Breeding by Mass Selection on the Southcoast

 Bill with his beloved Macomber turnip

photo courtesy Bill Braun
A happy Bill with his beloved Macomber turnip

The area of Massachusetts and Rhode Island forming the northwest boundary of Buzzards Bay, from Little Compton RI to Wareham, MA, has come to be known as the South Coast, or the more stylized “Southcoast”. The name is recent, according to Wikipedia: “… dating to the 1990s, and sometimes confused with the South Shore — a region southeast of Boston that includes Norfolk, Northern Bristol and eastern Plymouth counties. [It was] born as a public relations effort to counteract the perceived stigma of [nearby]… depressed mill towns with run-down buildings and high unemployment. Local boosters…began using the term in the mid-1990s in an effort to attract business to an area with ‘the Cape’s climate,’ ‘better infrastructure’ and ‘relatively low land prices,’ according to Standard-Times publisher William Kennedy.”

For many farmers, however, whatever you call it, the area has been home for a long time. Westport, site of Horseneck Beach, a deservedly famous clean ocean beach stretching more than 2 miles along a protected reservation, an abundance of new wineries, and miles of sandy farmland, has been farmed continuously since the early 1600s when settlers bought land from the Wampanoags. Although driven out and having their homes burned during King Philip’s War in 1674 – 1676, they quickly returned to buy more coastal ‘meadow land’. Descendents of some of those early families are still farming here, as well as a spate of new, younger farmers, many with organic convictions.

One of the newer farmers is Bill Braun who, along with his wife and young son, has made an arrangement with the owners of a Westport farm that has been in continuous production since 1740. In return for access and capital for long term improvements, he farms, improving the infrastructure and building up the soil.

Bill grew up in the South Coast and was a lifelong gardener, mostly raising ornamentals along with a few tomatoes and pumpkins. As he got older he became increasingly interested in growing food.

“I studied philosophy in college,” he relates, “and I was in a masters program at Boston College. I was also playing in several bands and working several temp jobs to support my music habit. It was wearing on me — I’d play for an audience of maybe seven at night, and then go to class in the morning and try to be wide awake.”

In 2008, through a musical connection, he ended up recording some music at Eva’s Garden, an organic farm in the next door town of South Dartmouth. Eva Sommaripa, the owner, specializes in greens and herbs for the Boston culinary market. Bill volunteered for a day and took over her cottage to record music.

“I realized I needed to figure out a way to grow food and keep dirt under my fingernails,” he recalls. “Until you do that you don’t have an appreciation for how growing is hinged to so many other things – environmental issues, social justice issues, globalization issues. It is all in the growing of food — the interaction with the natural world, with plants, and the stewardship of that.

“All the problems I was trying to address in academia,” he continues, “I was addressing by putting my hands in the soil. I bought organic when I was living in the city, I was under the impression that organic would be expensive. But the nature of an organic system was off my radar, as was an appreciation for the work involved.”

photo courtesy Bill Braun
There is considerable variation in the spectrum of leaves in “Eva” mustard, a farm-original genepool

So Braun walked away from grad school and decided to forget about his insurmountable student loan debt for a moment and figure it all out. The joke in the philosophy department when he was there, he relates, was that the two career objectives of graduates are philosopher or hermit. He decided neither was right for him.

The farm he is on is called “Ivory Silo Farm”. That is a perfect name, he says, because an academic couple bought the farm in the 1950s and since they spent most of their lives in an ivory tower the name was natural. The parents passed away eventually and 4 siblings inherited the farm, deciding they wanted to keep it preserved. In 2013 Bill came onboard. One of the kids, now in his 70s, was still there baling hay and keeping the place together.

“When I arrived,” Braun recalls, “I figured to use my Boston and Cambridge restaurant connections as financial catalysts for seed work. They would buy whatever I produced, so I could experiment and try to grow some new varieties. Since then, one has really taken the plunge – 85% of their produce comes just from us. They even come and participate in the farm – harvesting, gleaning, culling.”

The farm is 37 acres, 16 of which are arable. Bill and his wife grow on about 10 of them, sowing 5 each year and fallowing the remainder. His goal is to share the farm with the family that owns it.

