In a quest to obtain more reliability, better flavors and nutrition, and higher productivity, I have been growing my own genetically-diverse, locally-adapted varieties for the past decade. That allows me to select for great tasting varieties that thrive on my farm with its unique climate, pests, soil, microbes, customers, and farmer habits.
By growing genetically-diverse landrace varieties I am able to get out of the way and let the intelligence of the plants solve problems that other farmers might be trying to solve using labor or materials. Not only am I saving money by not purchasing seeds, I’m saving on other input costs like fertilizer and sprays. I taste every fruit before saving seeds from it. In doing so, I am selecting for flavors and aromas that are beloved by my community, thus increasing sales and enjoyment.
When I was buying seed from commercial sources, the seed was not locally-adapted to my ecosystem. Buying seeds from a glitzy catalog based on nothing more than a glib description resulted in failure rates of around 50% to 95%. When I grow my own seed, I know that the parents did well enough on my farm to make seeds. That’s a huge step forward in being able to rely on the productivity of my crops. On some species, there is a labor cost to growing one’s own seed, but the way I look at it, growing seeds is like growing money.
I call my method of seed saving landrace farming. Growers that want to sound avant-garde might call it evolutionary plant breeding. My Darwinian pals call it survival of the fittest. My definition of a landrace is a very genetically-diverse crop that has grown in the same place long enough to become part of the local ecosystem and cultural heritage.
To me, one of the most pleasant aspects of landrace seed saving is that because I am tasting every plant in every generation I am able to select for flavors, textures, and smells that are super pleasing to me as a primate animal. While I haven’t verified it in a laboratory, I suspect that foods that taste better are inherently more nutritious. Fruits that are higher in beta-carotene taste better to me. I can see beta-carotene in squash and muskmelons, so when I select for better taste, I am also inadvertently selecting for deeper more vibrant colors. I don’t like bitterness in cucumbers or lettuce, therefore I save seeds from plants that taste less bitter to me. My customers love me for it.
I believe that how a food tastes is due to many different processes in the plant, the ecosystem, and my body, being summed up into the final taste profile. Plants that are growing better on my farm tend to taste better to me than plants that are struggling to survive. By selecting for plants that are more tolerant of the local bugs, soils, climate, and farmer, it seems to me like I am also selecting for better taste.
My first exposure to landrace growing was a variety of sweet corn named Astronomy Domine which was developed by Alan Bishop of Pekin, Indiana. He allowed about 200 varieties of heirloom and hybrid corn to promiscuously cross-pollinate. The resulting population was a delightful mix of colors, textures, flavors, and plant types. I fell in love with it, and with the idea of landrace farming. Some of the plants only grew a few feet tall in my garden, and got eaten by pheasants. Some plants were too long season. I saved seeds from what survived, and what I loved. I replanted. I love colored corn, and I love shorter season crops. There was enough genetic diversity in the original population that I could easily select for bright colors in the sweet corn stage, and for quicker maturity. The cobs are multi-colored, adding lots of different phytochemicals to my diet.
When I first started landrace farming, I followed my training as a scientist, and embarked on a path of keeping elaborate pedigrees and saving thousands of packets of seeds from all sorts of different parents. I planted out fruit-to-row sibling group trials. I quickly found myself overwhelmed. Therefore, I looked to ancient history for inspiration. It seems like every domesticated species that I grow was originally developed by illiterate plant breeders. They couldn’t write, they didn’t know about DNA, and yet they developed sophisticated varieties. After some years of struggle about the genetics of landrace plant breeding, I have reduced it to a simple mantra: Offspring tend to resemble their parents and grandparents. The corollary of that is that if two great varieties cross-pollinate they tend to produce great offspring.
My current strategy is to limit record keeping to a phenotypic description of what the mother plant(s) were like. An example would be “Long-necked moschata”. For many crops, I keep only one jar of seeds per landrace variety. I decide how much seed I need for sharing, planting, and seed bank, and I keep that quantity of seed on hand. When fresh seed is available, I fill the storage container with about 2/3 new seed, and about 1/3 old seed. The excess seed is eaten by people or animals. By keeping some of the older seed around, I am hedging against one unusual growing season dramatically shifting the genetics away from the mean, and I am holding onto more genetic diversity.
The first landrace development project that I was exposed to used hundreds of varieties of sweet corn. More recently, I have had good results starting with 3 to 5 varieties. My basic strategy is to plant several varieties close together and allow them to promiscuously cross-pollinate as much as they will. I live in a difficult climate for many species. So the first year it is common to have a very high percentage of new varieties fail to make seeds. That’s where survival of the fittest comes in. A plant has to make seeds or contribute pollen before it can get incorporated into a breeding project on my farm.
I save seeds from what thrives for me, and what I love, and replant them. Year after year, I continue selecting for better flavors, higher nutrition, better productivity, etc. I select for traits that are beloved by my community. I am currently selecting for tomatoes that people are describing as “guava”, “fermenty”, “tropical”, “fruity”, “sweet”. I select for traits that are easier for me as a farmer. For example, while many farmers put in tremendous labor and materials to trellis their tomatoes, I avoid that labor by growing tomatoes sprawling on the ground. By doing so, I am selecting for tomatoes that grow well on my farm, even though the irrigation water splashes soil and it’s associated diseases onto them. I discovered after some years that I had inadvertently been selecting for a vine type that keeps the fruits off the ground. That is advantageous because it keeps the fruits cleaner. I didn’t intend to do that selection, it happened accidentally because I had been saving seeds from cleaner fruits, and the plants had enough diversity of stem types to satisfy my unconscious desire for clean fruits. That makes my life as a farmer easier.
