By Hannah Traggis
The Mystery of Seed
This was the goal of the leaf and the root.
For this did the blossom burn its hour.
This little grain is the ultimate fruit.
This is the awesome vessel of power.
For this is the source of the root and the bud….
World unto world unto world remolded.
This is the seed, compact of God,
Wherein all mystery is enfolded.
-George Starbuck Galbraith,
The New York Times, May 6, 1960
There is a beauty and wonder in seeds, an enigmatic captivation, a fascination full of hope and promise for the future. As I sit here, futilely trying to resist the urge to place “just one more” order for seeds online, having already just come home from Agway with a few packets tucked into my bag of seed potatoes, I am inspired to consider for the umpteenth time, what is the irresistible allure of seeds. What makes me scour page upon page of seed catalog after seed catalog, 30 or more in a season – what fuels my desire to collect, grow and possess seeds. Continually searching for new seedspeople, I travel across the country just to gather with fellow seed enthusiasts. My Instagram feed is riddled with seed savers, seed breeders, seed historians and seed librarians, my bookshelves safeguard a collection spanning 1000s of years of human connection to seed and the many uses of plants to nourish, clothe, protect, and enrich our lives.
By Jack Kittredge
As you will learn if you read this issue, the historical role of farmers has not been just to provide food for humanity. They also, by selecting plants to provide seed for next year, saving that seed, and growing it out in populations that enable crossings, are inherently partners with nature in the design of the germplasm that will be our food in the future.
For thousands of years this has been an almost unconscious aspect of good farming. Only in the last century or so has supplying seed become a separate business in developed countries. We justify handing off this function on the basis of convenience and a faith in the benefits of science and technology. But we are now seeing the price to be paid for losing control of seed.
By Jared Zystro
Over the last century, we have not only lost valuable genetic diversity through modern agricultural practices, we have also lost much of the knowledge needed to steward our genetic resources. As farmers, gardeners, and plant enthusiasts, we all have an opportunity to shape sustainable agriculture in fundamental ways. By making new varieties available, we are able to give everyone new options.
Building a healthy, sustainable agriculture future requires farmer-centric seed systems at the regional level, where farmers and the communities they serve consciously choose which crop genetics they use, how they are maintained, and how these genetics are controlled. Done well, plant breeding can help ensure that we all control the seed we need. Breeding work can give us free access to genetic resources and the freedom to grow what we want.
By Kiki Hubbard, Organic Seed Alliance
“The crops that we grow are the basis of our civilization. If anything belongs in the public domain, it is the crops we grow for food.” – Todd Leake, North Dakota grain grower, public testimony at a Department of Justice workshop in Ankeny, Iowa, March 12, 2010
“I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” – Henry David Thoreau, The Dispersion of Seeds (1860-1861)
Once managed as part of our public commons, seed is now one of the most privatized agricultural inputs today. Laws, policies, and practices governing intellectual property (IP) rights on seed, plants, and genetics have fostered dramatic marketplace and cultural changes in a few short decades. The commercial seed marketplace has undergone tremendous structural shifts, with ever more market power concentrating into the hands of fewer firms. IP rights have facilitated this extensive and rapid concentration. Meanwhile, beyond market domination at the retail level, farmers, plant breeders, and independent seed companies are dealing with the consequences of concentration at the more fundamental level of ownership, where IP owners determine whether seed is saved, shared, and how it is used.
By Lia Babitch
Turtle Tree Seed has been growing seeds in Copake, NY since 1998. In the early days, we grew nearly all of our own seed here, and we still grow most of it—well over 60% of our 380+ varieties. We choose which varieties we offer by trialing different varieties, and try to get seeds from as many reliable sources as possible in order to be able to grow to seed and offer the one which has been the best maintained. Not all seed is equal. We focus on open pollinated seeds, and because the breeding and monetary priorities of many larger seed companies often tend towards hybrids, many of the older open-pollinated varieties have fallen on hard times. Many have grown wild and uncared-for in large field seed growing where little or no selection was happening over generations.
