The Economics of Seed Saving on Three Biological Farms in Western Michigan

Final Report for FNC97-189

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1997: $4,676.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1999
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


1) Paul and Nancy Jones Keiser/Agriculture & Health Alive, Inc.
Size: 20 acres on three sites
Crops: hay (13 acres)
Intensive vegetables, melons, herbs, flowers, popcorn, luffa sponges, and gourds (5 acres) with two greenhouses barns and house with 50 animals: sheep, cattle, chickens, ducks, and geese (2 acres)

Crops were pre-sold to 55 shareholder households, to three natural foods stores, and in a roadside stand at our farmstead. Some of the 15 to 20 tons of vegetable production was donated to the regional food bank and to a food pantry and some of the cull foods were fed to livestock on two farms.

There as also on farm food processing and storage on the three sites.

2) Jeff and Karen Lubbers/Lubbers Family Farm
Size: 120 acres on two sites
Crops: hay, beef cattle, poultry on pasture (broiler chickens, egg layers, turkeys, ducks, Guinea fowl), pastures, pigs, 75 acres of managed forest, CSA distribution shed, meeting and class site, and other buildings, on farm egg and meat sales.

On farm food processing and storage, seed saving, some crafts

3) Leon and Bonnie Zimmer Farmstead
Size: five acres
Crops: one acre of intensive vegetables, chickens for home egg consumption, crops sold at roadside stand, food processing and storage, seed savings

Previous Sustainable Practices:
Paul Keiser has engaged in many years of sustainable farm practices that began on an organic farm in eastern Massachusetts in 1963. Keiser has learned to regenerate poor and unbalanced soils in less than six months. Other sustainable practices include: composting farm and household wastes, growing crops with no synthetic chemicals or pesticides, supporting biodiversity with plantings and low impact cropping and tillage practices, homeopathy in treating animals, fruit orchard work, grains, many animals, including dairy cattle and livestock feeds and smaller quantities of seed saving.

The goal of this project is to identify effective techniques and costs of seed saving for various varieties of seeds and types of facilities for processing and storage to contribute to the relatively limited body of knowledge on seed savings.

In 1997 and 1998, the seed saving activity was integrated into intensive production of vegetables, melons, herbs, flowers, popcorn, luffa sponges, and gourds for 55 CSA shareholders, for sale to three natural food stores, for direct marketing at a home farm stand, and for livestock feeds and food pantries.

Detailed field records were kept listing:
- dates of planting
- weather phenomena
- sizes of rows and beds
- varieties of crops planted
- quantities and methods of fertilization used

Fifty painted stakes were made by CSA shareholders, Donna and Korte St. John with “SEEDS” painted on each one. The stakes were placed in the fields marking off plants from which selected fruits were later harvested. Fruits selected for harvesting for seed saving were the best looking of the marked section in terms of: size, shape, color, health.

Goals in harvesting were to save sufficient numbers of individual fruits from each variety so as to avoid having too narrow of a gene pool for genetic integrity. Thus, seeds from different fruits were mixed together after they were dried. Maize seeds are said to require a minimum of 50 ears of corn saved to avoid genetic deterioration.

In mid March 1998, planting in flats began in heated greenhouses. Field planting began in early April. Both of these activities continued into September because the CSA farm type of production system requires harvesting weekly of a substantial variety of goods for 20 to 24 or more weeks for shareholders. Seed saving harvesting was interspersed with the other farming and marketing work.

Some varieties in the Cucurbita family were grown on separate sites in an attempt to prevent cross pollination. Howden pumpkins (C. pepo), Buttercup squash (C. maxima) and slicing cucumbers (C. sativus) were grown at Lubbers’ farm with pie pumpkins (C. pepo) and other pepos, Hubbard squash (C. maxima), and pickling cucumbers being grown at the Walker City site of New Harmony Community Farm.

