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US (WI): Julie Dawson honored for crop breeding work for organic systems

Julie Dawson, an associate professor and extension specialist in the UW–Madison Department of Plant and Agroecosystem Sciences, was recently named the Clif Bar and Organic Valley Chair in Plant Breeding for Organic Agriculture. The appointment runs from July 1, 2023, to June 30, 2030. The chair, funded by Clif Bar and Organic Valley CROPP Cooperative, Inc., provides Dawson with annual support for her research activities.

Dawson has no trouble keeping busy. Her research and outreach programs focus on selecting and developing crops important for organic systems and local food markets in the Upper Midwest. She engages farmers and culinary professionals – and there are many aspects of that work.

Dawson’s plant breeding efforts concentrate on crops that meet specific regional needs. Her group uses a participatory approach, involving hundreds of farmers and home gardeners in trials through which they offer feedback on crop varieties. Recent work includes tomatoes adapted to organic high-tunnel systems; bread wheat for artisanal baking; and American hazelnut, which is native to the Midwest and has the potential to be a high-value crop for organic growers. In addition to farmers, Dawson’s partners include SeedLinked, the Organic Seed Alliance, the Artisan Grain Collaborative, UW associate professor and cereals breeder Lucia Gutierrez and regional bakers, the Upper Midwest Hazelnut Development Initiative, the Savanna Institute and many plant breeding colleagues.

Through the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative, which Dawson established in 2014, her group also coordinates a large network of plant breeders, seed producers, farmers, chefs and local food consumers that helps independent vegetable breeders and small regional seed companies evaluate, improve and release varieties adapted to organic systems.

“It is great to see Professor Dawson in this position. The research in organic plant breeding is needed today as much as it was when this endowed chair was first created,” says Adam Warthesen, Senior Director of Government & Industry Affairs for Organic Valley. “We just had Julie on an organic dairy farm this summer. She knows this community. Her work on small grains is something farmers in our co-op identify with, as they look to oats as a grain source but also as an important part of a crop rotation. We look forward to collaborating with Professor Dawson and the entire UW CALS team.”

Teaching the next generation of organic plant breeders is another major element of Dawson’s program, with a heavy focus on graduate student training. She also helped develop an organic agriculture certificate for undergraduate students at UW–Madison with the UW Organic Collaborative, as well as a registered apprenticeship program for organic vegetable farm managers with the FairShare Coalition and Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development.

Dawson is involved in public service at the national level. She is the lead author on a 2023 USDA–Agricultural Marketing Service report about intellectual property rights and competition in the seed industry, and she is now working with the USDA to begin implementing some of the report’s recommendations.

Dawson is in very good company at the UW–Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, which is home to the nation’s largest public plant breeding program. When Clif Bar and Organic Valley established the chairship in 2015, they also noted the college’s leadership in organic agricultural innovation.

The inaugural recipient of the chairship in 2015 was Bill Tracy, professor in the Department of Plant and Agroecosystem Sciences, whose plant breeding program is focused on sweet corn. Tracy was the first of five Clif Bar Endowed Chairs and has served as a trailblazer and trusted advisor for the brand in their commitment to organic agriculture.

“Our relationship with UW–Madison is of utmost importance to Clif as it marked the inception of our endowment program in 2015,” says Sarah Beaubien, Senior Director of Impact and Sustainability at Clif Bar. “Beginning with Professor Tracy, we’ve seen great strides made by UW–Madison. We’re eager to continue this legacy with the newest chair, Julie Dawson, and support her important research and programming to collectively benefit the future of organic.”


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