This article is the second 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: Enza Zaden Research Station, Tarquinia, Italy

Single plant selections in a Radicchio breeding house at Enza Zaden

The first stop on the High Mowing Seeds European odyssey was a visit to the Enza Zaden Research Station in Tarquinia, just north of Rome. Enza Zaden is the organic division of a Dutch seed company called Vitalis Seeds. They are one of the primary seed suppliers in Italy, with 25 acres of Italian favorites like cauliflower, radicchio, fennel, and onions. They also specialize in radicchio breeding, since the world’s largest market for radicchio is in Italy. Enza Zaden is one of many regional research stations Vitalis maintains around the world. Regional stations allow this international company to supply seeds that are culturally relevant to the market and bred to do well in that region. Enza Zaden has a unique relationship with Vitalis – as with each remote site, it is independent while still serving the larger company. When a remote site excels in a certain area, or comes up with a better technique, Vitalis can benefit from the regional expertise and apply that technique to some or all of their remote stations.

Second Stop: Anseme, Cesena, Italy

Vegetable seed waiting for cleaning at Anseme

Anseme is a very unusual company in the seed world – they are a custom seed production company. They have 500 contract growers who collectively own 12,000 acres all over Italy, and they have over 100 staff, similar to Extension agents, who provide information and resources to the farmers. One of Anseme’s primary markets is stock seed, used to provide the parent lines for hybrid varieties. The genetics of this stock seed can be very precious, since some companies have exclusive rights to it and the resulting hybrids. As a result Anseme must be extremely careful – the stock seed is well-protected in a high security facility to prevent theft of the parent line genetics!

Third Stop: Parsley Farm near Venice, Italy

Low-tech head lettuce production house in Northern Italy.

The next stop was not on the itinerary, but proved noteworthy. Here, sandwiched between two of the largest rivers in the country, is an area of constructed farmland characterized by perfect soil and laser-leveled fields for herb and vegetable production. We stopped at a farm made up of 7 acres of parsley fields and were amazed by the precision and efficiency of their systems. Each perfectly level parsley bed is cut to the ground and then re-grows seven times during the season. Most of the work is done by a machine developed specifically for this purpose, which rides over the rows cutting the parsley in bunches, then uses a conveyor to carry the bunches up to a crew for tying. The farmer said the machine had cost the equivalent of about $60,000, but it was evident that a machine like this could be rapidly paid off given the leap in efficiency it allows. This is a trend that can be observed throughout the country – even very small farms have access to specialized, appropriate technology that allows for extremely efficient farming. Everywhere that one goes in Italy it is obvious that their love of food has deep roots – and they lead straight back to the farmer that produces it.

Fourth Stop: Sativa Seeds, Switzerland

Dry Bean trials at Sativa Seeds

Sativa is yet another highly unusual seed company. Located in a monastery on an island on the Rheine River near the border with Germany, this is the youngest European seed company we visited. Sativa is not just a seed company; it is a biodynamic farm. The farm has 25 disabled workers who help care for the livestock, gardens, and seed production and cleaning.

Sativa is not only unique because of their biodynamic farm; they also breed custom varieties based on farmers’ requests. This is uncommon since as a rule seed companies will only invest in breeding varieties that are guaranteed to have widespread applicability, and are thus likely to make a good return on the investment. Sativa goes about this differently. They collaborate with groups of farmers that want a variety with specific characteristics and offer to breed the variety and foot half the bill, while the farmers are responsible for the other half of the expenses involved. One caveat is that no one gets exclusivity over the variety – it remains available for public use in perpetuity.

Fifth Stop: Bejo Seeds, The Netherlands

Fennel Variety Trials at Bejo Seed

The final stop was at the Bejo Zaden Open Days in Warmenhuizen, Netherlands. The Open Days featured an Organic Symposium this year, which drew over 250 farmers and seed producers from twenty countries around the world. The Symposium topics ranged from breeding to trends in the marketplace. Tom was the final speaker at the Symposium and discussed the importance of breeding varieties specifically for organic and ecologically-sound production systems.

The Netherlands is tremendously innovative when it comes to agricultural and ecological systems. However, it seems that the innovation ends at the University level – once the new technology is rolled out to farmers, most don’t consider adapting it further. It is an interesting contrast with the farmers in Italy, who seem to have personalized equipment more often than not. They are two divergent paths to innovation – one country goes with the one-size-fits-all method, while the other utilizes the one-size-fits-one-farm approach.

Bejo Seeds, which is a global leader in production of cabbages, carrots, and onions, takes pride in balancing the art and science of breeding. Tom noticed that the breeders had a strong appreciation for a balance of beauty and creativity with their scientific achievements. A leek trial, for example, is not just appreciated for its productivity or flavor, but also for how the plants look in the field – for the unexpected art in nature’s paintbrush. Perhaps it is partly this reward that gives Bejo breeders the confidence to embark on breeding projects that might take 30 years. In any case, such projects are not uncommon at a company like Bejo, and the long-awaited results make Bejo one of the world’s leading seed companies.