“We won’t own it,” he admits, “but we will run the farm. We are making many shorter term investments here, while the owning family makes the really long term ones. We have been given great advantages by the family so that we didn’t have to go so deeply into debt. Other young farmers are also coming down here and figuring out their own ways to partner with landowners. The price tag on coastal New England land makes any other approach prohibitive.”

The couple has about three-quarters of an acre in perennials, many of which they won’t see come to fruition for four to eight years more – mostly fruits, culinary herbs and flowers. They try to find items that work well in organic systems that chef customers might be a good market for — hardy kiwis, pawpaws, Nanking cherries, gooseberries.

They deal exclusively with restaurants as markets, plus doing a spring plant sale with their own varieties. There are so many farmers in the area now that Bill thinks if he started a CSA they would be competing immediately with four other farms. There are three other farm stands within a few miles of them, too, to say nothing of farmers markets. The restaurants, however, consistently say: ‘You grow it and we will buy it’.

I asked Bill how he got excited about breeding improved crops.

“We grew a lot of salad greens,” he explains, “and a lot of mustard varieties. We had one greenhouse where there were things that got kind of over-grown and went to seed. That greenhouse breeding produced a lot of naturalized plants with several different leaf types, all equally vigorous and cold hardy, and with a great flavor profile. We thought: ‘This is worth keeping.’ So we have been carrying them. They are adapting to this location and our conditions. That to me is what this is all about!

“When Frank Morton in Oregon recast his lettuce breeding program,” Braun continues, “he set up what he called ‘Hell’s Half Acre’. It was a half acre where he only grew lettuces, year after year, and let them go to hell. What survived became the foundation for his lettuce breeding program. Some thing that is abused and abandoned will sometimes, if it survives, have incredible vigor and resilience.

“We are growing mustard this year,” he concludes, “specifically for a seed crop. One thing that is great about our system is that we are not just growing a seed crop of beautiful plants, but we are first harvesting from that crop, sometimes harvesting the hell out of it. Then we are letting it have a break enough to photosynthesize and go to seed. So what gets selected has been subjected to our harvesting system and has adapted to it a bit. You can’t do that with a head of lettuce, obviously, but many crops can withstand a harvesting regimen like this.”

photo by Jack Kittredge A Macomber Turnip, ready for replanting for year two and seed production

photo by Jack Kittredge
A Macomber Turnip, ready for replanting for year two and seed production

Despite their enthusiasm for this work, Bill and his wife realized a couple of years ago that the way they were piggybacking the seed work onto the market garden was doing the seed work a disservice. They were just struggling to keep up. Braun realized that his initial resistance to starting a non-profit — “because I didn’t want to be behind a desk all the time” — was inappropriate. It didn’t have to be that way. He could structure it in a way that it could support the work by getting grants and tax-deductible donations from people in the affluent local community here. So they incorporated in October of 2017 and got 501 (c) 3 status for the “Freed Seed Federation”.

Their goals are climate resilience, and to produce regenerative plants suitable for the future. Another goal is to work with farmers in the area interested in developing better plants who don’t have the tools or technical support necessary to undertake it alone. When you get into this on your own, Braun says, you often have questions but no one of whom to ask them. Questions like: “This is looking weird, is it okay?” “Do I have enough now?” “I think I skipped a step. Is that important enough to start over?” It helps to have a local person you can call and from whom you can get an opinion.

There are about a dozen farms that seem seriously interested in doing the work, Bill says, and continuing with it. Of those, seven actually did plant development work last year and he considers peers. He is the group’s executive director, Heron Breen at Fedco and Hannah Traggis at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society are their two in-house volunteer consultants.

Braun is quick to caution that seed work takes place at a glacial pace and it can be upwards of a decade for anything to really come to fruition. But if a farmer is interested in pursuing this work, he suggests two ways in which it can proceed.

