The Challenges of Sourcing Organic Seed: The Beloved Parsnip
Update - Jan. 2014 - we were able to source organic parsnip seeds this year! These seeds didn't make it into our catalog, but we have them on the website: Organic Lancer Parsnip Seeds
The world of organic seeds is an interesting one. As you turn the pages of your High Mowing catalog, you may wonder why we have sixteen years under our belt and still no parsnips. Seriously? Why is there such an abundance of certain organically available varieties like tomatoes and beans, while others such as parsnips and hybrid broccoli are quite uncommon? The answer is in the ecology of producing these crops organically, the difficulty that comes with producing particular seed crops, and the overall demand for them. At High Mowing we can grow a lot of different crops for seed, so we have a bit more control over our availability than some seed companies do, but Vermont is not the ideal seed growing climate for many crops. So, let’s look at that tricky parsnip to better understand why they are so limited.
Annuals vs. Biennials
Firstly, parsnips are biennials, as are most root crops. This means that they have two major phases to their growing cycle, which is part of their ancient strategy before they were domesticated. While annual plants—such as tomatoes, peppers, and beans—grow, flower, and make seed in one season (so hasty!), biennials keep it simple in their first year by simply photosynthesizing like crazy. They store all that energy in the only long term storage organ that plants have – their roots. When winter ends (and all the annuals are dead!), biennials use that stored energy to make their flowers and seed. This often occurs much earlier than even the next season of annuals starts to flower! In the wild relatives of beets, carrots, parsnips and other biennials, this seed then falls to the ground, germinates and generally has enough time left in the season to store up energy for winter to do it all again.
Growing Biennials for Seed
Biennials make for a trickier seed crop to grow. Not only for the fact that they take two years instead of one, but in order to have a steady seed supply of these crops, you need to produce both the first year “root” crop (called stecklings when used for seed production) and a “seed” crop. Two crops, all the time. A beet or carrot seed grower might simply grow enough of a seed crop to last for a few seasons of planting because biennial seed can last for a few years and still have strong performance. Unfortunately, the parsnip seed is just about the worst storing vegetable seed on the planet! This seed often barely makes 80% germination when it is fresh and then quickly degrades from there. So you always have to have two crops (a root crop and a seed crop) in the ground, every year, for every variety of parsnip. What a pain is right! Throwing in organic production requirements into the mix adds an additional challenge to an already complex situation.
Added Challenges within Organics
There are several other reasons that we don’t have any parsnip seed at High Mowing. The organic seed industry is in its infancy and is therefore just getting around to “minor” crops such as parsnips. In addition, the limited demand for parsnip seed (not a crop every farmer grows, compared to lettuce), means that our seed needs are also relatively small. This in turn means that it is hard to find a seed grower willing to go to all this trouble for such a small contract. And we can’t have them produce a two year seed supply for us like we usually do in these situations, because the darn seed won’t last. Parsnips oh, parsnips – why do you make it so hard…
We are not alone in thinking this is a pain - so does everyone who has ever grown parsnips for seed for thousands of years. And we wonder why they aren’t more available. Simply put, parsnips are in an uphill battle and it really is a wonder that they were ever domesticated. So, thank your seed grower and all those before them that we do indeed have this tasty crop to enjoy.