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A group of UC Davis students is breeding a “jalapeño popper,” a cross between a bell pepper and a jalapeño pepper. Two members of the team, Randi Jimenez and Wengyuan Xiao, examine their crop at the Student Farm.
What do you get when you cross a jalapeño pepper with a bell pepper?

An ingenious group of UC Davis students are proving you can create a jumbo, organic, jalapeño “popper,” perfect for stuffing with rice, vegetables, protein and cheese. For the last four years, the young scientists have been making crosses and developing a new variety of pepper with the taste and texture of a jalapeño, an extra-large cavity, and the right traits to thrive on organic farms.

“Many pepper varieties don’t do well in organic farming systems because they weren’t bred for those systems,” said graduate student Saarah Kuzay, current team leader of the project. “Our variety will be able to produce high-quality peppers with fewer inputs of things like fertilizers, pesticides and water.”

The popper project began in 2012 when graduate student Jorge Berny wondered if a new breed of pepper could solve issues farmers faced with sun damage, yield and size.

“The jalapeño peppers growing at the UC Davis Student Farm were supposedly large enough for poppers, but they weren’t really that big,” said Berny. “The idea was to start a small breeding program that would give students hands-on experience in field breeding as well as develop cultivars adapted to low-input organic production.”

The first generation of the bell-and-jalapeño offspring looked a bit strange — lots of pointy-topped bell peppers. The second generation looked very different from each other. Some resembled bell peppers; others looked more like jalapeños. Each year, more students joined the effort and helped make crosses with the peppers they liked best in terms of size, shape, texture, taste and production.

“It could be another three years before we have a cultivar ready for release,” said Kuzay.  “But we’re getting there.”

The student-run project has become a model for other programs. In 2015, it helped UC Davis attract a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop cultivars of vegetable crops for organic farmers. As part of that project, the UC Davis Plant Breeding Center is working with the Organic Seed Alliance and organic growers across California to set priorities and eventually to trial new varieties of tomatoes, peppers, beans and other vegetable crops on farms.

“It’s interesting to watch the peppers develop, year after year,” Kuzay said. “It shows that students and farmers alike, not just seed companies, can develop new varieties to suit their needs.”

The students have produced a short film, How to Breed Plants, as Told by Students, which illustrates the science and purpose of plant breeding.