Farmers' Breeding Projects Seed Workshops Concepts and Outcomes
An Inspiring Conference
"Should I make a 1500-mile round trip to attend a weekend conference on seed growing in Vermont?" I had only 3 days to decide, after learning about the "Restoring Our Seed" conference to be held November 15-16. Let's see. 6 days away from my work, teaching and farm managing at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro. but look who the presenters are! This will be a gathering of many stellar organic seed growers, breeders, and distributors. These people are national leaders in an exciting new "seed movement" in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest. "At the very minimum," I was thinking as I ordered my train ticket, "it will be an opportunity to hone my skills in seed growing and trialing." Hopefully it will be something more.
It was more. WAY more! This gathering proved to be nothing less than a giant step in a growing revolution of small growers who are reclaiming control of the genetic material upon which we all depend, and adapting it to the needs and methods of modern small growers and gardeners. This includes the need for each farm to be a diverse, healthy ecosystem.
Fortunately, CFSA has had the foresight to secure a large grant from SARE (Sustainable Ag. Research and Education) to develop a similar project, a Southeast regional seed production network. It's time to ramp up our own backyard efforts, as we work toward creating a good supply of regionally-adapted seed. Not only is that work highly rewarding in many ways, it's downright FUN. That's the message I took home from Vermont.
FROM SAVING OUR GENETIC HERETIGE TO CREATING NEW LANY ALLIES
For several decades, a large network of gardeners around North America have been saving seeds, emphasizing "heirloom" varieties. Their goal is to save our genetic heritage from extinction. This conference offered several technical sessions by seed-saving experts, including the legendary Will Bonsall, curator of several thousand varieties on his farm in Maine. Will's role is that of preserver of existing germ plasm, in contrast to the efforts of most of the other presenters, whose primary focus is on changing varieties to adapt them to local geographies and food production needs. And yet the basic seed-growing techniques taught by Will and his colleagues are useful to all of us.
For me, the most inspirational sessions were those aimed at training us in crop improvement technologies. We were empowered to adapt and improve existing varieties to better serve our own needs, and leaping beyond that, to actually create whole new varieties significantly different from anything we can find in seed catalogs. And we were encouraged to work together as a guild of seed growers building on each others' successes. This theme of sharing and cooperation permeated the whole conference.
Such grassroots, cooperative methods offer a refreshing contrast to the secretive, property-rights orientation of the conventional seed industry. As this industry has come under the control of a few mega-corporations, many with ag-chemical subsidiaries, it has lost its historic incentive to breed for genetic resistance to diseases and other pests. Organic agriculture needs this new, revolutionary seed movement.
Imagine a productive, flavorful potato that is highly resistant to viruses and even to Colorado potato beetle. Imagine an open-pollinated (non-hybrid) tomato, resistant to early blight and other common diseases, that also possesses crack resistance, good flavor, rich color, and is high in anti-oxidants like lycopene.. Imagine a new Asian-type salad green that has beautifully textured leaves, rich taste, deep purple color (also associated with anti-oxidants), and throw in resistance to flea beetles for good measure.
Pie-in-the-sky? Impossible dream? Or possible to achieve, but only by the most skilled high-tech plant breeders? NOT! In fact, several conference presenters prophesied that such new plants are not only attainable, but will only be achieved as stable, reliable varieties if they are developed and maintained by a network of plant breeders and "amateur breeding clubs." What a revolutionary concept! In fact, right there at the conference, we formed many new links in this network and laid plans to start breeding new plants.
Though this heresy, this new seed movement, will be carried out substantially by amateurs, the idea was not presented to us by mere amateurs. Several conference presenters have worked as professional breeders. Two of them, John Navazio and Mark Hutton, worked for big seed companies for many years. Now they work for us.
In fact, these professionals gave us tremendous encouragement by statements such as, "It's much easier to transform an experienced horticulturalist into a good plant breeder, than to try to make a good breeder out of an academic geneticist who doesn't know plants. In traditional plant breeding, it's the 'eye' for desirable traits that is most important. After all, it's peasant farmers who, over millennia, have changed tough, bitter wild plants into all the tasty, productive modern vegetables we enjoy."