- Nancy Jones Keiser – co-manages New Harmony Community Farm and Agriculture and Health Alive, Inc., the Keiser’s business. She worked full time teaching “Biological Agriculture” to students from kindergarten to seventh grade in West Michigan Academy of Environmental Science in Walker City. She was also involved in the Keiser’s adult education series through the year conducting classes and workshops and in the home farm and office work in Marne. Nancy also did field and CSA distribution work, which included scheduling and supervising CSA working shareholders.
- Jeff and Karen Lubbers – own and operate their 120 acre farm in Tallmadge Township. They both have been involved in the operation of the CSA farm as well as the additional activities, such as seed saving. At the present time, Jeff has prepared their greenhouse for planting and Karen in involved in the planting work with the Keisers and some other CSA farm members (Carolyn Raue and Lauran Stuive Bittinger). Some of the saved seeds from 1997 and 1998 are already planted in flats (3/30).
- Leon and Bonnie Zimmer – were among the founding families of West Michigan Academy of Environmental Science and New Harmony Community Farm. They volunteered much time, materials, and expertise to the development of both organizations and Leon has been on the WMAES Board of Directors for many years. Leon donated the pole lima beans that were planted last year on a 300’ long trellis. They have given and received from NHCF the last two year, but in 1998, Leon’s truck driving job changed from four days/week to five days/week and the drought form early May to early August prevented them from growing a lot of crops.
- West Michigan Academy of Environmental Science students – form kindergarten through seventh grade were involved in field work from soil preparation to mulching, weeding, fertilizing, harvesting, sorting, and eating goods grown o the farm under the direction of Nancy Jones Keiser with assistance from Outdoor Education Science teacher, Karen Johnson.
- Mary Penninga – was our part time Farm Intern from the autumn of 1997 into November of 1998. She also held a full time job as Produce Manager at Harvest Health Natural Foods Store in Grand Rapids during that time. Mary was involved in all phases of the farm work, including seed saving work. She has just gotten married and intends to return as a full time Farm Intern in April 1999.
- J. Wilson Jones – is Nancy’s father and he spent several weeks shelling beans and corn by hand!
- CSA farm working shareholders – performed whatever tasks needed to be done on their allotted times and days. All of them were aware of the seed saving work even if they didn’t have their hands in that aspect of the work.

Many of the activities listed above are stated in the past tense. The reality is that most of the activities are still continuing.

1997 Seeds Saved

Variety, Amount
1. Bean: Red Kidney, 8.00 lbs
2. Cucumber: Pickling, 0.21 lbs
3. Cucumber: Slicing, 0.141 lbs
4. Flower: Cosmos
5. Flower: Marigold
6. Flower: Zinnia
7. Herb: Coriander
8. Herb: Milk Thistle, 0.06 lbs
9. Pumpkin: Pie (C. pepo)*, 1.+ lbs
10. Squash: Buttercup (C. maxima), 1.+ lbs
11. Squash: Butternut (C. moschata), 1.+ lbs
12. Tomato: Beefsteak, 0.06 lbs
13. Watermelon: Sugar Baby, 0.1 lbs

*Note: Our pie pumpkin seed from 1997 was planted at New Harmony Community Farm in Walker in 1998. About 2/3 to ¾ of the fruits developed true with the remaining fruits being the results of crosses, perhaps with plants in a neighbor’s garden several hundred yards away. Non-true fruits were fed to livestock at Lubbers’ and Keiser’s farms.

1998 Seeds Saved with 1999 Seed Purchase Value
Variety, Amount, $ Value

1. Bean: Red Kidney, 35.0 lbs, $119.50
2. Bean: Pole Lima, Zimmer Standard, 25.0 lbs, $69.75
3. Beans: Several miscellaneous varieties, 5.0 lbs, $18.40
4. Cucumber: Pickling, 0.02 lbs (350 sds), $2.50
5. Cucumber: Slicking, 0.12 lbs, $4.10
6. Herb: Echinacea, Purple Cone Flower, 0.15 lbs, $27.40
7. Kale (Vates), 0.32 lbs, $15.20
8. Maize: Pop, Purple, 9.0 lbs, $45.90
9. Maize: Sweet, Carson’s Rainbow Inca, 7.0 lbs, $66.80
10. Melon: Cantalope/Muskmelon Mix, 0.19 lbs (1000 sds), $24.60
11. Melon: Water, Sugar Baby Mix, 0.03 lbs, $6.50
12. Okra, 0.13 lbs, $4.10
13. Onion: Bunching, 0.55 lbs, $17.50
14. Pumpkin: Howden (C. pepo), 0.84 lbs, $15.00
15. Squash: Buttercup (C. maxima)*, 2.+ lbs, $32.00
16. Squash: Butternut (C. moschata)*, 2.+ lbs, $30.70
17. Tomato: Brandywine (Heirloom), 0.02 lbs, $8.60
18. Tomato: Orange, 0.01 lb, $3.25
19. Tomato: Red/Yellow (Striped German), 0.02 lb, $8.60
20. Sunflower, 2.37 lbs, $8.00
Total $ Value = $528.40

