On-Farm Seed Production

Spring 2009
Greensprouting potatoes at Wood Prairie Farm.
Greensprouting potatoes at Wood Prairie Farm. Photo courtesy of Wood Prairie Farm.

Jim Gerritsen of Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater, Maine, and Andrea Berry of Hope Seeds in Glassville, New Brunswick, talked about seed and potato seed tuber production at the 2008 Farmer-to-Farmer Conference in Bar Harbor.

Gerritsen and his family sell potatoes, other crops, bread mixes, seed potatoes, seeds and gift packages to all 50 states through a mail order catalog and Web site (www.woodprairie.com). Seed potatoes account for 75 to 80% of their farm income, which grosses about $500,000 annually. In a good year, their income exceeds their expenses. Shipping (via UPS, USPS and trucking companies) is their greatest expense; labor is second; third is marketing, especially producing and mailing 90,000 copies of their catalog.

The cool climate in Aroostook County is good for growing potatoes, because it limits insect (and hence, virus) problems. The Gerritsens have been farming organically for 32 years; have been certified-organic by MOFGA for 26 years; and have been raising organic seed potatoes for 20 years.

Gerritsen buys organic mini-tubers from the Maine Potato Board’s Porter Farm, which starts the plants from meristem culture (culturing just the tips of stems in a growth medium) and then grows the resulting plants in a soilless mix into mini-tubers. He explained that many diseases can be spread from one generation to another through seed potatoes, and mini-tuber production (now becoming micro-tuber production) is one way to avoid those diseases.

Wood Prairie Farm is isolated in the North Maine Woods, and prevailing winds come from the north and west, so disease-carrying aphids and blight spores rarely blow in from the south. This isolation, plus good rotations, rouging diseased plants, and building quality soil, enable Wood Prairie to grow out mini-tubers, propagating seed potato to sell to farmers and gardeners.

Wood Prairie has 55 acres in production. A four-year rotation of 48 acres of cropland includes 12 acres of potatoes the first year; 12 acres of grain (‘Roblin’ hard red spring wheat or ‘Pennuda’ hulless spring oats) the second; undersowing the grain with clover and timothy the third year, making an early cutting of hay and then chopping the regrowth to feed the soil; and, in the fourth year, a plowed-down sod crop followed by buckwheat. When 10% of the buckwheat blooms, it’s chopped and plowed under (around the end of July). ‘Dwarf Essex’ rapeseed, a “biofumigant” crop, is sown in mid-August and plowed down by November; its decaying leaves emit a gas that kills weed seeds and pathogenic soil fungi, including rhizoctonia, pythium and fusarium – the big diseases of potatoes.

Similarly, Aroostook County growers have found that potatoes grow particularly well following a crop of broccoli. All brassica crops benefit subsequent potato crops and produce biofumigant compounds that cleanse the soil, but some varieties do better than others. The annual ‘Ida Red’ mustard is best, but a wet fall could interfere with plowing it down, creating a weed problem the following year. The biennial ‘Dwarf Essex’ rapeseed is second best but has less chance of becoming a weed problem: It doesn’t set seed until the next year, offering another layer of protection against going to seed. ‘Dwarf Essex’ seed is not available organically. Gerritsen gets it from the Albert Lea Seed House in Minnesota – www.alseed.com.

The good rotation combined with clean, quality “seed” and a healthy, organic soil (containing 6 to 8% organic matter – vs. 0.5 to 1% on neighbors’ farms) produce quality seed potatoes. “I can’t overemphasize how important it is for organic seed growers to produce high quality seed,” said Gerritsen. “We send out 6,000 to 7,000 packages of seed potatoes a year to our own customers. We also wholesale to Fedco and Johnny’s and other companies… We probably are selling to about 600 to 800 market gardeners. Farmers are relying upon us.

“There is a real difference in quality of seed out there,” he continued. “I want the best quality seed, almost regardless of what I have to pay. Seed is a minor cost of production of a crop. Getting a better crop will pay for the cost of the seed.”

