The purpose of this project was to study the quality of Northeast grown seed and specifically to compare seed quality on a dedicated seed farm to farms integrating seed crops into diversified vegetable production. We trained 12 farmers from 8 different small farms through monthly workshops on seed production. Alongside this training, we studied the diseases affecting the plants and seeds (if any) at all stages of growth both on the Hudson Valley Seed Library seed farm and the individual farms of participants. Despite a challenging damp growing season and some plant health issues at the food stages, 16 out of the 17 plantings produced high-quality seeds. Of the seven varieties in the grant, seven of the eight seed crop varieties showed no signs of seed-borne disease. Only one instance of low-quality seed was found. The most important result that came out of the grant was the discovery that there were actually very few seed quality issues when growers followed proper seed production protocols. We have created a Seed Quality Handbook for Northeast Seed Production which is available online, has been shared at farming conferences, and will be available in print at the NOFA-NY Winter Conference.
Over the past ten years we’ve seen an incredible resurgence of awareness around seeds- Farmers and gardeners are interested in growing with regionally produced and adapted seeds. At the same time, more and more growers of all kinds are experimenting with producing their own seeds. Some are doing it to create a more reliable seed source for themselves, others are getting into seed saving to improve varieties for flavor, disease resistance, or adaptation to their farm, and still other farmers are producing seed to share freely or sell to small regional seed companies. Across the country we’ve seen hundreds of community seed libraries and dozens of small regional seed companies sharing and selling locally grown seeds. And while anyone with a garden can save seeds- and there are excellent resources to help growers learn the basics of seed-saving, seed growing is about more than just saving seeds: quality is extremely important.
As one of the pioneers in regional seed production for the Northeast and a seed company sharing seeds throughout the Northeast and beyond, we wanted to find out how we were doing. Were we producing the highest quality seeds on our 4 acre seed farm? Were produce farmers growing one or two varieties of seed for us or themselves sharing high-quality seed? How could we find out? We applied for a SARE grant as part of our efforts to ensure that we are producing high-quality seed as well as to help other growers in the Northeast become more aware of the importance of seed health and gain the skills necessary to produce healthy seed.
Although the grant cycle will officially start in March, we will begin recruiting participating farmers at this year’s NOFA-NY conference in January as Ken will be giving a presentation there on the topic of local seed growing.
Here are the components of the grant methods:
The project will focus on 10 varieties that are currently unavailable as certified organic seed. Each variety will also represent a disease related seed health concern present in our region that we would like to address in trainings and the manual. Each variety would be grown in at least two locations. One would be on our seed farm and the other would be on one or two small diversified farms in the region.
The seeds on our farm would be considered Ex Situ- a controlled, frequently monitored growing environment dedicated specifically to seed production. The participating farm for each variety would be considered In Situseeds being grown in their “natural” environment- a farm primarily focused on food production. This would allow us to compare plant and seed health between the two types of growing environments in order to evaluate what kinds of support and education, especially around disease identification, prevention, and treatment, diversified farmers need to produce healthy seed.
All live plants populations and their resulting seed lots would be tested separately in cooperation with our technical advisors through Cornell. Participating farmers would receive training on how to grow their variety for seed. Farms would be monitored by Cornell extension educators and the Seed Library project coordinator. The project coordinator would then synthesize data from all sources and organize the information into an accessible step-by-step how to manual. The manual would include photos and descriptions to help growers predict, prevent, and identify seed related diseases. There would also be a list of resources for testing, treating, and processing seed. Seeds will be tested directly after harvest, cleaning, and drying on the farm.
Depending on the results, the same lot will be then be treated using different methods including vinegar, hot water bath, bleach solution, or freezing. Each of the subsequent treated lots will then be tested to determine the most effective treatment. Seeds will also be germination tested for viability regardless of presence of plant or seed-borne disease. Participating farmers will attend four group trainings on the Seed Library farm and receive multiple in-person consultations on their own farms. A Facebook group for participants will serve as a central hub for farmers to post questions, photos, and receive answers and assistance. Because it is a group, farmers will be able to learn about the other varieties being grown in addition to the variety they are stewarding.
Year 1: Annuals and Biennials
March/April: Establish seed beds on participating farms. Initial farm visits.
May: Farm visits and training on collecting data.
June: First group training. Farm visits, ongoing data collection.
July: Farm visits, ongoing data collection.
August: Second group training. Plant and seed testing begins. Farm visits, ongoing data.
September: Third group training. Farm visits, ongoing data collection. Plant and seed testing.
October: Fourth group training. Farm visits, ongoing data collection. Plant and seed testing.
November: Farm visits, ongoing data collection. Plant and seed testing.
December: Create print and digital manual.
January: Have manual ready for sharing / distribution.
Eight farms participated in this grant including the Hudson Valley Seed Library seed farm. We focused on varieties that were currently commercially unavailable as regionally grown and/or unavailable certified organic including Panther Edamame, Prizehead Lettuce, Flashback Calendula, Upstate Oxheart Tomato, Paul Robeson Tomato, Pink Ping Pong Tomato, Bridge to Paris Pepper, Tokyo Bekana. Participating farmers were provided with a binder including necessary forms, Organic Seed Alliance handouts, sample disease testing forms, and materials related to each session. Farmers came to the Hudson Valley Seed Library farm for monthly in-person trainings from June through October and sent in regular reports on their seed crops. Each training covered one aspect of seed production with lectures, worksheets, and hands-on skill-building components. The monthly workshops were also a time for the growers to bring in plant samples to be sent out to labs, report on crop health, and ask questions.
