Why grow seeds?
Of course there are as many different reasons as there are people. Seed is the missing link in sustainable agriculture. In the 20 years I've been involved in organic agriculture had many people address 'how do we take care of the soil in situ, how do we take care of creatively using cover crops, managing animals on our land, water, but even if we've gotten our nutrient cycle together on the land and even if we're very well-equipped to take care of the hydrologic cycle, we're often importing seed and/or and we often don't really have the seed we need for what we're doing.
So why save seed, why is having seed to suit our situation as important as any of the other things in sustainable agriculture? You need to have biological entities which are adapted to your conditions. The biology has to be adapted to your environment, our position on the globe, the macro and micro of the soil. We need to have seed that's really adapted to how we do farming. A lot of seed that's being bred by large companies that we buy seed from is not adapted to our cultural needs as organic farmers. Instead in my 20 years in organics we've adapted our agriculture so many times to fit the seeds that come down to us from above. The resiliency and creativity of good farmers has been able to do that and do a damn good job of that with hybrids from Northern Europe. But is that ultimately what we need? And then adaptation to your market is important. What do people really like to eat? Oftentimes we don't have the ideal in terms of eating quality, color, whatever. Plant improvement is a natural consequence of growing seed in an area of intended use. I truly believe the way to get the best seed is to select it, to breed it in a broad sense, to adapt the biological entity that is the crop that you're using to the area of intended use, not have someone breed it in California for you to use it here and hope that it has enough wide adaptation to work.
When I say plant improvement I mean us selecting, helping the entity to adapt to your situation. It's a kinder, gentler way to say plant breeding. People get very scared of the term plant breeding. I believe that anyone who's selecting their crops on any level is doing plant breeding in the broad sense. That image of the scientist in the greenhouse with his white coat on and the little spectacles making hand-pollinations of some teeny little flower-that is narrow-sense plant breeding. Broad-sense plant breeding is you're out looking at your crop selecting it, doing all of the things we're gonna advocate that you do to improve your crops. As long as you become an active part in the process you are plant breeding in the broad sense.
Let's look at the evolutionary basis. Evolution is a two-step process. Variation exists and new variation arises all the time. A lot of people are hung up on, 'gee we just have the variation that our ancestors somehow harnessed to work with and its all going away really fast and once that's gone we won't have it any more.' New variation comes all the time, this is the basic premise of evolution. This is the premise that Darwin had a lot of trouble with. He struggled with 'where does that variation come from?' Now with some modern genetic investigation we're starting to understand where that variation comes from, and guess what, a lot more variation is arising all the time than we ever dreamed of, even ten years ago. Variation arises, selection occurs. How does it happen? Well in nature, the classic quintessential Darwinian natural selection occurs. Guess what? You can take part in it and plant improvement is just accelerated evolution through the hands of humans.
Why is it also good to do seeds on the farm? Whether your crop is small grains, animal husbandry or vegetables, seed is a new alternative crop with different demands, different niche, different harvest cycle, it truly adds diversity to your life and to your ground. In growing seeds and having diversity you can also have your truly own seed program on your farm, you can have diversity within. Often times when we get a seed that is handed down from the big boys through that top-down chain (by anyone's counting there are 7 or 8 vegetable companies left in the world, the transnational companies that own most of the production seed houses) we often don't have much diversity within a particular variety. Frank and I (Frank is an example of someone putting diversity back in) are going to talk about the diversity that can be within a variety. Often when people talk about genetic diversity they'll tell you 'oh I have all of these different tomato varieties and here are the pictures of all the different colors, leaf shapes-that's diversity across the members of that species, though sometimes all of that diversity across the species with the different accessions (how many genes control color in tomato? Not many) is a little bit fool's gold, it looks a little more diverse than what really might be there. I am most interested in the diversity within. When you get a tomato I want to make sure to get the diversity within that one variety-that's our challenge. Then we have true genetic breadth. It's important to have that genetic diversity among all the members of that species but also to have it within each variety that we use and that's really challenging.
You can look at different colors in tomato or different leaf shapes or whatever the other visual cues for how diverse they are, but how do you know how diverse they are for drought resistance? For early blight resistance? For cold soil? Those are the things we're going to talk about teasing out and getting in touch with. Genetic breadth within is very important, not just that picturesque diversity that's often depicted because it's easy to depict.
Diversity on farms has to do to with whole farm systems with plants and animals and how that diversity ties in with all the other things going on. Seed is a resource for your own farm use. Growing for Market (ed by Lynn Bycynski in KS) is my one tap-in to this community of real diverse market growers. There was a wonderful article in there by Bret Grosgahl from Maryland, a phenomenal 3-part series. In the first part he makes the most convincing case for growing seed. He's not interested in selling seed. He doesn't want to start his own seed business. He's just growing it because he has identified his needs. He couldn't get any arugula varieties that fit his system, he wants cold-hardiness, you can overwinter a lot of stuff in Maryland. He wants to harvest arugula all winter long except when he gets real cold spells and so he selected this wonderful arugula that is much better than anything he can buy out of any seed catalog and its just purely so he has arugula for his markets. It's a resource that's making him money because he's taken the time to do that, and he gives a bunch of other examples.
There are probably some of you here who do seed contracts for seed companies and that was part of the intiative to start to talk to people. People all over North America are starting to think about this as an alternative cash crop. 'Gee can I grow seeds for a company?' We have a groundswell that's happening that's epitomized by the number of people in this room, but it's happening all over the place. I've talked in the past six weeks in Oregon, Wisconsin, I'm going straight from here to Colorado tomorrow. There are traditional seed contracts where you just do say forty pounds of lettuce seed for company x, straightforward contract. Then there's this other thing that's starting to happen with some seed companies, participatory farmer-breeder partnerships or a farmer-seed company partnership where the seed company says 'gee we really like this variety, it has got some problems, we don't have a field person on staff, (a person who goes to the farm, takes care of the rogueing, makes sure that the stock seed that they're given is right, etc.), there's a whole new opportunity just starting to do some seed contracts where you're part of the equation. A good example: Seeds of Change just spent some money this past year with two or three of their growers doing these participatory seed contracts where they actually pay more (they already have more people wanting to do it than they can deal with) but this I hope will be part of the wave of the future when you work with the seed company. You are not just doing this contract, you're being paid to be a thinking worker or a working thinker. You're being paid to use some of your brains.
Frank Morton says there are three levels on how deep you want to go growing seed. As you go from item 1-3 on my list, things get much more complicated in your life, they get tougher to do, your involvement is greater. Seeds for farm use involves just you, seed contracts you're beholden more to someone else, if you're marketing directly you get much more personally involved. Direct marketing, (and some people here have seed companies), is tough because you're going out on a limb. Can you sell that seed? How many pounds of it? You get more return from your investment if you can do it.
Tom Stearns: Your required attention to detail and quality goes up as you go down the list. If it's your own farm that's using it and it doesn't germ, it's your own fault or if it's crossed up you just do whatever you do, but if it's a contract, its gotta be the right kind, they're going to handle the final cleaning and germ testing, with direct marketing, you not only have to sell it but you have to test it and stand behind it completely. As you go further down your reputation rides higher and higher.