As a small company, we can’t offer the breadth of variety that a larger company can, but what we can do is to take care of the varieties entrusted to us, cleaning up varieties that have drifted from the original, tightening the uniformity of other varieties, and most importantly, control what we are selecting for. Some varieties will need intensive selection and breeding help throughout their life cycles and through many generations, while some better selected varieties may just need some basic roguing at a few critical growing moments to keep the variety energetic and true to type. Each variety we maintain becomes a friend. Through the years we get to know it, and work to allow it to express its best, truest individuality as a variety through our care and maintenance.
By Kiki Hubbard, Organic Seed Alliance
Farmers looking for disease resistant cucurbits now have more choices thanks to the release of new cucumber and melon varieties by Cornell University, the result of years of research by public plant breeders and organic farmers. These varieties are a result of participatory breeding efforts focused on cucurbits most in need of improvement, and exhibit exceptional resistance to evolving diseases as well as production and culinary characteristics important to organic farmers.
“Our approach to plant breeding involves a close collaboration with farmers, regional seed companies, and other researchers to test varieties in the environment of their intended use,” says Michael Mazourek with the Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics at Cornell University. “In the case of these cucurbit varieties, they were all bred with the needs of organic farmers in mind.”
Pathogens emerge and evolve quickly, and breeders struggle to stay ahead with new resistant varieties. Downy mildew and bacterial wilt are two devastating diseases that too often wipe out entire cucurbit crops. While conventional cucumber growers rely on synthetic chemical inputs, such as neonicotinoid seed treatments and sprays, organic growers don’t have (or want) that option and instead rely even more on protecting crops from the inside out: through plant genetics resistant to diseases.
“The beauty of our success is that these high-yielding, disease-resistant varieties are as beneficial to conventional growers as they are to organic,” Mazourek adds.
By Jason Cavatorta with Derek Cavatorta
Years ago, I bought an interesting-looking melon with intriguing longitudal grooves from a street vendor in Paris and tasted for the first time the exotic, intoxicating flavor of the Charentais. Around the same time back home in his Massachusetts garden, my twin brother was tending a patch of his favorite crop: butternut squash. These actions were the inspiration for two plant breeding projects focused on improving the flavor of the foods that we grow and eat.
Why Undertake a Plant Breeding Project?
For most people who really enjoy a particular fruit or vegetable, it is enough to purchase one from the grocery store or local farmer and savor eating it. Others, in order to get improved quality and to participate more fully in the experience, grow their own in their garden and may even save the seeds of their favorite heirloom for next year. I see plant breeding as taking this process a step further, or maybe even several steps. To develop a new variety through years of patient, attentive work is to understand a crop in an even deeper way and to become part of the process. To create a variety that has the attributes that you have picked out, to shape it through artificial selection, to eventually give it a name, is to put a bit of yourself into the variety and to make it your own.
By Joseph Lofthouse
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.
By Petra Page-Mann
Nathaniel Thompson of Remembrance Farm grows 100 acres of biodynamic vegetables in the Finger Lakes of New York, including about 7 acres of carrots each season largely for his winter CSA. Over the years he has trialed dozens and dozens of varieties, hunting for that holy grail of vigor, storage and sweetness. He has found none that compare to Bolero, especially in the vigor department, which makes all the difference, especially at scale.
“Even after years of trials, my biodynamic farm is still dependent on this chemical, conventional seed,” explained Nathaniel. And he isn’t alone. Bolero is grown on tens of thousands of acres around the world, in both conventional and organic fields alike. In 2015, the French multinational Vilmorin, who bred and produces Bolero, announced it would never be releasing the F1 as an organic seed. “After years, I was finally going crazy.”
By Jack Kittredge
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.
By Adrienne Shelton
I spent the last day of my graduate school career as most students do – my stomach locked into a tight ball of jittery nerves and my mind struggling to suppress the irrational fear that my research, which had consumed my life for five years, contained some critical flaw that I had overlooked. My thesis was unconventional. I had helped to breed an open-pollinated variety of sweet corn, developed by and for organic growers, using a method called participatory plant breeding. I had explored the history of organic farming in the United States, as well as the complicated evolution of intellectual property rights in relation to seeds. Drawing on both biological and social sciences, I argued that organic growers require unique variety traits adapted to organic production systems, and that involving growers in the breeding process is an effective way to accomplish this goal.