June 3rd 2:30- 4:30
Review forms, disease testing protocols
July 8th 2:30- 4:30
General Seed Harvesting
August 12th 2:30- 4:30
Trial Garden Tour
Focus on Disease: Lecture by Emily Cook, Cornell
September 9th 2:30- 4:30
Organic Seed Treatments
October 11th 2:30- 4:30
Final Results Meeting
Potluck / Bonfire
All seed crops were evaluated and tested for health and disease during the food stage (normal edible harvest stage), again at the seed stage (flowering, fruiting, pod set), and finally tested for seed-borne diseases (winter 2014) after harvesting and cleaning seeds. Plant samples were sent to appropriate labs depending on what diseases we were testing for including Cornell and Eurofins.
As part of this grant process we prepared ourselves to see a range of seed quality issues. Our hope was that by focusing attention on seed production in our region, we would be able to expose any practices or diseases that lead to low-quality seed and find solutions to ensure high-quality regionally produced seed. The fact that there were almost no seed quality issues led us to the conclusion that with proper farmer training and responsible practices most seed quality challenges in our region can be overcome.
The biggest outcome from this grant was gathering data that proves that high-quality seed can be grown for certain crops in the Northeast. More specifically, farmers who grow crops primarily for other purposes including diversified vegetable production can successfully grow high-quality seed as long as they have the skills necessary to do so, time to pay attention to the crops, and an awareness of how pest and disease affects seed crops differently than vegetable crops. Part of this awareness is knowing when to call a grow-out a success or a crop failure. Understanding this line- especially as it relates to seed-borne diseases- is key to ensuring we are growing and sharing high-quality seed in our region.
Many common non-seed-borne diseases were found at food and seed stage parts of the plant’s life-cycles but through roughing out unhealthy plants, seed quality was maintained. One one seed crop tested positive for a seed-borne disease. Upstate Oxheart, which suffered from early onset of late blight on one farm and showed signs of bacterial leaf spot, tested positive for Xanthomonas campestris pv. Vesicatoria (BLS) both on the plant and seed. Without the training and oversight provided by the grant, this might have gone unnoticed on the farm growing this crop as there were still edible fruits produced. This was treated with a hot water bath reducing the evidence of the disease but not completely eliminating it. We considered this a crop failure for commercial sales but are continuing to work with, improve, and eliminate disease as the variety as it is a regional heirloom.
Feedback from the grant participants highlighted that inspecting plants throughout the season for signs of disease, knowing about rouging, selection and cross-pollination, and being aware of the weather conditions at the time of seed development is essential. In particular, recording these observations using forms available online from Organic Seed Alliance proved helpful when predicting potential seed health issues and determining if and when testing is necessary.
Grant participants gained confidence in their ability to produce seed for themselves, improve varieties on-farm, or sell seed as an income crop. Most of the participating farmers have continued to produce seed on their farms using the skills they gained.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
The Seed Quality Handbook for Northeast Seed Production is available online and in print. It has already been used as part of lectures and workshops including the Student Seed Symposium, Northeast Seed Needs Assessment, and the State of Organic Seed Report and will be used as a resource at upcoming lectures including at NOFA-NY and the Organic Seed Growers Conference. Additionally, photos from farmer trainings and resources developed for the farmer trainings have been used repeatedly for other workshops and shared with other educators.
This grant helped us better understand the concerns farmers have about growing with and producing regionally grown seeds as well as the challenges they face adding seed production to their already busy farm lives. One of the participating farms, Long Season Farm, will be presenting at the NOFA-NY Winter Conference on producing seeds on a diversified vegetable operation. They continue to grow seeds and are exploring the economic and agricultural benefits of including seed production on their farm.
There is still much research and experimentation needed to create a viable regional seed source and we continue to be one of the main sources of seed and information on the subject.
While we are very pleased with the results- especially in one of the most challenging years to produce seeds- we were actually expecting to discover more disease issues and experiment with organic seed treatments. We were not able to do this as there was only one disease that was present and treatable.
We also feel we tried to to take on too much with this grant. Combining the training program and the disease research was challenging and really felt more like two separate but interrelated explorations. Looking back, this would be a multi-year research grant focusing more specifically on each plant family. Also, some of the plant families we did not investigate- including biennials, brassicas, grains, other legumes, cut flowers, and cover crops all need attention in terms of studying seed quality.
Over the course of the grant interest in regional seed- especially breeding regionally adapted varieties has continued to increase. We feel the next step is a larger variety trials program working with farmers to identify seed breeding needs and further expanding the number of farmers engaged in seed production in our region.
Thank you for the opportunity to start exploring these questions and needs more systematically. We learned so much about Northeast seeds but also about conceptualizing and managing grants. We are planning to apply for a larger grant with our new-found knowledge.