Gerritsen is also president of the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA; www.seedalliance.org), which works to improve the availability and quality of organic seed. “We need a seed resource that is independent of the conventional seed industry, which is largely being consolidated and bought up by chemical and biotech companies like Monsanto. The inescapable conclusion that we can come to is that if a biotech company is buying its way into the seed industry, they will bundle their GMO technology to the seed, and there will be a lack of availability of germplasm independent of these biotech traits. It’s very important, if we look out five or 10 or 20 years from now, that the organic community needs to develop a viable, strong seed industry providing great varieties that taste good and produce well under organic conditions and that give a good livelihood to the seed producer and to the family farmers that are providing the organic community their food.” (See the Dec. 2008-Feb. 2009 issue of The MOF&G for a feature story on the Alliance.)

Touting Open Pollinated Crops

One seed crop that the Gerritsens developed through “Participatory Plant Breeding,” with help from plant breeder Bill Tracy, and are now selling, is ‘Dorinny’ sweet corn, which has a fairly wide picking window for an open-pollinated (OP) crop; is far superior to ‘Yukon Chief’ as an early variety; and tolerates cold soil. Andrea Berry said that ‘Dorinny’ was the standard others were compared with long ago; and that it’s about 10 days earlier than ‘Golden Bantam.’ She direct-seeded ‘Dorinny’ at the same time she transplanted four-week-old ‘Ashworth’ corn seedlings, and both flowered at the same time. “I think ‘Dorinny’ is going to be a revolutionary variety for organic growers,” said Gerritsen.

“We favor open-pollinated varieties on our farm,” Gerritsen explained. “We can select traits for our area – for example, short-season – that are good also for market growers, regardless of their climate (because it’s an early crop).” Such varieties can also be reproduced on farms, freeing farmers from seed companies.

Gerritsen noted that plant breeder John Navazio, who is on the OSA staff, says if we had focused as much on developing OP varieties beginning in the 1920s and ‘30s, we would have OP varieties at least as good as the hybrids that we have now; but seed companies, in Gerritsen’s opinion, wanted a captive audience that would have to buy from them, so all research went into hybrids. “OPs really have a lot going for them for organic production,” he said. One Michigan grower knocked 30 days off the date to maturity of a dry corn within five years by selecting for earliness. Bill Tracy, said Gerritsen, says this is relatively easy: Find ears that fully develop early; that becomes the stock seed that you grow out, and every year you select from that and refine it, giving fairly dramatic and quick turnaround. “That, to me, is the beauty of this OP stuff,” said Gerritsen.

The nonprofit OSA cannot engage in political activity, and OSA leaders saw a need to advocate for the health and viability of the organic seed community, said Gerritsen. So OSGATA, the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (www.osgata.org), formed last year. It has 42 seed growers and companies now, including Seeds of Change, High Mowing Seeds, Wood Prairie Farm, university seed breeders and researchers, and affiliate members, to help develop the organic seed industry, to have access to germplasm, and to create a guild of seed producers.

Greensprouting Potatoes

Gerritsen noted that he greensprouts potatoes, knocking 10 to 14 days off the growth cycle of the crop. Greensprouting enables farmers to grow longer season varieties and/or get earlier new potatoes for market. One month before planting, Gerritsen places seed potatoes at 70 to 75 degrees in the dark for about a week to break dormancy. At that temperature, apical dominance (the king sprout opposite the stem end) is suppressed and secondary sprouts are encouraged. The number of tubers a hill yields depends on the number of stems per hill, so having a lot of secondary sprouts will give a higher tuber set – the foundation for getting the highest possible yield.

He then holds tubers at 50 to 55 degrees for the remaining three weeks in trays, with light (fluorescent, incandescent, sunlight…) on them for at least 12 hours per day (24 hours is fine) so that sprouts don’t become too long. Long sprouts may break off during handling and planting; 3/4- x 3/4-inch is a good size for sprouts on most varieties. Gerritsen plants sprouted tubers when the soil temperature is at least 50 degrees, using a planter that is gentle on the sprouts.