Ears of Narragansett white corn,

photo courtesy Bill Braun
Ears of Narragansett white corn,
aka Rhode Island White Cap Flint corn,
aka Jonnycake corn

“If a farmer educates herself really well about growing seed,” he explains, “and comes to a seed company like Fedco and says: ‘Give me some seed you need grown out and I will do it.’ that would be one way for farmers to work with seed companies and diversity their operations with seed trials. The other way is if a farmer develops a seed variety they feel good about and shops it around to see if a company wants to distribute it. Some companies like Dan Barber’s “Row 7 Seeds” or “Fruition Seed” have been doing that. Their whole mission is to release cultivars that are flavorful. Farmers can often get a royalty or other compensation for their work with the right companies.

But the financial rewards are not big for working with developing and breeding plants on your farm. The benefits of keeping your eyes on a plant variety for years and years are also adapting it to your soil, or to the weather in your locale, or adapting it to your harvest style and all sorts of other traits that are beneficial to your farm – adding beneficial habitat and pollinator habitat. It is a way of keeping a healthy farm organism.

The other big initiative Bill is involved in is finding things that do well on the South Coast and making sure they stay growing there.

“Turnips and corn are the main varieties we work with for preservation,” he reveals. “Then there are the varieties we work with regularly in our market garden. We pick just one pepper or one watermelon or one muskmelon and use mass selection to keep picking the best. We are not making our own crosses intentionally yet.”

Braun feels strongly about the importance of growers selecting, saving, and breeding crops which are better adapted to their locations and methods than what is available commercially. That right has been under some legal constraints since the 1980 Supreme Court decision in Diamond v. Chakrabarty. The court held that any live, human-made micro-organism is patentable, a decision that opened the floodgates for patenting seeds.

flowering kale

photo courtesy Bill Braun
Russian kale genepool in flower in Bill’s hoophouse

The burgeoning seed movement that we are now seeing is a response to that effort to privatize seed, he asserts, based on the belief that, like air and water, seed is a public common that has been selected, developed and improved by millions of hands over the entire trajectory of civilization.

He points to some encouraging models for seed control that are emerging. One is the “Open Source Seed Initiative”, which is just a moral code right now. But the idea is that by using seed acquired with this label you are free to save, plant, improve and sell it, so long as you do not restrict any progeny of this seed and it is open to the same public use. The label is printed on bags and is on the websites of companies that pledge to be Open Source, like Fedco.

Another model is farmer-based small seed operations. Many seed companies were, and more still are, farmer-based initiatives evolving from a passion for seeds. Bill deals with a number of these.

“We had a friend with a 2 acre CSA in Rhode Island who,” he says “over maybe ten years, created original varieties of tomato, watermelon and kale. They thought about starting a seed company to pass them along to others, but they realized soon that the packaging, marketing, distribution, etc. were all way more than they could handle on top of the farm. So they let the seed company go after 2 or 3 years and passed some of the varieties on to us to evaluate and pass along to other seed companies. We also get a lot of seeds from Uprising Seeds, run by a couple in Bellingham, Washington. It is sort of like a candy store for us. They curate the overwhelming variety of what they grow – maintain it from year to year, selecting it for quality — and work with other small seed growers in the region.

“Some farmers find a niche, though,” he continues. “Frank Morton in Oregon is a hero of the small seed growers. He learned early on that you need to breed in situ for small organic growers. Most commercial seed has been bred for conventional systems and you need to adapt it for organic ones. He saw how important that was and decided to pay attention to it.

“There is a whole community in the Northwest who are doing this kind of breeding work,” he concludes. “Frank, John Navazio, who helped found the “Organic Seed Alliance”, many others come from there. It seems to be an area naturally geared to growing seed. The Northeast lags behind. There are not the growing conditions here, nor is there the demand. But we do have unique conditions for which it would be nice to have plants adapted.”

mechanical winnower

photo by Jack Kittredge
Bill kneels by his new mechanical winnower

To illustrate his point Braun cites the fact that California grows something like 60% of US spinach, and there are only about 5 really large growers there. So they very much dominate the spinach seed industry. But if a pathogen develops in a variety that is “tolerant” and not “resistant”, then that is a problem. Growers at that scale are essentially raising a monoculture and court the problems that entails.

