Restoring Our Seed

Spring 2003

Toki Oshima drawing
Toki Oshima drawing

By CR Lawn and Eli Kaufman

“We are facing the germination of something larger than we can imagine. Things are falling in place in our favor.” – Evaluation by a conference attendee

“Seed is the missing link in sustainable agriculture. We need seeds that are truly adapted to the organic culture of how we farm. The way to get the best seed is to select it, to breed it ourselves, to adapt it to the area of intended use. Not to have someone breed it on a conventional farm in California and hope that it has wide enough adaptation to work.” – Dr. John Navazio

“Once you start growing seed crops on the farm you’ll see changes on the farm, I guarantee that.” – Frank Morton

It is palpable. We can sense the energy of the sprout finally pushing through the growing cracks in the stubborn seed coat. The organic movement, which has addressed the needs of the soil so well, is ready to embrace the needs of the seed. All across the land, farmers are gathering to learn, to share, to renew and move forward our almost-forgotten farm craft.

In Washington, the Abundant Life Seed Foundation has organized teaching events. In New York State, the Public Seed Initiative – a coalition of Cornell University breeders, NOFA-New York, the Farmer Cooperative Genome Project of Oregon and the USDA-ARS Plant Genetic Resources Unit in Geneva – is sponsoring similar workshops. Now it is Maine’s turn.

Our occasion was the first public event of the Restoring Our Seed Project funded by Northeast SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, a USDA program). A January 10 pre-conference featuring Tom Stearns of High Mowing Seeds, Will Bonsall of Scatterseed Project and Nicolas Lindholm of the Maine Seed Saving Network was put together too late to make the winter MOF&G calendar, yet it attracted 92 people undeterred by frigid weather.

The weekend conference with Dr. John Navazio and Frank Morton brought people from 10 states, at least five seed companies, as many preservation groups, Cornell University and the Public Seed Initiative. Abundant Life Seed Foundation Executive Director Matt Dillon flew all the way from Washington, Robert Haws from Utah. They came to hear about chaos theory and the engrained memory of the landscape, to learn how to do replicated trials, recurrent mass selection and progeny testing, to realize a new appreciation of yellow jackets and to restore the missing link.

Some may remember Navazio at the Common Ground Fair in the late eighties with his outdoor exhibit celebrating the diversity of cucurbits. From there he studied plant breeding at the University of Wisconsin, then moved to Garden City Seeds and later the Alf Christianson Seed Company as a breeder. Last year he founded his own seed company, Seed Movement, to partner with organic seed growers and breeders to develop superior strains of workhorse varieties selected especially for organic culture.

Morton was a pioneer in the salad mix business, shipping cut lettuce and greens to restaurants across the country beginning in the early eighties. A chance cross in his lettuce patch changed his destiny. He learned how to induce crosses intentionally. A keen observer of color and texture with a genius for combining forms, Morton has created dozens of new designer lettuces that have been picked up by seed companies from coast to coast. His work has branched into broccoli and kale, chicory, orach, cress, calendula, mustard, celery, quinoa and more.

Each craft has its own language and protocols. Just as many of us learned about sills and joists, studs and spikes, purlins and rafters as we built our homesteads, so our seedy contingent heard about the importance of genetic diversity within a variety; the need to maintain adequate populations in preservation, selection and breeding; the differences between selecting for preservation and selecting for improvement; and why single-trait vertical disease resistance is absolute but generally short-lived, while multigenic horizontal resistance is relative but persistent, making it especially suitable for organic culture.

While preservationists such as the Seed Savers Exchange were the first to rekindle interest in the seed, Navazio urged the gathering to move beyond preservation to embrace evolution. Evolution is a living process. New variation is arising all the time. “Variation arises, selection occurs. Guess what? You can take part in it, and plant improvement is just accelerated evolution through the hands of humans.” In contrast to the narrow form of plant-breeding conjuring images of laboratory scientists in their white coats and little spectacles making microscopic manipulations, Navazio espoused broad-sense plant breeding, farmers active out in their fields, observing, making selections and improving their crops.