Gerritsen noted that ‘Caribe’ is a good variety to grow if you’ve had trouble with Colorado potato beetles (CPB), since it’s early and productive. Planting late (e.g., early July, after the first generation of beetles) is another way to minimize CPB problems.

The bean and pea thresher at Hope Seeds. Andrea Berry photo.
The bean and pea thresher at Hope Seeds. Andrea Berry photo.

Hope Seeds

Andrea Berry of Hope Seeds (www.hopeseed.com) was a CSA farm apprentice in Ontario in 2001, when some crops that didn’t get plowed under in the fall, such as kale and lettuce, went to seed the next spring. “From 400 heads of ‘Red Russian’ kale, I collected about 11 pounds of seed,” Berry said.

She later moved to New Brunswick where, as manager of an organic farm, she produced more seed. Four years ago, she took over the eight-year-old Hope Seeds business, mailing about 500 catalogs to local people. Three years ago she bought her own land and produced “quite a bit of seed” on a 30- x 40-foot plot.

Saving seed from tomatoes, peas and beans is easy, said Berry, and these are good crops to start with. She suggested starting with annual, self-pollinating and OP crops.

Berry noted that producing seed crops takes about one-third longer than growing crops for fresh market; and that a cropping plan has to be determined four years in advance in order to isolate seed crops in time or space (as in a closed greenhouse or with row covers) to avoid cross pollination. Her small acreage prohibits planting wind-pollinated crops the recommended mile apart (at least) and bee pollinated at least 1/4 to 1/2 mile apart.

Other differences from fresh crop production are that most planting for seed crops is done as early in the season as possible and at one time for any one crop; most sales occur between January and the beginning of June; and most harvest is in the fall.

Most information on seed production is for Western growers, so Berry is learning from mentors and building a resource library as she works with crops. She also did an internship at High Mowing Seeds in Vermont; and she gets good feedback from customers about what grows best in their climate. This knowledge “is important for self-sufficiency in our seed supply as part of a self-sufficient food supply,” she said, “and for crops adapted to the region” – for organic growing systems, a short growing season and local soils.

Now Berry produces a greater variety of seed on 1/3-acre (to grow to 1 acre this year) in Zone 3b, and she offers a greater variety through her catalog, including ‘Gilfeather’ rutabaga, ‘Sugar Ann’ peas (which sold out last year), and planting stock of Jerusalem artichoke, garlic and certified seed potatoes grown by a New Brunswick organic farmer. She mailed about 2000 catalogs across Canada in 2008; is doing more trades shows and retail sales in stores throughout Atlantic Canada; vegetable growers are carrying her seed at their markets; she is building a network of growers in the Atlantic region; and Berry has “really increased our sales” through Hope Seeds’ Web site.

As the business grows, Berry invests in better equipment, including a BCS tiller with a rotary plow (www.bcsshop.com), which she says is great for tilling under green manure crops. She designed and built a hand thresher for beans and peas. (See photo.) The edges of the washboard-like tool are about 6 inches high; strips of wood about 1/4-inch-thick by 1/2-inch-wide are screwed to the board on an angle; and a board along the bottom has a gap. When a handful of dried beans or peas is rubbed across to boards, friction breaks the pods, and seeds fall into the 1/8-inch gap between the boards. Bigger chaff is pulled off and tossed on a tarp; smaller material is swiped down to an edge, then down and off a channel into a bin below. Remaining chaff is removed from seeds by setting up two box fans and pouring seed from a square collection bucket in front of the fans. Using two fans, one in front of the other (one blowing into the other from behind), straightens the turbulent airflow from the first fan. Experiment with different fan speeds for different seeds, said Berry. The square bucket pours seeds in a waterfall pattern, whereas a round bucket produces a stream, which does not clean so well. Berry then sorts and grades seed at her kitchen table.

