This article is the first in a series about High Mowing Organic Seeds’ president Tom Stearns’ travels to “hotspots” of seed production. Knowledge of seed saving and production is relatively hard to come by, so it is often necessary to go directly to the source – seed companies, breeders, producers, farmers and students; the leaders in the organic seed industry who are preparing the seedbed for a sustainable world.
First Stop: Ernst Conservation Seeds – Meadville, Pennsylvania
Ernst is unusual among seed companies because they specialize in native and naturalized seeds and plant materials. Walking around their projects, you may not know you’re visiting a man-made environment at all – the places their plants end up look as wild and natural as any landscape untouched by humans. Growing a huge variety of native plants to replicate nature’s diversity is no small enterprise. Since most of these plants weren’t bred by humans and haven’t been selected for characteristics like good germination or ease of harvest, they can be tremendously challenging to produce (and we thought vegetable seed production was hard!) In addition, these species are rarely, if ever grown for seed production, so there is little existing knowledge of best production practices. As a result, Ernst has had to develop a vast collection of tools for the job – not only adapting equipment and machinery to fit every individual variety, but inventing production and propagation plans from scratch. We attribute their success to their ability to engineer specialized equipment and techniques for all of their varieties. Farming skills aren’t enough in this case – to succeed the folks at Ernst must also be ready to adapt and invent the tools and systems for a highly specialized market.
Second Stop: Seed Savers Exchange – Decorah, Iowa
The road takes us next to the campus of Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa. One might assume that Seed Savers only saves seed from rare breeds, but upon arrival this assumption is promptly dissolved. Brilliant White Park cattle, some of the last in the world, dot the landscape; an orchard containing over a thousand apple varieties bursts into view; and gardens of rich diversity are interspersed with the offices and warehouses dedicated to selling and preserving heirloom seeds. It is impossible not to acquire a holistic perspective here – the richness of the landscape is pervasive, every part integrated seamlessly with the next, and the resulting beauty is undeniable. It is evident with every turn that this company truly lives up to their mission of saving rare breeds – and they aren’t stopping with seeds.
Third Stop: Tiensvold Farms, Rushville, Nebraska
It is not often that we are able to stop in Nebraska – it is not exactly on the beaten path – but then we never liked the beaten path anyways. And neither does Mark Tiensvold – in 1993 he was one of the first farmers in Nebraska to receive organic certification – and to this day he is still one of the only organic farmers in the panhandle region. They say no man is an island, but they probably never met Mark. His farm is perched on a vast expanse of sand and grass called the Sandhills region, barren of trees and fertility and prone to a plethora of extreme weather events, from droughts to tornadoes. As we say in Vermont, he’s got gumption to farm there – it takes a really good farmer to thrive in such a difficult environment. But Mark Tiensvold has carved a niche out of the sand – he thrives on his family land by raising sprouting seeds and organic buffalo. The buffalo graze the prairie for their nutrients and fertilize the soil in exchange, as they have for thousands of years; the seed crops are not so different from prairie grasses and legumes, having fewer problems with disease in dry soil. Without crops so well-suited to the landscape, Tiensvold Farms might not be the success story it is today. But they are organic innovators in a place with few people, even fewer innovators, and almost no organic ones, and this independent spirit has steeled them against the inevitable adversity of farming a harsh landscape. Determination, against all odds, to pioneer new crops and methods has been the winning ticket for the Tiensvolds.
Fourth Stop: Snake River and Treasure Valleys, Idaho
The Snake River Valley is one of the most significant seed-growing regions in the world, with a climate and soils that are perfect for one thing: green beans. Snake River supplies 40% of the world’s green bean seed and 90% of US green bean seed. The fertile, protected area is managed by a group of 1400 bean seed growers, who are collectively insured against the biggest risks to monoculture: disease and crop failure. Every field in the region is checked five times per season by inspectors looking for diseases. When one is found, the entire field is tilled under immediately to prevent further contamination. The industry is so valuable to the region that it is actually illegal to plant green beans in Idaho that weren’t grown there. The organization of the farmers is the key to success here. Careful planning, rotation, and communication among farms – cooperation – is necessary to avoid the onslaught of diseases and pests that can crop up.
Treasure Valley is similar, but here onions, carrots, and sweet corn reign supreme. There is no other place like it in the world – driving down the highway one may pass a 50 acre field of onions in full bloom, or a sea of carrot umbels bobbing on the breeze. Seed crops have become an unusual sight across the planet, concentrated into the tiny regions where they reliably produce quality seed, and usually altogether absent from less suitable land. So a field of seed crops is a sight for our sore eyes; a familiar friend in a strange landscape, symbolic of a land of milk and honey. Thirty international seed companies preside over this distinctive place, each placing a pin in a communal map each year to designate the fields that will grow seed for next year’s corn, or the next year’s carrot crop. Most people never think about this place, let alone see it, before they plant their onions in the spring. But chances are good that those tiny seeds began their journey in Treasure Valley.