I think of the third year as the magical year. By then, the combination of natural and farmer-directed selection has done a pretty good job of selecting for plants that thrive on my farm. Crops that are mostly out-crossing tend to become genetically-diverse and locally-adapted quicker than the mostly inbreeding crops. The mostly out-crossing species like corn, squash, and brassicas are playing the genetic lottery at high speed, so they are quick to adapt to new growing conditions. The mostly inbreeding species like lettuce, beans, peas are slower to adapt to local conditions, because they rarely cross-pollinate.
Careful observation to save seeds from the occasional naturally occurring cross in an inbreeding species can really speed up the process of local adaptation. For example, common beans are a species that are mostly self-pollinating most of the time. The natural cross-pollination rate is perhaps 1 in 200 at my place, or as much as 5% on farms with lots of pollinators. My beans aren’t crossing much, so the varieties tend to stagnate. However, by paying close attention I am able to identify new hybrids every year. I then plant them in a special place so that I can watch them and save more seed from them. The benefit of growing out the hybrids is that the genetics are rearranging themselves into lots of new patterns and it provides more opportunities to find varieties that thrive on my farm.
Another quick and easy way to get started with landrace farming is to import a genetically-diverse landrace from elsewhere. It won’t be locally adapted, but with so much genetic diversity something may feel really at home on my farm. As an example: I have fond memories of my grandfather growing runner beans. I tried growing them too. Year after year, I bought a new variety of runner beans from a catalog and planted them. They didn’t make seeds. I think that my climate is too arid and too hot for them to do well. Then, a friend sent me landrace runner bean seed. A number of varieties had been promiscuously cross-pollinating on her farm. Therefore, it was like each seed was a new unique variety. Some of them grew great for me, and formed the foundation of my runner bean breeding project.
One of the joys of landrace farming is that I can save seed without caring much about isolation, or purity. A winter squash is a winter squash. As long as it tastes great, I don’t care what shape it is, or what color. I like to keep the sweet peppers separate from the hot peppers, so I practice some isolation, but it’s not the crazy-making isolation of the heirloom purists, who use every trick known to humanity to keep “open pollinated” varieties from being open to crossing. I often plant small quantities of new varieties next to my landraces. If I like them, I add them to the landrace. If I don’t like them, then maybe they contributed some pollen. I like small amounts of stray pollen. It adds diversity to my landraces.
On my farm, I encourage “promiscuous pollination” at every opportunity. It seems to me like varieties are stronger when their genetics are able to rearrange themselves routinely.
Tomatoes went through a number of genetic bottlenecks when they were domesticated. At each bottleneck they lost genetic diversity. Perhaps during the bottlenecks their accustomed pollinators didn’t make the trip with them, so self-pollination was favored. Perhaps people selected for inbreeding flowers instead of types that are more cross-pollinating. Modern sensibilities about heirloom preservation and keeping seed from crossing lead to further selection for ‘selfing’, and limited their genetic diversity even more. Each loss of genetic diversity can be likened to losing a piece of the intelligence about how to deal with problems that the plant might face.
I am currently engaged in a tomato-breeding project to undo that loss of diversity. I want my tomatoes to regain the intelligence they had before domestication. I am developing a variety of tomatoes that is self-incompatible. They are 100% out-crossing. Thus every seed is a unique F1 hybrid in every generation. Each seed is a new variety of tomato. The genetics are rapidly rearranging themselves in each generation rather than stagnating. That will make it trivial to throw hundreds of thousands of unique genetic combinations against problems like blights, mildews, rots, insects, etc. Thus we can allow the intelligence of a highly diverse tomato variety to solve those sorts of problems for itself. Along the way, we are likely to find astonishing flavors and aromas.
Muskmelons were the first variety that I bred specifically for my farm. Our valley is high in the mountains, the nights are cold, the season is short. Crops like melons that love the heat struggle here. Over several years, another farmer and I planted many dozens of varieties of melons. Most of them failed spectacularly. In the early years a few produced a few immature fruits, with some viable seeds. We saved and replanted the seeds from those that survived, and within a few years, we could reliably grow melons. Lots of melons, that got ripe weeks before the fall frosts arrive. I was so enamored with the first few landraces that I grew that I converted every species on my farm into modern landraces. I love the feedback from my customers when they say things like, “This is the first time I have been able to grow a muskmelon since I moved to the valley.”
Joseph Lofthouse is a subsistence farmer who grew up and still farms in northern Utah on the family farm that was settled by his grandmother. Growing conditions in that location are very challenging for many warmth-loving crops, so he became a plant breeder to select for varieties that can thrive in spite of the difficult growing conditions. Joseph shares his modern landrace varieties via a seed catalog reachable at http://garden.lofthouse.com/seed-list.phtml