2013 23.2 Spring Seed: The Next Generation

Seed is the embodiment of potential. The seed choices growers make at planting time play a critical role not only in the success of crops, but in the future of seed systems. Seed is the primary input in the food system and critical to the integrity of organic foods, yet most participants in the food supply know very little about the seed that went into the produce or grains they grow, sell, or eat. Every farmer and gardener relishes the promise of a productive, flavorful, blemish free crop while wandering through the glossy photos and reading enticing descriptions of a seed catalog. But how do we decide what to plant? And why does it matter?

Variety Choice

Many readers who farm probably know the frustration of opening a seed catalog only to find their favorite variety has been dropped. This is often the result of one of two things, 1) seed companies continually breeding the “next best thing” and replacing older varieties, or 2) consolidation in the seed industry resulting in increasingly narrowed variety offerings. In either case farmers are left scrambling for an alternative.

All farmers need access to a diversity of varieties that perform optimally in their climate and farming system. Unfortunately the vast majority of varieties available have been bred under conventional agricultural conditions focused on the needs of major agricultural production regions for the given crop. Organic farmers have unique challenges in pest and fertility management that often differ from conventional growers in their region. Research shows that organic farmers have unique variety needs, yet organic farmers are most often left using the best performing varieties available, rather than a variety bred specifically for their system (Murphy et al., 2007).

Climate matters

Many organic growers in the Pacific Northwest are producing a wide range of crops in an effort to provide a diversity of produce and grains for this local region. Some crops are ideal for this climate while others are challenging. Growers may struggle to grow early-season sweet corn, or perhaps any sweet corn at all. Growers may also strive to keep winter harvest of greens and root crops available for local markets throughout the winter months. Variety choice is critical in addressing these issues. But how do we choose which variety to grow? A variety’s performance is the result of a combination of the “genetics” and the “environment” where the variety is grown. In this context organic is part of the growing
environment, but the climate of the region also plays a very strong role in variety performance. For this reason organic trial results in the region are ideal, but even conventional trials can give a good indication of whether a variety has potential to grow in a specific climate. Reviewing both organic and conventional variety trial results can help identify a range of varieties to then further test on one’s own farm.

The good news is there is a growing movement to evaluate variety performance under organic growing conditions. Organic trials are increasingly conducted at university Extension programs, in organic seed company trials, and through collaborative efforts involving farmers and plant breeders such as the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC). NOVIC is a collaborative project led by Oregon State University (OSU) with Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), Washington State University (WSU), University of Wisconsin – Madison, and Cornell University. The collaborative is breeding and evaluating five crops under organic conditions, carrots, sweet corn, broccoli, snap peas, and winter squash. Through NOVIC a public database was formed to share trial results of a wide range of crops evaluated under organic conditions nationally.

Conducting on-farm trials

There is no more valuable information than seeing how a variety performs on one’s own farm, under their own farming practices, in the unique microclimate of their location. Growers may try a few new varieties each year, but honestly, how many times have we gone back and wondered if the variety was truly better? Putting a little planning and process into variety trials will greatly improve the information to glean. OSA offers a free publication with practical guidelines for conducting on-farm trials, On-farm Trials: A Guide for Organic Vegetable, Herb, and Flower Producers, available at: http://www.seedalliance.org/Publications/.

Source Organic

Certified organic farmers are required to use organic seed when available, according to the National Organic Program (NOP) regulations. Many organic growers are also concerned about GMO contamination and organic seed remains the strongest proactive solution to addressing this and other threats to organic integrity. But organic seed represents much more than what it is not. Seed is a reflection of our value system and organic seed has the potential to help organic farmers thrive. A recent New York Times editorial by author Margaret Roach eloquently addresses this topic, see: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/03/opinion/sunday/look-carefully-at-those-seeds.html?_r=2&#\.

Can we imagine a time when seed is managed by and for the organic community? A time when farmers have access to a wide diversity of organically bred varieties that serve their regional farming needs and support a robust, resilient organic food system? We are fortunate in the Pacific Northwest to have some progressive organic plant breeders at our universities, some regional organic seed companies, and a dedicated organic food
industry as well as the education and research of Organic Seed Alliance, but it is the choices we make at planting time that truly enable the organic seed industry to grow.

In many cases organic growers may still be using conventionally bred and produced varieties, because the variety is working for them and a better organic alternative is not yet available. It is possible that the breeding company that owns the variety has no interest in organic production, so it will never be available in organic form. No one is advocating for the adoption of organic seed at the cost of an organic farmer’s ability to thrive and feed their local community. So use the varieties needed while conducting trials to search for an alternative. Whenever possible also provide feedback to seed companies and plant breeders about performance needs and varieties that are not available organically.

Fortunately organically available varieties continue to expand and many tried and true selections can now be purchased in organic form. It takes effort to search more than three seed catalogs for organically available varieties, but investment in time will pay off in the diversity, integrity, and quality of the food we grow.

Organic Seed Finder, hosted and managed by the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies (AOSCA), was launched in October 2012, and serves as a free resource for farmers, certifiers, and other stakeholders looking to access reliable organic seed availability information. The database, found at www.organicseedfinder.org, provides a central place for seed companies of all sizes to list their organic varieties. The website also provides an opportunity for farmers to provide feedback on varieties and crop types they are not able to source organically. This information is shared in reports to seed companies and breeders in an effort to help direct efforts to further fulfill organic farmers seed needs.

Grow your own

There is no greater sense of seed security than growing one’s own. The Pacific Northwest is an ideal location for growing many dry seeded vegetable crops. Many farmers have turned to managing their own seed to ensure they have consistent access to key varieties. Growing one’s own seed on-farm also offers the potential benefits of reduced seed costs, access to organically produced seed, a new source of revenue, and adaptation of the varieties to the specific farm environment over time.

Farmers new to seed growing should try a small plot at first to see how it grows in their climate and learn how to manage the seed crop. Focus on a crop that is well suited to the growing climate and important in the specific farming system. The more valuable the crop and variety is to the grower, the more attention they will invest in its production. Once you gain experience you may consider growing seed as a new market product. To help guide farmers interested in learning how to conduct their own on-farm variety trials and produce seed on-farm, Organic Seed Alliance offers educational workshops, free publications, and online resources. In 2013 OSA will release a new publication on Climatic Considerations in Seed Production, focused on the crops and climates of the Northwest Region. This project, funded by the Risk Management Agency (USDA), will include on-farm workshops in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Visit www.seedalliance.org for more information. A new book, The Organic Seed Grower: A Farmer’s Guide to Vegetable Seed Production, by OSA Senior Scientist and WSU Seed Extension Specialist, Dr. John Navazio, is now available. The book offers in-depth guidance on the principles of seed production of a wide range of vegetable crops. It is available from Chelsea Green at http://www.chelseagreen.com/bookstore/item/the_organic_seed_grower/.

Tips for Sourcing and Supporting Organic Seed

  1. Review regional and organic variety trial reports.
  2. Explore more than three seed catalogs when searching for organic seed.
  3. Conduct on-farm variety trials.
  4. Visit Organic Seed Finder (http://organicseedfinder.com/).
  5. Grow it on the farm. Try at least one seed crop on the farm this year.
  6. Develop a dialog about organic seed needs with the local and regional organic food community including other farmers, certifiers, produce buyers, and eaters.

Murphy, K. M., Campbell, K. G., Lyon, S. R., and Jones, S. S. 2007. Evidence of varietal adaptation to organic farming systems. Field Crops Research. 102, 172–17.

Tags: Organic Seed Alliance, Seed Finder, Seed Production, Seed Variety, Seeds