He says that plant breeding for traits like resistance to a certain pathogen or parasite often focus on a single gene in the plant that disables another gene in the pathogen or parasite. This is called a “vertical” resistance strategy and can be quite effective so long as the pathogen or parasite does not itself evolve around that genetic block. Once that happens, the resistance breaks down completely.

Another strategy is called “horizontal” and involves many more genes. An example would be breeding something for taste by tasting it and selecting what tastes good. This is more subtle and takes longer than vertical trait breeding.

Another confusing set of terms, Bill suggests, is whether a group of plants is a variety, a landrace, or a gene pool. A landrace is the most diverse group, but is generally adapted to one locale. It must be maintained there for a long period of time. A landrace can produce quite different looking plants, tall, short, fat, thin, different colors, but is grown in a specific region from its own seed. An indigenous variety, for instance, will often be a landrace. The same variety of plant, if grown out in different areas, can eventually produce various landraces.

A variety of beets, however, looks a certain way, grows a certain way, has x, y, and z attributes, and therefore it is called by a specific variety name. A gene pool can be in between the two. It could be large or small, or two varieties that cross and you are letting them play out to see what traits they contain.

The terms self-pollinating and out-crossing are the ends of a continuum of methods of plant fertilization. Self-pollinators contain both male and female flower parts and commonly pollinate themselves. Out-crossing plants generally will not self-pollinate and need pollen from another flower to reproduce. Many things are in the middle, however, and can do both. Eggplants, for instance, are self-pollinators but they are incredibly attractive to Bumblebees. If you grow two varieties side by side and have Bumblebees around they will cross.

Hybrid versus open-pollinated plants are another common set of terms in plant breeding. Open-pollinated plants are those that will maintain relative stability of traits through generations of breeding from their own seed. Hybrids are plants produced from seed set when two distinct parents cross. If the parents are each bred close to uniformity themselves, when they cross they will produce a predictable offspring. Often these offspring hybrids will have what is called “hybrid vigor” or exceptional qualities. The offspring of hybrids, however, do not breed true and usually the special qualities are lost.

“The hybrid is an interesting case of ownership in seed,” Bill observes. “If you have developed one, only you know the exact parentage of that hybrid. To control that parentage you have to breed both parent lines to near uniformity and sustain them there. But that way people have to come back to you for hybrid seed since only you can breed it from exactly the same parents. As a breeder you have a much more secure revenue from a hybrid than from developing an open-pollinated breed, and that control became a perverse incentive for breeders to develop large numbers of hybrids.

“A lot of people think hybridization is good,” he continues. “But how stable is that over a number of years compared to an open pollinated variety that is well maintained? If you plant seed from hybrids you will get a lot of expressions of recessive traits. Open-pollinated varieties are a population that is much more stable. They will grow true to type but from generation to generation there will be drift if you are not selecting every year for the same qualities.”

“Hybrids do have a place. A lot of the hybrid material that is out there growers rely on. But hybrids are overwhelmingly bred for commercial agriculture. With our small organic farms, do we want acres and acres of carrots that can all be harvested at the same time? Or do we want plants that are more appropriate to our sizes and markets?”

One of the plants that Braun has been focusing a lot of his preservation work on has been a local luminary for almost one hundred and fifty years. It is an unlikely creation itself, and continuing it’s viability and value has been a story not without some local color and drama.

As Bill tells the story: “We in Westport have been fortunate enough to inherit a cultural treasure, which is the Macomber turnip. Circa 1876 the Brothers Macomber had this new variety that they brought back from the Philadelphia Exposition, or perhaps was an accidental cross in their field of a rutabaga and a true turnip. That is a crossing with a likelihood of only one in many thousandths of a percent. Turnips and rutabagas are in different families. Because the amount of chromosomes is different in each, the chance of successfully crossing is small. But Nature has an exception to every single rule!

“It has been grown,” he continues, “almost exclusively in the South Coast area of Massachusetts and Rhode Island since then by a handful of farmers and backyard gardeners. It can get up to 10 pounds in size, and is botanically a rutabaga but has many turnip traits. It grows like a weed and is incredibly well adapted to our conditions. It has a unique flavor profile – the sweet bite of a turnip with the girth and storability of a rutabaga. But it does not have the sulfuric flatulence usually associated with rutabagas. It is widely consumed for Thanksgiving dinner in Southeast Massachusetts and is considered a treasure of a vegetable here and in some circles of chefs in Boston and New York.