*Note: Seeds are still being saved from Winter Squash stored under our bed. There are a few other items that still have not been shelled or separated from their husks, such as popcorn, milk thistle, bunching onion, etc.

Summary of Seed Saving Labor Time to Date (Estimated)
- Preparation: seed handling, purchasing, planning, etc., 4.75 hours
- Greenhouse work: planting, handling, maintenance, 29 hours
- Field preparation: mowing cover crop, plowing, disc harrowing, fertilization, set up beds/rows, etc.
o Machine work, 16 hours
o Labor other, 12 hours
- Planting/Transplanting, 5.6 hours
- Cultivation of Plants: hoeing, mulching, hand weeding, trellis & fencing construction, staking, etc., 67.2 hours
- Harvesting, 23.1 hours
- Processing, shelling, drying, sorting seeds, screen construction (this work continues even now), etc., 152 hours
- Storage, 20 hours
- Total estimated hours, 419.65 hours

Seed saving work performed during the growing season of 1997 and winter of 1997-98 is not included in the above estimates. Estimates were based on a portion of the other work going on with farming, marketing, etc.

Drying Conditions: September to November 1998
Drying weather was excellent in August and the early part of September. In late September, air temperatures cooled and it seemed like there was considerable humidity in the air for the remainder of the autumn, which made drying fruits and seeds difficult.

Drying Seeds
Seeds were dried on screens in the sun/on screens in Keiser’s back barn/in Lubbers’ potting shed on tables/in electric drying units at Lubbers’ and Keiser’s/ in a convection oven at Keiser’s. Maize was hung up in Keiser’s back barn. The seeds had to be kept from animals, such as mice.

Most of the seeds have been stored in jars and cans in Keiser’s back barn on a pierce of metal roofing material hung from the ceiling with wire. Some seeds have been stored at Lubber’s farm.

Seed saving in an agricultural operation or even a garden means that there are added needs for labor, time, expertise, and facilities. Each variety of seed saved is an added culture. Some types of seeds saved require much more work than others, such as hand pollinated Cucurbita or maize families versus self-pollinating beans or tomatoes.

Our farming operation now has more self sufficiency and sustainability with the saving of more seed types. We aren’t as dependent on purchase of items from outside the farm-even though we do buy plenty of supplies.

The SARE grant encouraged us to go ahead and save more varieties and species of plant seeds.

Advantages of Seed Saving:
1) Our knowledge has increased
2) We increased the dimension of seed saving in our farming and gardening
3) We have seeds to share with other growers
4) Our seed purchase costs are now lower
5) We have confidence in the biological integrity of our saved seeds that have been produced in rich soils without the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers or pesticides
6) The seed stocks of our farming operation have become more indigenous – which is a goal of our work.

Disadvantages of Seed Saving:
1) The $ value of our seed saving work is low when compared to the costs of purchased seeds. This is the story of US agricultural economics for the last 45 years
2) More work, more space, more time, more facilities are needed for each one of the individual seed cultures
3) More people are needed on the farm in an age of exodus of people out of farming

Recommendations to Other Producers:
I would recommend to other producers that they form a cooperative of seed savers and for them to divide up the seed saving tasks, so that each farm or ranch would save relatively few varieties. Then the members of the co-op could share seeds with each other. This would help to keep down costs, while recreating rural community.

I would also tell them that the purchase of a shelling machine, preferably a non electric unit (for more sustainability), would save a lot of labor.

Additionally, machine harvest would also reduce labor/time costs. Perhaps the co-op would have access to a combine?