Morton’s talk on whole-farm ecology brought many to tears. He invited us to “go play underneath your broccoli plants.” Spend an hour looking up through the canopy of the broccoli. You will see yellow jackets hunting caterpillars to take back to their young in the nest. You will get a new perspective on who is eating whom. When you grow seed, you’re growing flowers. When you grow flowers, you grow food for a lot of living things besides us. When you grow seed crops, the engrained memory of the landscape begins to change. Instead of being there for only 60 or 90 days, your vegetable stays for the whole season. Your weed profile begins to change. When you grow lettuce to seed, volunteer lettuces become part of your weed systems. You produce more biomass, more shelter, more lignin, which breaks down into stable humus. Flowers produce nectar and pollen, attracting nectar-drinking beneficial insects who lay their eggs, producing young who eat a lot of insects. “The power of flowers is that they feed our allies who help protect our crops.” Seed crops are a diversifying influence that bring stability to your insect populations.

Morton suggested five ways to integrate seed production with vegetables: 1) Doublecrop. Pick off the leaves in year one; make seed in year two, or thin for food, such as with beets or baby lettuce, and save the best specimens for seed. This also has a selecting function and leaves the survivors nicely spaced to produce seed; 2) Plant seasonal insectary hedgerows as seed-producing borders; 3) Plant insectary hedgerows running through the field. “I let almost everything bolt to produce biomass if I don’t need the ground.” 4) Intercrop with vegetables, such as cilantro planted under corn. Umbels, composites and crucifers are all great for encouraging beneficials; 5) Best of all, in the same area grow lots of different families of plants that won’t cross-pollinate with each other, maximizing diversity. Morton calls these ‘seed guilds.’

Both Morton and Stearns addressed the economics of growing seed. As Morton pointed out, economics means “the numbers of the house.” Ecology and economy are closely related. What should I grow? How much? To whom should I sell? Because these are three variables, these decisions are complex. Morton acknowledged that making money growing seed is “truly the hard part. Everything else I talked about is a no-brainer. Making money is a marketing thing and marketing is part of the farm ecology.” Morton quoted Wendell Berry, “the quick profit, the annual raise, the annual vacation are false premises from an ecological point-of-view.”

Despite these cautions, evaluations indicated that 22 attendees were more likely to grow seed for sale as a result of the conference, and only three less likely, with a number of others feeling less definite. As one prospective grower family put it, “It would never have occurred to us to add seed crops to our diversified organic market farm without this conference. Now we will do it.”

One participant asked, “How do we maintain this banter once we split up?” Evaluations indicate that people want more information, especially on seed-borne diseases, pollinator ecology and selecting. Many would like small-group breakouts to share knowledge with peers and/or to learn more about specialized topics. Restoring Our Seed is planning summer and fall field days in which we hope to provide more opportunities for informal interaction, schmoozing, storytelling and peer learning. We hope to bring a plant pathologist to meet our need for more information about seed-borne diseases. Aspiring breeders will be interested in a possible gathering with Raoul Robinson, author of Return to Resistance, who has helped form many breeding clubs. We invite farmer participation in planning our two demonstration sites, one at the MOFGA orchard garden coordinated by Jack Kertesz, and the other at Highmoor Farm in Monmouth, coordinated by cooperative extension specialist Mark Hutton. At these sites we will demonstrate selecting and breeding for horizontal disease resistance.

Many people came away from the seminar energized with fresh ideas. Morton predicted, “New ideas will arise because of people talking together in this room.” Pointing out that the dominant ecology of the seedscape has been secrecy, Morton said, “We’re perturbing the ecosystem of the seedscape. It could be a small perturbation, which is dampened out of existence, or it could swirl into a much larger thing.” It is up to us. Let’s keep the collaboration growing! Transcripts of the conference talks and schedules of coming events will be posted on www.growseed.org.

About the authors: CR Lawn founded Fedco Seeds in 1978, and, with Eli Kaufman, co-coordinates Restoring Our Seed. Eli is a farmer-researcher with The International Development Research Centre (www.idrc.ca), a public corporation created by the Canadian government to help communities in the developing world find solutions to social, economic and environmental problems through research. (See the IDRC website for a powerful “IDRC Resource Clock” showing the world population figure increasing quickly and the hectares of productive land decreasing, also frighteningly quickly.) Eli works with traditional Mideast and New England farmers and school garden programs to foster community-based farming systems.

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