“I like it,” he concludes, “because it intersects flavor and food security. You can store it in your fridge or root cellar until June, yet it has myriad applications raw or cooked. You can slice and ferment it like sauerkraut, it is heavenly mixed with potatoes and mashed. It sells well to restaurants into the spring.”

Recently, however, young farmers began coming down to the South Coast, starting farms and wanting to grow the Macomber turnip. But some of the old guard were not cooperating. It was a major crop for some of them, as important as winter squash, and they weren’t happy with the extra competition. More than one story has been told of confrontations in fields at night — farmers with shotguns protecting their turnips. Some when sold at market are cut so deep that there is no chance of them sprouting the next year if replanted.

(Here we must pause and explain that the Macomber turnip, like its parents, is a biennial. This means that it requires one season of vegetal growth to build up the strength for seed production. Then, the next April the harvested root, instead of being sold to eat is replanted for seed, which is usually ready for harvesting in Westport in July. This replanting would not be productive if the bulbous root has been cut so deeply by the farmer that it will not sprout that second season. Interestingly, often biennials produce a lot more seed than annuals because that extra period of vegetative growth strengthens them. They also require vernalization, a period of 8 to 10 weeks during which they have to be maintained below a certain temperature in order to produce flowers. That cold triggers some mechanism to tell them to stop producing turnip and start making seed. Also interestingly, the seed on these turnips is dehiscent, meaning it will shatter and explode away from the plant upon harvest, enabling the seeds to spread. Birds, who love the seeds, are also a carrier.)

To return to the story, there is also a Cape Cod turnip and a Gilfeather turnip, each with similar attributes to the Macomber one. No one knows exactly where or when the strain emerged. Some people have tried to legally protect it, but so far unsuccessfully.

“Fast forward to the present day,” Broun explains, “and the few people maintaining the turnip were not selecting the best of the best anymore. The best were going to market and the ones leftover in the field became the seed crop for next year. We acquired seed and when we grew it we got lopsided turnips, turnips shaped like footballs, ones with long necks, or blackheart. We decided to work on it to restore it. So 8 years into my first growing it, just by selection, we have a variety which has received very favorable feedback.

“This is how farmers have traditionally improved crops,” he continues, “mass selection. You walk the field, you survey the crop in all its variety, you flag the best looking ones, plant them the next year and take your seed from those. The more you are selecting the same thing over time the more you are going to get that same thing.”

Brassicas have a perfect flower, meaning one with all the flower parts, male and female. But they are self-infertile, meaning that one brassica’s flower cannot reliability pollinate itself. So you will have a mix of paternal and maternal genes in that flagged turnip’s seed that will differ somewhat from the maternal genes that created that particular turnip. But if you select consistently over the years the population will become closer and closer to what you are selecting for.

“By now, frankly, the old timers who were very protective of the crop have either gotten out of the game or died,” Bill admits. “We now save about a hundred turnips a year for seed. Then when we give seed to other farms, we reserve the right to take 30 turnips from their crop the next year. So we are selecting on their farms as well. We put them all in storage and plant them the next year, let them go to seed, clean the seed, and redistribute it to farmers again. We are hoping we can continue to do this work without a monetary exchange. But the abundance of Nature is amazing! Eventually if we have a plethora of seed we may sell seed packets.”

Another of Broun’s preservation projects is what is known locally as Narragansett White Corn or Rhode Island White Cap Flint Corn or New England White Cap Flint Corn or Johnnycake Corn. The story goes that the Narragansett tribe shared this variety with the settlers and it became widely consumed until dent corn came into fashion in the mid 1800s. Bill got the seed from a man named Harry who was in his mid eighties, one of three or four of the last growers growing it. There was a local market for it, people were asking for it, there was even a water-powered stone gristmill on the border of Massachusetts and Rhode Island that has been refurbished and opened to grind Johnnycake Corn. So Broun approached Harry and told him they wanted to maintain the variety. Harry shared 5 pounds of seed and Bill has been growing it out since then.