Economic Impact:
Many growers cooperating in seed saving together would be increasing their self-reliance and self-sufficiency, cutting off farm inputs and expenses. In our operation where we estimated our time versus the value of the same purchased commercially, we couldn’t say that we economically gained.

Environmental Impact:
Seed saving definitely increases sustainability. Charles Walters, Senior Editor at Acres USA based in Metairie, Louisiana, has said that “to be economical agriculture has to be ecological”. Our methods of farming leave the land with more species biodiversity and the soil increases in fertility, when compared to much of US agriculture. If we adopted Amish-style horse culture and/or Third World farming methods, we would become even more environmentally friendly in our farming.

Social Impact:
More hands and thus more people would be needed on the farm to perform added cultures, like seed saving. Seed saving on farm could help to bring more people back into agriculture, and thus more sustainable.

The formation of seed saving cooperatives would help to recreate rural community by bringing folds back into working relationship together and cutting television watching time and time on the internet. Y2K impacts may force everyone to a more sustainable life style.

Methods used for telling other about:
1) Our seed saving project – the following parties had the project explained to them at one or more of the three farm sites (New Harmony Community Farm, Lubbers Family Farm, and Keiser’s Farm):
a. Visitors
b. 55 CSA farm shareholder households
c. 400+ students (with some of the teachers at West Michigan Academy of Environmental Science as they worked)
d. Two tours in 1998:
i. An August 6, 1998 Kent County Extension Master Gardeners tour of New Harmony Community Farm (NHCF) about 10 people came
ii. A September 12, 1998 SARE project seed saving tour of NHCF and Lubbers’ Farm about 25 people came

e. Publication wherein the project was/is described:

i. SARE in Michigan: Highlights of projects funded by the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) program 1989-1998. John C. Durling, Editor. Michigan State University Extension Bulletin E-2692 February 1999.
ii. SARE Competitive Grants. North Central Region. Producer Grants and Project Coordinators. 1992-1998. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska
iii. The Soil Central. Newsletter of New Harmony Community Farm. Grand Rapids, MI. Carolyn Raue, Editor.
iv. Newsletter of West Michigan Academy of Environmental Science. Walker, MI

2) Project events or activities
a. Winter 1997-98: Paul Keiser presented a poster on the seed saving project at a North Central Region SARE meeting in Bryan, Ohio.
b. September 12, 1999: the public was invited to Keiser’s seed saving tour of New Harmony Community Farm (NHCF) in Walker City, Kent County and Lubbers Family Farm in Tallmadge Township, Ottawa County. News releases were sent to:
i. Acres USA: A Voice for Eco-Agriculture, Metairie, Louisiana
ii. The Josephine Porter Institute for Applied Biodynamics, Woolwine, VA
iii. Biodynamics Farming & Gardening Association, San Francisco, California
iv. Turtle Tree Seeds Sowing Circle, Camphill Village, Copake, New York
v. High Falls Gardens Chinese Herbs, Philmont, New York
vi. Seed Savers Exchange Heritage Farm, Decorah, Iowa
vii. And to the names on the “Press Mailing List” in the Addendum. Notices of this event went to other interested parties.
viii. About 25 people attended our field day: some farmers, two Michigan State University graduate students, a landowner, and gardeners. Some of these attendees were interested in our approach to land stewardship and management.

3) Project results
a. Two reports have already been written and 20 copies of each have been circulated to some of the above. Plus the members of the NHCF Core Group who are kept up to date about all agricultural and educational activities. The two reports are:
i. “Seed Savers Exchange Eighteenth Annual Campout Convention” Heritage Farm. Decorah, Iowa. July 18 and 19, 1998. By Paul W. Keiser.
ii. “Progress Report: The Economics of Seed Saving on Three Biological Farms in West Michigan.” Project Number FNC97-189. By Paul W. Keiser. November 20, 1998.

Some of the project information has been also circulated to:
- Michigan Agricultural Stewardship Association (MASA), Kalkaska, MI
- Michigan Integrated Food & Farming Association (MIFFS), East Lansing, MI
- Laura Delind, professor, Department of Anthropology, MI State University


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.