By Heron Breen
When we think of vegetables & fruits in their raw form, we would rightly associate them with the concept of “nutrition”. “But of course!” you might say, “Nutrition is one of the inherent core motivations behind organic gardening & farming!” Superb. You are a reader of The Natural Farmer, I am writing an article for The Natural Farmer, we should understand each other. Nutrition is our unspoken password when we grow, eat, and promote local food.
So, first off, blunt question: if a vegetable does not taste good, could we say it is nutritious? I can breed something that, in theory, has all sorts of healthy “thingies”…but if it is bland or “meh”, you can trust that variety will be out of the seed trade in a few years. I could even develop a new “super food” variety that will cure hemorrhoids and fascism. But, if that veggie or fruit is naturally infused with gross texture and metallic flavor, middle aged men will still be walking gingerly and the alt-right will still be vetting various designs for walls. And yes I am lumping texture and flavor into the concept of “taste”.
By Nate Kleinman, co-founder of Experimental Farm Network
For the first 10,000 years of agriculture, every farmer was a plant breeder. Though most would never have described themselves as such, by the simple and intuitive process of saving seeds from their best plants, farmers taught themselves how to breed plants — and they were incredibly good at it.Practically all of the crops that feed humanity today were gradually domesticated from wild plants and selectively improved year after year by people with no formal training and no deep knowledge of genetics. What they did have is an urgency born of the basic human will to survive. Better crops — more productive, more reliable, more resilient — meant a better chance at survival.
Today, with the twin specters of climate change and ecological collapse haunting our species, we face threats to survival unlike any our ancestors could imagine — but thankfully the situation is not yet hopeless. If we can revolutionize our agricultural system we may still have a chance to not only survive the changes we’ve wrought, but perhaps even reverse them. To survive, we will need more resilient crop plants that can withstand the extreme weather of our increasingly chaotic planet. To thrive, we will need to develop new perennial crops (and to better utilize existing perennial crops) in order to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere and begin stabilizing the climate.
By Tevis Robertson-Goldberg
I’ve been saving my own seed to some degree for over twenty years, and messing around with breeding projects for eighteen. On our farm at this point we save our own seed from a number of crops, have several varieties that are unique to our farm, and always have at least half a dozen breeding projects going on in any given year. I don’t see any real line between seed saving and breeding. Seed saving, when done properly, should involve selection and improvement. Over time, any variety being well stewarded by a conscientious seed keeper ought to become more well adapted to its location, as well as its flavor, color, and texture preferences. An attentive reader will have noticed the conditional hedging; there is lots of room for a variety to run down instead of improving. This goes a long way to explaining the low regard many commercial growers have for heirlooms and older open pollinated varieties.
Breeding for Goodness Sake
Our seed saving and breeding work is based on a mixture of socio-economic political issues and philosophical beliefs. On the socio-economic political front, most folks in the organic community are aware at this point that the seed industry has undergone waves of consolidation, so that the vast majority of our food supply is controlled by a handful of corporations. Four of the largest seed companies in the world (Bayer/Monsanto, Corteva/Dow/Dupont, ChemChina/Syngenta/Novartis, and BASF) are primarily chemical companies – selling seeds is a way for them to sell more pesticides. Several major vegetable seed companies (such as Limagrain/Vilmorin and Sakata) have maintained their independence from the chemical giants, but engaged in the same economic strategy of buying out smaller companies to acquire greater world-wide “market share.” As an independent small-scale market farmer, I want my customers to support small-scale, local production, and I feel it is hypocritical to base that production on seeds from international corporate conglomerates. Luckily, there are a lot of small scale farm-based seed companies these days Our seed ordering is a lot more complicated now that we have decided to let ethics be a stronger influence on our purchases than ease and cost (though they aren’t always in conflict). We have almost entirely weaned ourselves off of hybrids and the international seed corporations.