Spring Fiction

Summer 2008

Frank Morton
Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) board member Frank Morton is a “salad grower gone to seed.” He and the OSA support the ethical development and stewardship of the genetic resources of agricultural seed through collaborative education, advising and research programs with organic farmers and other seed professionals. Photo courtesy of OSA.

Upcoming Visit From the Organic Seed Alliance Helps Hammer Home the Point

by Marada Cook

If you’re like me, practicality is a seasonal personality trait. By July, all my January fantasies have grown into knee-high, full-time facts. Summer points out the conditions of my farm that far-out seed catalog descriptions glossed out of my mind as I made my order. I have poor soils. It rains a lot in the Saint John Valley, usually by the inch. It’s solid zone 3 territory–not even a “maybe-it’ll-make-zone-4.”

So my next thought is: Why don’t I have a bevy of crops uniquely suited to my exact conditions? Why do I settle for the handful of cultivars not bred for other zones, other farms, other types of markets? Why can’t my spring fictions include, say, cold- and wet-soil-tolerant winter squash? Or better yet – how about an incredibly productive cover crop that, while generating every drop of fuel needed to ship food crops south from Aroostook County, would also remove the excess magnesium left from decades of applying the wrong kind of lime?
The answer is coming, to a location near you! The Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) is a nonprofit whose mission is to support the ethical development and stewardship of agricultural seed. Every year the OSA, of Port Townsend, Washington, hosts an annual retreat for its board. This year it’s coming to Maine and bringing along a workshop on breeding your favorite crops for organic systems.

OSA Participants
OSA participatory organic spinach breeding. Photo courtesy of OSA.

The OSA educates about seed breeding and saving and advocates for seed integrity. It focuses on the needs of organic farmers and has a list of exciting “Participatory Plant Breeding” projects. The OSA combines the expertise of trained classical plant breeders with the on-farm awareness of the nation’s savviest organic growers to cooperatively create varieties that are regionally adapted, highly resilient and impeccably suited to a specific set of conditions. My spring fantasies are, as OSA collaborator Professor Bill Tracy says, “Not improbable,” and John Navazio, senior plant breeder, is deeply involved in a squash project for soggy Olympia, Washington, that distinctly fits my Northern Maine bill.

Micaela Colley, OSA program director, says, “Seed is a reflection of our value system. We’ve been selecting for our food crops for 10 thousand years.” She points out that the heirlooms we so love also carry forth a value system around food and farming with which we’d rather not part, and OSA works to retain that value system while improving heirlooms and breeding new varieties for current and future needs of organic agriculture. She adds that heirlooms – and their embedded value systems – are created through continuous selection and coevolution with our crops. That process has never been so critical as right now. “Organic” is a value-system we have adopted (or perhaps readopted), but we have yet to evolve the seed supply to match.

“We’re hoping to spark greater interest in on-farm breeding for organic systems,” says Colley. She explains that even plants that aren’t genetically modified aren’t always organic in origin. “People don’t realize that basic techniques in the seed breeding world aren’t necessarily organic-approved.” Commercial breeding for conventional crops involves (in certain instances) inducing production of all female flowers (gynoecious plants) in cucurbits using silver thiosulfate, and the early progeny of some hybrid breeding are exceptionally weak and susceptible to pests and diseases. Seed production is not as heavily regulated as food crop production. “Often,” Colley says, “It’s nearly impossible to find out what or how many chemicals have been sprayed in the production of conventional seed.”

Organic Seed Alliance at Common Ground Education Center on July 30

The demand for local food is strong and is having a positive impact on food security, farmland preservation and farmer livelihoods. However, seed remains a weak link in the sustainability and security of local food production. Diverse, regional food production requires availability of plant varieties that perform well under local climatic challenges and organic production conditions – varieties that do well with low inputs and that have broad genetic adaptability but can be selected for specific, local environmental conditions and aesthetic qualities such as flavor.