Many of us were profoundly touched by what could be called a "Passing of the Torch" that was happening at this conference. Over the two days of this conference we came to recognize a true hero in our midst, a presenter from Canada named Dr. Raoul Robinson. This world citizen was a rebel far ahead of his time, whose contribution to ecologically-sound, small-farmer-oriented plant breeding is only beginning to be appreciated. His "Horizontal Resistance" breeding system has improved the lives and nutrition of countless people in several African countries and Mexico.
Dr. Robinson would take a devastating epidemic plant disease, develop a valuable resistant variety, and then deliver this stable genetic material into the hands of common farmers to use and maintain, with no profits enriching big companies. And now here he was with us, teaching the principles and tools for doing this democratic breeding to suit our own needs. Among the conference participants I noted an unabashed reverence for this man. He, in turn, was clearly thankful to have found so many willing members of the "amateur plant breeding clubs" that populate his vision for the future of agriculture.
THE NUTS AND BOLTS
Many of us will play a more practical role in this new seed movement: While some may aspire to be the breeders, some of us will be called to be the growers of the seeds on a farm scale, to supply all the millions of farmers and gardeners who are looking for high quality seed of reliable, proven varieties, preferably organically grown. Getting farmers up to speed as competent seed growers is perhaps the major focus of the "Restoring Our Seed" project. To that end, this conference was loaded with practical tools.
John Navazio came from Puget Sound area of Washington to teach us about basic botany of flower and seed development, about preventing unwanted crosses, about "rogueing out" the undesirables, and other crop improvement techniques. We learned the nuts and bolts of harvest and processing of wet seed and dry seed, fermentation, ripening, threshing, cleaning, quality control, storage, equipment options, and obtaining useful technical information. One session focused on marketing.
Can you make a living at it? There was some lively discussion of the economic viability of seed farming -- the opinions ranged from optimistic to pessimistic. At least four founders of small scale seed companies were among the conference presenters. Tom Stearns of High Mowing Seeds has been supported by the state of Vermont to train growers in seed production as a new source of income. Their project also studied many different farms and seed companies to produce a report entitled, "Economic Viability of Organic Seed Crop Production in the Northeast."
SEEDS IN A DIVERSE FARM ECOSYSTEM
As with organic agriculture in general, it's not easy to measure all the benefits of integrating seed production into a farm operation. Frank Morton, founder of "Wild Garden Seeds", took us on a slide tour of his stunningly beautiful farm, where he calls himself a "keystone species" in the web of thousands of creatures all playing their role and receiving their benefits from the biotic community. His seed company evolved out of his playful experimentation and keen observation of this community. How do you measure profitability when your seed crops have so many multiple benefits?
Take the mustards and kales for example. At least five "harvests" can be obtained from one planting. First, you harvest the young plants for salad and cooking greens and all those vitamins and anti-carcinogenic compounds. As they mature, you rogue out less desirable plants based on disease/pest resistance and other qualities. When they flower, the second and third harvests begin, one for you the edible flowers and one for the beneficial insects who need nectar and pollen to produce their offspring. Frank especially likes the syrphid fly, who is both a voracious consumer of aphids and a good pollinator of crops.
The fourth harvest is the seeds, which the farmer can harvest to use, trade, or sell. They contain a record of the influences of the local environment, and of the farmer's interactions with those plant friends. Some seeds are also food for other friends, the birds and other animals of this little ecosystem.
The fifth harvest is for the earth, all the teeming multitudes of critters who devour the rest of the seed plant and in turn do their part to keep all the cycles going and the pest populations in balance. Some studies are now indicating that decomposing mustard family plants give off certain compounds, which reduce nematodes and pathogens in the soil.
Frank's seed business evolved from his gourmet salad-crop farm. He uses very low-tech seed processing equipment and seems generally satisfied with the efficiency of his methods. He grows many of his seed crops in partnership with another local farm, taking advantage of their larger-scale equipment, horticultural skills, careful rotations, and commitment to organic methods. In addition to his keen eye for exceptional plants, he obviously benefits from sharing information with other seed growers and breeders.