breeder responsible for that flavor experience any questions you want—that’s the dream. And I don’t mean to mention this just because it’s always nice to have a good time; what I’d like to emphasize is the fact that this process of variety tasting and selection is not some difficult process that would be too much work than it’d be worth to incorporate more heavily into the food system at large. It’s incredibly enjoyable to do work like this, so much so that it doesn’t feel very honest to even call it work. Here’s a photo of me “working.”

I happened to find one photo on CBN’s website of Kyler and I at the 2017 Variety Showcase. We’re standing in the background behind the celery poster. Kyler and I both work for Gathering Together Farm in the office and in the field. To the left behind the potatoes poster is Alex Stone, a plant breeder from OSU who works with GTF doing trials, primarily on winter squash. We were tasting puree of different squash and rating them on various traits such as sugar content and flavor. Though I chose to include this photo primarily because it’s the only one that I am in, it brings up another great point regarding the Culinary Breeding Network. These informative posters are just some of the literature that was at this event, all prepared in an effort to create better communication between plant breeders, chefs, and eaters. Historically farmers have not always known the best ways to communicate their product to the changing public, and the public has simultaneously become more and more removed from farming, but CBN bridges the communication gap creating a much more inclusive audience. And that’s really the goal, to reach more people. Because everyone at the Variety Trial already knows how important the work being done is. It is what all of them will do with that work to share with the those who do not yet know about these concepts, that is what it’s all about. And the Culinary Breeding Network does a great job of this. For example, they created the following graphic to represent the many interdisciplinary aspects of their work.

Despite my extreme passion for vegetables and good food in general, I think that I am primarily impressed with the Culinary Breeding Network as it does such a beautiful job of taking so many social issues into account while working on a single project, as seen in the graphic above. The food revolution that is so prevalent in the Pacific Northwest has lots of false prophets who claim to be “the answer” to “the problem.” But the truth of the matter is that organic is not enough; buying local is not enough. The food system is so vastly complicated that there is simply no way that a singular narrative could solve its problems. You must incorporate a seemingly infinite number of considerations into whatever work you do if you want to be truly successful in achieving your goals. CBN’s primary goals are represented as the outermost layer of the onion, as described in their mission statement (1):

The Culinary Breeding Network consists of plant breeders, seed growers, farmers, chefs, produce buyers and others in the food community engaged in developing and identifying varieties and traits of culinary excellence for vegetables and grains. Its mission is to break down the wall between breeders and eaters to improve agricultural and culinary quality in vegetables and grains.

As you peel the layers off the onion, what was once on the surface—issues regarding heirloom preservation, flavor, and organic breeding—can now be seen through the broader lens of environmental health and farmworker rights. Expose another layer, and these issues can be seen through an even broader narrative regarding biodiversity, open source genetics, and the spirituality of food. Expose even more layers, and suddenly you’re seeing all of these problems in terms of nutrition, breeding methodology, culture, resilience, and social justice. And ultimately, it all comes down to the climate chaos which is already pressing today’s farmers and today’s crop varieties to be more resilient and adaptable than ever.

The only problem is that the majority of the crop varieties that the world depends on have specifically been bred to be less resilient and less adaptable throughout the past century as plant breeders have switched their focus onto traits that society considers more important now—uniformity, visual aesthetic, and the ability to be grown in a monoculture. And that’s not really the only problem, because this small selection of genetically weak varieties that our entire society depends on, that little thing, it is now controlled by a very few profit-based chemical corporations leftover from the last world war. This is a completely new reality for humanity, as not too long ago it used to be the case that there was an enormous selection of genetically strong varieties in society, there was nearly an equal number of farmers controlling those varieties, and those farmers were maintaining their breeding lines by breeding for adaptability, resilience, and flavor.

Throughout history, whenever we see a set-up like this we should feel worried. Putting all your eggs into one basket is never a smart move. There is safety in diversity. Remember the Irish Potato Famine? Why would anyone ever set up a food system where an entire civilization could be so horrendously affected by the failure of a single crop in a single season? In the Andes where potatoes originated this never happened because there were so many different types of potatoes. It wasn’t a big deal when one variety got hit one year. But colonizing powers didn’t understand that. They just extracted the biggest potato they could find and took it home for themselves.

But I digress. What I really found myself thinking about the weeks after this event was less of a what and more of a who—Lane Selman. Lane is the mother of the Culinary Breeding Network. Starting out as an Organic Farming Researcher at OSU, Lane also “acts as Oregon research project coordinator for the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC), a project funded by the USDA Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI)” (2). Lane is the middle-man between dozens of chefs, plant breeders, and farmers, connecting a plethora of perspectives on the current state of the food system. She is doing great work for the world by marrying the disciplines of farming and academia. Since this is precisely what I am interested in doing in my time here at OSU and potentially beyond, I ended up thinking a lot about Lane’s work with the Culinary Breeding Network. Standing there that night listening to her and all of the other wonderful plant breeders speak their cause so that it could be heard, I cannot deny a new little voice in the back of my mind that said, “I could do that.”

There is certainly much to be learned from Lane and the many other interdisciplinary crusaders of our times. But for now, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite flavors from the showcase. There were many intricately prepared and arranged dishes at the showcase, bright with a myriad colors, textures, and shapes, all of which blew my mind. But this particular dish was just a raw, tiny, pale yellow cherry tomato called Champagne Bubbles. Not thinking much of it I quickly popped one into my mouth and began devouring. But the instant I bit into it I experienced such a unique flavor that I stopped chewing for a moment, closed my eyes, and tried to figure out what it was. And then it hit me! This little tomato tasted like a cooked savory tomato chutney. What!? That little tomato impressed me more than any of the beautifully crafted, delicious dishes that were made that night. Perhaps simply because it was so tiny with such powerful flavor. But perhaps because within it was enough diversity to be an unknown flavor extravaganza all of its own with no assistance necessary.

Author: Laura Bennett


  1. CBN. Culinary Breeding Network: About. n.d. <>.
  2. “Culinary Breeding Network Founder Lane Selman Visits Johnny’s.” December 2016. Johnny’s Selected Seeds. 2017. <>.
  3. Linehan, Shawn. 2017 CBN Variety Showcase. 20 October 2017. <>.