As Bill explains: “It is prized for its flavor by local restaurants, and performs exceptionally well in lower input systems. It doesn’t require much fertility compared to the green revolution corns. Corn once upon a time was actually considered a soil builder, not a soil degrader. I thought we could make this corn a form of cover crop as well, while under-sowing with buckwheat and clover. So we are teaming up with another farm this year to do that, all by selection. There is a lot of variation given how this has been maintained, so we walk the crop each year and select for plant health and vigor. We don’t hold this corn up in terms of number of bushels to the acre, but the fact is that it is not demanding of fertility and gives a nice product that people want.”

Yet one more crop Broun is preserving is winter kale, or Red Russian kale. He saved seed from this a while back, before learning that Macomber turnips are actually in the same species as kale! So a little Macomber turnip got into the winter kale gene pool.

He recalls: “I thought: ‘Well, that’s interesting.’ I kept the Russian kale with some Macomber turnip in there. Years later I crossed it with Red Russian kale and then White Russian kale. So finally we ended up with something moving closer to a landrace. So we have this winter kale now that is mostly still a gene pool for kale and our selection criteria are: is it disease resistant, are there any that taste bad?

“The population size of the winter kale bed is big enough,” he continues, “that it retains all its diversity. If somebody really liked a different trait than disease resistance or taste, they could start selecting just for that. We left about 120 plants last year and we still have pounds of kale seed. Some crops are not so generous, but a brassica is! And the seed is not so difficult to process as tomatoes.

“They do have dehiscent pods,” he admits, “so they shatter to release seed when they are dry. If you were to let everything get to 100% dry the bottom seeds would already be shattering. So we usually harvest between 2/3 and ¾ maturity to avoid that. We harvest them and hang them in bags until dry, then we thresh by throwing them on a tarp and having a dance party! You can also get a box covered with a screen of the right size. You shake the pods over the box and the seed falls though the screen holes while the chaff gets caught. Or if you feel lucky you can let a breeze blow the chaff away while you catch the heavier seed.”

“But now,” Bill proudly grins, “we have a winnower that does that for us!”

His new seed cleaner requires no clean-up time between lots. It can safely and effectively process different sizes from amaranth to corn. It also can separate viable from non-viable seeds — you can adjust it to have the heavier seed fall on one side and lighter seed on the other. You can then germination test the lighter seed to see how well it germinates.

“There are only 14 of them that have been built,” Broun reveals. “It is made by a guy named Markael Luterra out in Oregon. His website is Luterra .com. We got a grant last year from SEMAP to purchase one and set it up. We’re serving as a communal hub for the winnower. We want to get more people into saving seed. It is going to make our seed work a lot easier.”

The machine has a hopper with an agitator at the top, where you drop the seed. It lands on a table that a small motor gently vibrates back and forth, coercing the seed to slide off and drop a distance with other debris. There is a fan blowing air past it as it falls so the good seed falls in one place, that which needs to be re-circulated and separated again falls in a second location, and the chaff is blown off. A different combination of screens is used depending on each crop of seed. Clean up is quick. The table comes off, there are no corners where seed gets caught. It has two motors and a blower, the speeds of which can be adjusted depending on the seed. It is very user friendly.

I asked Bill what he thought about being able to breed plants for traits like healthfulness and human nutrition. He suggested that modern labs such as they have at Cornell have the technology to isolate and measure the nutritive components of plants. But he feels that it is quite likely that flavor is associated with healthfulness.

“I think it is a pretty good assumption,” he argues, “that the secondary metabolites which determine nutrition are also involved in giving the plant the distinctive flavors it has. There is a growing consensus that modern varieties of many plants don’t taste as good as heirlooms, and flavor is associated with complex chemicals. In the wine industry there is a lot of attention paid to tasting and the complex chemicals and flavors associated with the fruit. I do think, however, that we have to move people away from their taste for fats and sweets if we want to regain the ability to determine healthy foods by taste.”