For the essential curing and drying period in the fall, Berry has a drying loft in a 43- x 65-foot woodworking shop heated with a wood stove on the first floor. Her drying racks, which hang by wires from the ceiling, are 4 feet wide and 60 feet long and have hardware cloth stapled on the bottoms. When she hung racks with baling twine, mice climbed down the twine – and Berry learned that mice far prefer peas to beans. She dries alliums, beans and peas on these racks, and hangs pepper plants to finish maturing and dry. (Mice ate the seed from peppers, too.)

Berry is putting up a 30- x 44-foot moveable high tunnel, since she hasn’t been able to overwinter some biennials and perennials in the field. Instead, she has been digging those crops in the fall, potting them, putting them in a cold room and setting them back out in the spring. She plans on moving the tunnel over the biennials in the fall and moving it off them the next spring.

Berry and her partner have learned that they can’t grow all the seed they want to sell themselves; they need to specialize somewhat; but few skilled veteran seed growers exist to supply their operation.

She encouraged growers to pay attention to seed crops while they’re growing in the field; to rogue diseased plants; to save seed only from mature fruits of the best plants; to visit farms to see what seed crops look like growing in the field; and just to try something – just grow 10 plants of a variety that you like and save its seeds.

Asked about varieties that are protected by the Plant Variety Protection Act, she noted that the USDA maintains a list of these patents (at www.ars-grin.gov/cgi-bin/npgs/html/pvplist.pl), which are time-limited. Once the patent runs out, anyone can propagate that variety. Growers can save seeds from hybrids, but the resulting plants will vary considerably. Starting with OP crops will give more uniform results.

What Are Open Pollinated Varieties?

Open-pollinated (OP) varieties are those that come true from seed. That is, if you save seed of an OP variety such as ‘Dorinny’ sweet corn, the progeny – the next generation that you grow – will be the same as the generation from which you saved seed, assuming you do not grow ‘Dorinny’ alongside another sweet corn variety that flowers at the same time.

Hybrid varieties, on the other hand, are made by crossing two (or sometimes more) parents under controlled conditions and saving the resulting seed to grow that particular variety. The parents must be crossed continually to produce the hybrid seed, so growers become dependent on seed companies.

Asked about extracting seed from squash, Berry suggested breaking the squash on a rock, scooping out the seeds, and feeding the residue to cows (if you have more squash than you can eat yourself). She noted that High Mowing Seeds has a carrot washer on a steel platform on wheels, hooked to the back of a truck. Fruit is broken when it’s tossed into the hopper. A high pressure hose separates the flesh, which drops through the washer as seed goes into a collection bucket. The resources below tell how to clean and dry seed.

During the discussion, grower Jason Kafka urged seed growers to have contracts, so that if the seed they get from a company to propagate is inferior, they can plow it under.

One grower recommended ‘Abenaki’ as a good cornmeal corn variety.

Gerritsen noted that Maine requires a retail seed selling license; and federal rules cover germination rates and other aspects of seed quality. Selling seed potato is governed by another layer of state bureaucracy, developed over 100 years.

Regarding pricing, Gerritsen said that the price for the highest quantity of seed in Johnny’s catalog is about half what the company paid to buy the seed. For example, a corn variety selling for $30 cost the company about $15. Kafka said that’s the same formula for selling to Whole Foods: You get about half what they get.

 – Jean English


Ashworth, Suzanne, Seed to Seed, Seed Savers Exchange, 1991

Eastern Canadian Organic Seed Growers Network (ECOSGN); events are listed at www.seeds.ca

“Knott’s Handbook for Vegetable Growers,” by Donald Maynard and George Hockmuth, Wiley, 1997. Valuable information about minimum germination rates under controlled conditions, etc. Used copies are on the market.

Organic Seed Alliance, www.seedalliance.org

Seeds of Diversity Canada, www.seeds.ca

Seed Savers Exchange, www.seedsavers.org

Steiner, Patrick, “Small Scale Organic Seed Production,” Farm Folk, City Folk Publishers, Vancouver, BC, 2008. The author compares the economics of growing crops for seed vs. for fresh market and gives practical advice on why and how to incorporate vegetable seed production into existing farming systems.

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