Fifth Stop: Rogue River, Oregon
The Rogue River region of Oregon stands in sharp contrast with the seemingly endless, perfectly flat fields of Idaho and the lands between. But this rugged landscape is also seed country, albeit on a much smaller scale. Many of our smaller seed growers, all growing less than 10 acres and some with less than one acre of seed crops, are found here. Most harvest by hand, and while they may be only ten miles from each other, their skills, techniques, and level of establishment vary widely. The pressures of the growing season make it difficult for them to visit each others’ seed farms during the summer. But they are dedicated to organic seed production, and are willing to brave the challenges to provide some of the seeds that end up in our packets. Seeing these growers on their own farms is a call to action – it is our responsibility to provide education to organic seed growers, since they are not likely to get the information elsewhere. These growers, along with the students, breeders, and producers in other parts of the country helped inspire the Student Organic Seed Symposium and the Seed and Breeding Field School that High Mowing hosts each year. These events gather together the leaders in this brave new world of organic seed production, help them establish communities, and facilitate the sharing of knowledge across crops and continents.
Sixth Stop: Frank Morton, Willamette Valley, Oregon
The Willamette Valley is another seed-producing hotspot – the grass seed capital of the world. It is here that our friend and colleague Frank Morton lives and has his breeding fields. Walking into Frank’s lettuce fields, you realize you are entering an enormous artist’s studio. The field is a patchwork of color, almost every lettuce slightly different from its neighbors, and Frank knows each as intimately as a dear friend. A walk through Frank’s breeding plot is a reminder that breeding is a creative act as much as a scientific act, and Frank has been a prolific contributor. We have him to thank for nine of the varieties we offer, colorful selections ranging from gourmet greens like Vivid Choi Pac Choy to peppers such as Stocky Red Roaster and flowers like Strawberry Blonde Calendula.
Seventh Stop: OSSI – Mount Vernon, Washington
The Open Source Seed Initiative is a new project headed by a group of seed producers, breeders, and Seed Matters and the Clif Bar Foundation. OSSI seeks to protect the genetic resources contained within seeds for the use of all people by developing an open-source framework, similar to software. The group formed in response to the shortage of seed available for breeding, trialing, and improving. Many seed companies now “protect” the non-GMO varieties they’ve developed using Utility Patents (to prevent seed saving, breeding, and research uses of the seed) and Plant Variety Protection (to prevent sales of the genetics). This can make it very difficult for any progress to be made in developing new organic varieties, since it is now illegal to use many of them for breeding or research work. OSSI hopes to protect varieties from patenting so that they can continue to be improved, used as parent strains, and distributed to the farmers who need them most. As Kristina Hubbard, director of the Organic Seed Alliance states, seeds are “an essential natural resource best managed in the hands of many, not in the hands of few.”
Eighth Stop: SOSS, Mount Vernon, Washington
The next stop takes us to Tom’s favorite event of the year: the Student Organic Seed Symposium, hosted this year at Washington State University’s Mount Vernon research center. Tom described attending this event as “witnessing the birth of a whole new movement, career and field of study”. He started the SOSS last year because of the lack of resources available to organic seed breeders. There are rarely programs or coursework for organic breeding, students are often alone in their departments, and the funding opportunities are slim to none, especially compared with those offered to conventional breeders. Since the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980 allowed for the patenting of publicly-funded research, conventional breeders have found themselves awash in industry dollars. In one fell swoop, the incentive to fund breeding programs that benefit the public was eliminated and the door opened to fund breeding for specific industries under the auspices of university programs. The Symposium is important because it provides great opportunities for organic breeding leaders to network with each other and share knowledge. The Organic Seed and Breeding Field School, held the day after the SOSS, was a day-long workshop open to the public and the participants of the symposium to share specific techniques with each other. The Field School was a great success, with students and faculty jumping at the opportunity to present their work and share their experiences. It is clear that there is great demand for these events and we’re excited to see them grow!
Ninth Stop: Bill Tracy, University of Wisconsin
Bill Tracy is one of the last remaining members of a nearly extinct species known as the public plant breeder. Public breeders develop new varieties for the benefit of society in general, rather than for one specific company. They seek to provide cultivars that satisfy the unmet needs of farmers – kind of like an agricultural public servant. Bill is a sweet corn breeder and has taken some of our input in developing breeds for organic farmers. For example, organic farmers in the Pacific Northwest have long depended on one variety of sweet corn, ‘Temptation’, since it is one of the few that matures in the cool maritime climate before the rainy winter season arrives. This variety is now owned by Monsanto and will probably soon be replaced by ‘Temptation II’, which has genetically modified traits. Fortunately Bill is just about to release a new sweet corn variety bred for this region – developed to mature early, tolerate cold soils, and taste great in organic production systems. We are grateful to Bill for collaborating with our breeding program to develop two sweet corn varieties, Bling F1 and My Fair Lady F1, specifically for organic growers.
Tenth, and final Stop: Bejo Research Station, Geneva, New York
Nearly home again, we stop at a place we have already been many times. This is one of Bejo Seed Company’s many research stations around the world, but this one is special to us because this is where they trial onions, carrots, and other crops bred for the short growing seasons of the Northeast. In our line of work, we can’t make assumptions about how a variety will perform in a specific region – we have to know. They have to be grown out in that region to say definitively whether they do well or not. Since we only have trials fields in Vermont, we depend on four very important sources for feedback on variety performance: university trials, on-farm trials with our customers, conversations with our customers, and trials with our plant breeding partners. These sources give us the information we need for our customers outside the northeast, and these collaborations are invaluable. In every place we visit, we are amazed by the importance of working together – it is what makes or breaks a farm, a seed company, and the industry as a whole.