Hybrid seeds have played a diverse role in agriculture for a long time. New varieties are made by the accidental or planned crossing (the making of a hybrid) of two different varieties of the same type of plant. Plants all do this on their own, all of the time, every day in everyone’s garden and on everyone’s farm. Wild plants also do this in the woods and fields. The crossing—and subsequent natural selection—that happens with the new combination of genes has been the core aspect of how natural diversity has developed on our planet. It works the same for the crossing of animals, and of course, people.
As people started to cross plants more intentionally, a new aspect of hybrids developed in the economic realm. For nearly a century, seed companies have been using the natural combining ability of two different varieties to develop new varieties to meet the needs of farmers and gardeners. They learned that you could do things with hybrids faster or differently than you could with open-pollinated varieties. Certain crops display an explosion in vigor when hybridized. Others allow multiple disease resistances, some from each parent, which would not be possible with open-pollinated varieties. But early on some seed companies also realized that with hybrids their customers could no longer save their own seeds and get the same varieties the following year. Customers became dependent on the seed companies in a different way. To some people, this changed their feeling about their relationship with seed companies in a way that didn’t feel good. They didn’t want to be so dependent on someone else for something as important as the seeds they needed to grow food for themselves and their neighbors. This has led to many people being interested only in open-pollinated varieties.
A few important things that you should know about hybrids:
- You can save seeds from hybrid varieties. They are not sterile or anything like that. They are just not really stable yet, so you will get all sorts of interesting plants the next year. Some will be usable and some maybe not so much, but it is a great gardening adventure and I strongly encourage it.
- Commercial hybrids are the product of two parents that have been inbred for multiple generations, so that they’re very uniform but also very different from one another. The most intense hybrid vigor comes from the crossing of two parents who are most unlike one another.
- Because the parent lines for hybrids can be selected to be really uniform, hybrids often offer a higher level of uniformity than open-pollinated varieties. This isn’t true of all hybrid crops but for those that it is, the increased uniformity is often very appreciated especially by commercial farmers.
- One of the reasons that hybrids can often perform better is because they have gotten the bulk of the attention in vegetable breeding programs for the last 50 years. If we hadn’t stopped developing horse drawn technology when the tractor came along, we’d have all kinds of cool farming tools for horses today too. We may yet want or need to do this anyway. So, with focused attention on open-pollinated breeding, you should expect all kinds of great performing varieties. That is why we also focus on open-pollinated varieties in our breeding program here at High Mowing.
- Hybrid seeds are often much more expensive than open-pollinated ones because of a few reasons:
- It can take a lot of time to select the parent lines.
- There are two parent lines to grow each time you produce the seed instead of just one with open-pollinated varieties.
- There is often more work involved with hand pollination, emasculation or other tasks specific to hybrid seed production.
So, in our mind, the gains have to really be worth all the production costs and worth the final price. We see hybrids under-perform in our trial fields all the time and we wonder why they were ever bred.
Making hybrids just so your customers have to keep coming back may be a good business strategy but it is not the one we believe it. We want to take steps that will move us closer to our goal of a more self-sufficient and healthy food system. Making hybrids that perform really well and allow small farmers to really crank out tons of quality produce on a few acres is a great reason. We will be breeding new open-pollinated varieties, as well as the occasional new hybrid over the years. We will offer these choices for our customers to make. Our goal is not to make our customers feel forced to dependent on us, but for us to be interdependent on each other. We need each other to feed our families and communities by focusing on what we each best know how to do (us growing seeds and you growing food). We are already going great places together.
Anyone who wants to know how to save seeds, make crosses or breed your own varieties is welcome to ask us how. We are happy to help, and already have a lot of this information available on our website. For too long this information has been held by private companies, but we’ve learned how and are always happy to share. We need as many people to know how to save seeds as possible so that the interdependence of our food system is strengthened.