Trials at JOHNNY's
About Our Trialing Program
Johnny's introduces new varieties every year, and we are often asked how we choose which new seeds to offer our customers. It's a fairly complex process, because everything we sell has been trialed on Johnny's Research Farm — and in many cases at farms around the country or globe — before we make the decision to add it to our product line. Here is an overview of the process whereby people, information, and trialing methodology work together each year to identify new products that meet the high-performance standards necessary for your success.
Many people contribute to our trialing process. Johnny's keeps a close ear to the ground on the fresh market — listening for consumer preferences, trends, new products spotted elsewhere, and emergent research.
Growers far and wide let us know their needs from a production standpoint. They may, for example, request better heat, drought, wind or frost tolerance, increased disease resistance, longer storage life, or other attributes.
This kind of valuable customer feedback is typically funneled through our Territory Sales Team to the Trialing Team, where all the background information gets gathered for further consideration.
Major roles and responsibilities fulfilled by Johnny's Trialing Team include:
- Trial Technicians, who are responsible for evaluating specific crops each year.
- Breeders, who develop in-house varieties.
- Product Managers, who coordinate the production and business aspects of new introductions.
From start to completion, the course that a seed trial can take is highly variable. On the whole, however, the trialing process generally involves 7 key steps:
- Discovery. The Trialing Team meets in late fall or winter to discuss trial goals for the following year. Goals are conceptualized with a wide range of input. The Sales Team provides vital information about emerging trends, customer feedback, and top-performing varieties. Johnny's Breeder Team discusses the plants they are developing. Outside vendors bring forward their new commercial and experimental varieties for inclusion in our trials. Trial technicians discuss the results of previous trials, and suggest additional varieties they have been hearing about through their own research.
- Establishing Priorities. All this input results in a long list of varieties that Johnny's would consider trialing. Naturally, our time, staff, and space have their limitations, so priorities must be established. Taking priorities into close consideration, the Trialing Team develops a list of specific varieties that can be grown on the Research Farm within the next year. They also produce a list of key attributes they are seeking for specific crops, for example, "early-maturing bell peppers" or "large, pink beefsteak tomatoes."
- Acquiring & Logging Seed Assets. Next, the Trialing Team sends their lists to seed breeding houses large and small, both here in the US and abroad. As the seed samples arrive, they are logged into a database that is used to collect a broad spectrum of information about each variety.
- Planting & Tending Trials. When the season arrives, the Trial Techs take up management of the trials. They always grow well-known varieties (called checks in seed industry parlance) alongside the varieties being trialed for comparison. All aspects of production are scheduled, from seed starting in the greenhouse to working with the farm manager on field preparations and planting.
- Evaluation & Analysis. Once the crops are established, the Trial Technicians continue to closely examine and evaluate them throughout the growing cycle. They observe and record numerous criteria, including flavor, disease development, color, size, shape, yield, and many other characteristics. They also receive valuable feedback during weekly Crop Walks with JSS staff.
Sometimes, a new variety performs so well in trials that it becomes obvious it should be available from Johnny's. The Artisan™ tomato trials described below are a prime example. Most of the time, though, decisions are not so clear-cut. A proposed new variety might have some advantage over a current variety, but not be overwhelmingly superior. Or it may have come into the trials on the recommendation of farmers, yet not perform well at all at Johnny's Research Farm. In such cases, the Trialing Team adds it to the list of varieties to retrial the following year.
- Drawing Conclusions. Early fall is crunch time for Johnny's Trialing Team. They must review their observations and decide which varieties to recommend for the new catalog, which goes to press in November. It's a tight window of time, and there can be a bit of a tug-of-war as people advocate for their favorites. At that point, the decision is deferred to the Product Managers, who have to consider all the valid input they've received from the trials crew, and investigate any behind-the-scenes factors that might determine whether a variety should be added, such as seed availability, price, and quality.
- Introductions. Finally, by early October, the decisions have been made, the catalog descriptions written, and the seeds ordered.
Artisan™ tomatoes are a new group of small-fruited, striped tomatoes with superlative flavor. It took 10 years for the new Artisan tomatoes to make the journey from concept to catalog, a process that illustrates how exceptional new varieties are bred, trialed, and introduced to Johnny's customers.
As of this writing, 7 varieties comprise the Artisan line, 2 of which are exclusive to Johnny's. JSS has entered into an R & D partnership with Artisan, so the exclusives are based upon our support of the Artisan development process. Defining features include not just outstanding flavor but julienne (elongated) and rounded cherry shapes in a patterned palette of reds, oranges, golds, pinks, and greens.
"We first saw Artisan varieties at our trial farm here in Maine in the summer of 2008 — not the varieties that we are introducing this year, but rather, close relatives of the ones we have today," recounts Andrew Mefferd, Johnny's Trial Tech for tomatoes.
"We were blown away by the unique colors, stripes, and flavors of these varieties. Not only that, but the varieties performed well here, in short-season Maine, as well as in the longer-season area where they were bred, in California. All traditional breeding work, no genetic modification, of course!
"The Artisan tomatoes are the product of the breeder's desire to create unique-looking tomatoes that actually taste as good as they look — the polar opposite of the typical grocery store tomato that looks perfectly ordinary and tastes mediocre. The combination of small fruit size (20–30 gm), stripes, good flavor, and texture is a fairly unusual convergence in the tomato world."
That first trial was one instance where the crew knew immediately that they wanted to add the item to Johnny's catalog. They had already been in development for more than 5 years at that point, but the breeder reported that additional traditional breeding work was underway to further improve plant habit and flavors.
"That breeding project was finally finished in 2012, so that we could grow the seed to production during the 2013 season and offer the new seed for sale this fall," Mefferd explains. "So, more than a decade in development, here at long last are the Artisan tomatoes."
Johnny's is pleased to offer a pallette of Artisan varieties seeds as well as grafted plant collections for each type!
- JSS–Exclusive varieties include:
- Additional Artisan varieties on offer include:
Andrew sums it all up for the Trialing Team: "We think the Artisans are going to impress everyone who grows or eats them, as much as they did us." We hope you'll give the new Artisans a try — and let us know if they match our expectations.
Learn more about trialing new crop varieties from the following additional resources.
- Why Try Something New? » Reasons for trying out new varieties; how best to choose new products to suit your changing needs; and points to consider as you adopt new varieties on your farm.
- How to Conduct a Variety Trial on Your Farm » Conduct scale-appropriate trials that deliver results you can use, with this concise, stepwise guide from Johnny's Trialing Team.
- Hydroponic Variety Trialing at Johnny's » An overview of our approach to hydroponic trialing, and a look at some of our findings.
- Greenhouse Variety Trialing at Johnny's » Characteristics we look for in greenhouse varieties, and recommendations for optimal greenhouse performance.
- Learn more about advanced and replicated variety trialing programs for organic crops by visiting the website of the Organic Seed Alliance »
- Browse All New Products »