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Bill Tracy

Bill Tracy, a UW-Madison agronomy professor and renowned sweet-corn breeder shown inspecting seeds in March 2015, was introduced Wednesday as the endowed chair for a program at UW-Madison that will focus specifically on plant breeding for organic crops.

A unique organic agricultural research opportunity in the form of a $2 million endowment has been created for UW-Madison with help from two organic food companies.

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is the recipient of the nation’s first endowed chair focused on plant breeding for organic crops, representatives of Organic Valley and Clif Bar & Co. said Wednesday at a ceremony at the state Capitol. The permanent endowment will be funded with a $1 million gift from the companies and matched by a $1 million gift from UW graduates and philanthropists John and Tashia Morgridge.

Bill Tracy, an agronomy professor at UW-Madison and breeder of sweet corn, was introduced as professor of the endowed chair. At UW-Madison, Tracy leads the world’s largest research program focused on the breeding and genetics of traits important to organic sweet corn growers. In the past eight years, he has developed five cultivars under organic conditions which are currently on the market.

He also mentors more than 40 graduate students, has been an academic adviser to 300 undergraduates during his career and lectures around the country about recent developments in organic plant breeding, according to Organic Valley. Two of Tracy’s recent PhD students are now employed in the organic seed industry.

Tracy said the funding will establish the first permanent graduate program for plant breeding of organic crops and create an incentive for other professors to teach more courses specific to organic farming.

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“I think that’s where (the endowment) will have a major impact,” he said.

UW-Madison was an attractive candidate for the endowment because it has been a longtime leader of organic agricultural innovation and researching organic systems including dairy, vegetable production and forage, said Hans Eisenbeis, a spokesman for La Farge-based Organic Valley.

The endowment is the first of five organic research chairs to have support led by Clif Bar, the company said. It is working with other organizations to raise an estimated total of $10 million by 2020 to fund chairs dedicated to organic plant breeding.

“The continued growth of the organic market provides a unique opportunity for family farms of Wisconsin and an increased need for research on organic farming methods,” said George Siemon, Organic Valley’s chief executive officer.

‘The continued growth of the organic market provides a unique opportunity for family farms of Wisconsin and an increased need for research on organic farming methods.’ George Siemon
Chief executive officer, Organic Valley

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Rob Schultz has won multiple writing awards at the state and national levels and covers an array of topics for the Wisconsin State Journal in south-central and southwestern Wisconsin.