While large seed companies focus breeding efforts on proprietary varieties that serve the needs of large-scale, industrial agriculture with traits adapted to climatic conditions of industrial centers of production, local farms need local and regional breeding and seed systems. One approach that is gaining momentum in restoring regional seed systems is “Participatory Plant Breeding” (PPB). In this system farmers and professional plant breeders collaborate, joining their skills and insights to breed new varieties using traditional (non-GMO) plant breeding methods. On-farm PPB offers the multiple benefits of imparting breeding and seed skills to farmers while drawing upon researchers’ technical knowledge, farmer-based field and market knowledge and the opportunity to breed under organic growing conditions.

Seeds people, organic farmers and the MOFGA community are invited to join the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) at the Common Ground Education Center at 5 p.m. on July 30 for a twilight session on organic PPB. Supporting the ethical development and stewardship of seed is the mission of OSA, a nonprofit 501c3. Recognizing that seed knowledge is being lost even more quickly than genetic diversity, OSA trains farmers in basic on-farm seed saving, crop improvement and plant breeding practices that are grounded in an ecological agricultural approach.

Through their Heirlooms of Tomorrow program, OSA works with farmers and plant breeders to breed new varieties and restore good older varieties for the needs of organic farming and gardening. These are varieties that do well without synthetic inputs and that have broad genetic adaptability that allows them to be selected for local environments. Members of the OSA board, staff and organic plant breeding advisory committee are excited to share stories of their on-farm, organic plant breeding projects and to dialog with the Maine organic community on the needs and approaches for breeding a new generation of crop varieties for organic farmers.

The OSA is based in Port Townsend, Washington, but works nationally, with national representation on its board of directors including board president Jim Gerritsen of Aroosto
ok County, Maine. Presenters on July 30 include farmer-breeder Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed, Dr. Bill Tracy, a classical plant breeder from the University of Wisconsin, and Micaela Colley, OSA program director. A slide show and discussion will be followed by a walk in the field at MOFGA’s Common Ground Education Center to view plant populations and varieties from the Heirlooms of Tomorrow participatory plant breeding projects. For more information about OSA visit www.seedalliance.org.

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On top of this, many commercial vegetable, grain and fruit cultivars are bred to thrive under a certain style of agriculture – irrigated, heavily fertilized, weeded through pesticide use, and harvested before maturity for shipping. Organic Seed Alliance board member Frank Morton, farmer and owner of Wild Garden Seed, says, “I always say I’m making two pleas: one plea for organic farmers to dedicate some of their land and time to seed production; and another for farmers who love the carrots or cabbage or whatever they grow to become the stewards of it. Take control of the seed. The idea that we have to beg for our seed varieties from the seed companies is outrageous. We should not be begging for seed.”

Organic Seed Alliance teaches farmers plant breeding and selection techniques. Morton’s early lettuce selections were phenomenally successful. Similar selections with chicory were less successful because (at the time) Morton simply didn’t know the difference between self- and cross-pollination. Organic Seed Alliance teaches farmers about basic plant genetics.  

Another well-known seed breeding farmer, Nash Huber, couldn’t get the 25% green off-types out of his superior red kale until Navazio explained recessive genes to him. “It’s about combining farmer-sense with local-sense with science,” Morton says. “We should have been working on this stuff years ago!”

Although Morton admits he’s “not a corn-guy,” his latest OSA project is the antithesis of every greens-growing farmer’s fancy – SE (Sugary Enhanced) sweet corn. Morton has a cold, wet Oregon spring and a CSA that likes a hearty-flavored sweet corn delivered fresh. He’s teamed up with University of Wisconsin Professor Bill Tracy to breed a corn that just loves wet springs – or at least tolerates them!

Tracy is also working with Minnesota organic farmer Martin Diffley to create a different – well, breed – of sweet corn. Diffley of Gardens of Eagen has a diversified organic vegetable farm in southern Minnesota with its accompanying corn-belt clientele. They are, as Tracy says, “a little more particular about the super sweet flavor of their corn.” This farmer is also looking for a corn variety with good cold soil vigor– and he wants an open pollinated variety that he can save and improve each year. “What’s unique about this process,” says Tracy, “is that most professionals in the plant breeding world run their own shows and deliver a finished product to the farmer at the end of things. The plant has never seen the farmer’s climate or conditions. In Participatory Plant Breeding the farmer creates the conditions. We’re developing the varieties and doing the selections on their farms.”

The OSA has some standards and objectives. Its staff might smile benevolently upon my haphazard seed saving and selection methods, but as the seed breeding slogan goes, “We know we can always do better.” When OSA collaborates on a project, it often provides germplasm and helps design experiments.  One of its major goals, Colley says, is creating organic seed supply as well as seed diversity.

“Once we’ve got something in terms of varietal quality, we try to get a quantity of seed grown that farmers could really use,” Navazio says. “We’re looking for seed that is also up to commercial standards: that is, high germination count, no cracked or broken seeds, vigorous growing and disease free, and size graded.”

Navazio is a careful and deliberate educator, the kind who leaves time for note taking and double checks that listeners have gotten the message. Some participants in his “Fundamentals of Plant Breeding” workshops turn into Participatory Plant Breeders; others, Navazio says, “just go out and do it all themselves. That’s also great.” The trait he selects for in farmers, he says, is enjoyment. “The ones who do really well with Participatory Plant Breeding – you know, our shining examples – are the ones who love this and see it as part of the future of their farm. They do it because they see the results and love it. It’s fun, by God.”

Morton is definitely among the farmers who enjoy it. Tracy is definitely one of those “university folk” who collaborate well with farmers. Navazio is definitely one of those “breeders” whose work harkens back to the era he terms “the Golden Age of Regional Seed Companies.

“In the ‘40s, ‘50s,” he says, “there was a seed catalog for every region, with plant breeders who were brought up on farms and had good ‘horse sense.’ They were breeding good seed for commercial growers for their region.”

“FEDCO is the exception to the rule as far as seed catalogs go,” Morton says. “Every area needs to grow their own seed. Organic agriculture in Maine requires its own genetics.” The OSA Web site touts the story of farmer Nash Huber and his red kale. What they don’t mention are his carrots. “Huber has carrots that exist only on his farm,” Morton says. “He’s famous for them. They’re only known locally as ‘Nash’s carrots.’ When we talk about seed diversity in organic agriculture, we’re talking about having LOTS of kinds of carrots.”

I think about Eliot Coleman’s favorite story of the “candy carrots” that children beg for at the Blue Hill Coop. What if this Maine folk story went one more step – to Coleman’s own breed of carrots. (He could use one that voles detest). I can see the FEDCO byline now: “‘Coleman Candy’ Carrot: Melts in Your Mouth, But Not in Vole Land!’” The OSA forte is helping organic farmers improve their operations genetically – using tried and true, organically approved, classical plant breeding methodology.

Most OSA work is based on the West Coast based, but it is extending its range. Current board members also come from Colorado, North Dakota and Holland; and board president Jim Gerritsen, from Bridgewater, Maine, is hosting the OSA’s July retreat. Jim and Megan Gerritsen have trialed sweet corn for OSA projects, and (perhaps even without knowing it) have a carrot story of their own. Their Wood Prairie Farm Heirloom French Chantenay carrots have become renowned for their good size, delicious flavor (especially for cooking) and rugged composition. They grow well in shallow clay loams and require a number of early freezes to develop sweetness. Interestingly, this same variety of carrot performed worst in a taste test in Eliot Coleman’s compost-rich, light soils in coastal zone 5. Even within Maine, distinct terroir makes the carrot reputation of two master-farmers unique – and we haven’t even touched on tomatoes, wheat, apples, berries, greens. Imagine if we were breeding for terroir …

If the idea of your own roster of micro-adapted plants has sparked your interest, come to MOFGA’s Common Ground Education Center in Unity on July 30 at 5 p.m., where several OSA members will present their latest and greatest at a Twilight Farm Meeting. Maybe the fuel-generating, soil remediating cover crop for zone 3 is still way out there, but the carrot is in front of my nose on Participatory Plant Breeding!

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