Enhancing Seed Production of Regionally Adapted Crops in the Southeastern Farmer Seed System

Progress report for LS19-315

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2019: $310,537.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2022
Grant Recipient: University of Florida
Region: Southern
State: Florida
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Hector Perez
University of Florida
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Project Information

Abstract:

Seeds represent the fundamental basis of agricultural productivity and secure food systems. Farmers depend on an array of seed producers to provide the planting materials necessary for meeting the food, fuel, fiber, natural resource conservation and plant-based aesthetics demands of the United States. However, seed production in the U.S. occurs predominantly outside of the Southeastern region. Seed availability is often limited to protected varieties displaying broad adaptability and national or global acceptance. These varieties often require substantial inputs to maintain long-term productivity. Alternatively, a sustainable agricultural system seeks to provide affordable, high-quality, regionally appropriate seeds from diverse crops.

The Southeastern region lacks significant seed production, seed research, and varietal improvement when compared to other regions of the country. Yet significant demand exists in the Southeastern region for increased seed production of regionally adapted varieties and research leading to improved seed production practices. Here, we propose a systems-based research project informed and participated in by Southeastern farmers.

The project addresses principal barriers to entry into seed production markets: 1. Producing and maintaining high quality seeds in hot, humid environments and 2. Decision-making factors that determine whether farmers are likely to adopt novel yet established practices and technologies. Our robust outreach component consisting of farmer managed on-farm trials and field days, educational sessions via the Southern Seed School in a Day platform, networking at farmer-based conferences, and accessible online learning tools will share results and practices throughout the Southeastern region.

We expect our project will enhance Southeastern farmer seed systems by: Enabling small and medium sized farmers to control and improve seed production and storage, identify potential barriers that limit adoption of new seed production technology and practices, improving potential profitability through seed production, educating limited resource farmers throughout the region on new seed production methods, and contributing the ongoing efforts to establish a Southeastern seed network.

Our project can increase sustainability in several ways. First, farmers with knowledge of new seed production practices can apply this to many emerging crop varieties thereby promoting crop diversification. In fact, the most fundamental ability to produce high quality seeds in the Southeast opens itself to a broad range of possibilities for plant breeding, varietal trials, expanded production, and exploration of unique markets and potentially profitable crop, forage, and edible culinary seeds. Second, we promote farmer success by exposing them to prove technologies that maintain high seed quality throughout the seed production chain. Third, by incorporating farmer managed on-farm trials we provide site specific information related to stand establishment and seedling vigor of previously treated seeds. This type of trial structure considers real world variability in production systems, which is of paramount importance given the hot, humid conditions and excessively drained, nutrient-poor, sandy soils of the Southeastern coastal plain. Fourth, farmers can expand use of regionally adapted varieties and, in turn, reduce the need for intensive inputs. Finally, farmers can apply new methods that reduce post-harvest seed losses to a variety of crops in their systems.

Project Objectives:

Our main objective is to examine the feasibility of applying scalable, cost-conscious seed production technologies that maintain high seed quality.

  • Assess relationships between fruit/seed phenology and physiological aspects of seed development to identify harvest timing thresholds for maintenance of seed quality.
  • Compare dessicant-based drying technologies that maintain quality of crop seeds produced in warm, humid environments.
  • Develop a socio-ecological model of farmer decision-making that accounts for the roles of economic factors, farmer expertise, known and unknown risks, and potential benefits.
  • Perform quantitative economic and risk analyses that examine the economic feasibility of new production methods for selected crop seeds.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Terry Zinn - Producer (Educator and Researcher)
  • Cody Galligan - Producer (Educator and Researcher)
  • Jordan Brown - Producer (Educator and Researcher)
  • James Longanecker - Producer (Educator and Researcher)

Research

Materials and methods:

Our farmer partners suggested three annual crops (Brassica rapa L. ‘Yukina Savoy’ [Brassicaceae], Cucurbita moschata ‘Bellevue Butternut’ [Cucurbitaceae], and Vigna unguiculata ‘Purple Hull’ [Fabaceae]) and one perennial wildflower Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa L.) for planting. Annual crops were planted in three farms located in Gainesville (Siembra Farm, The Family Garden, and University of Florida Field & Fork Farm) and the perennial crop was grown at Wildflowers of Florida in Alachua. Farmers participated actively in the project. Soil samples from each farm were sent to UF/IFAS Analytical Services Laboratories in Gainesville, for test on amount of Ca, Cu, Fe, K, Mg, Mn, P, N, Zn, and organic matter, and provided to farmers to make their own decisions based on results. Farmers performed agricultural practices such as soil preparation, irrigation, fertilization, plant disease and insect prevention, and harvesting based on their own criteria. 

Objective 1: Assess relationships between fruit/seed phenology and physiological aspects of seed development to identify harvest timing thresholds for maintenance of seed quality.

Objective 2: Compare desiccant-based drying technologies that maintain quality of crop seeds produced in warm, humid environments.

Experiment 1 consists of examining seed deterioration in non-climate-controlled storage. We will store cleaned seeds from selected crops in closed paper bags within a barn. We will monitor relative humidity and temperature at seed level with data loggers. We will collect random lots of 100 seeds after 1, 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21 and 24 months then subject these to standard germination tests at 25°C.

Experiment 2 uses lab-based germination tests to compare the efficacy of different desiccant based drying systems and maintenance of seed viability under dry conditions. Treatments consist of: two types of desiccants (silica gel or zeolite drying beads); two storage equilibrium relative humidity values (35 and 15% RH); two storage temperatures (25 and 5°C); and 10 storage durations (0, 28, 84, 168, 252, 336, 420, 504, 588 and 672 days).

Objective 3: Develop a socio-ecological model of farmer decision-making that accounts for the roles of economic factors, farmer expertise, known and unknown risks, and potential benefits.

Objective 4: Perform quantitative economic and risk analyses that examine the economic feasibility of new production methods for selected crop seeds.

Research results and discussion:

Prolonged campus lock downs, work from home mandates, and travel restrictions due to the COVID 19 pandemic significantly impaired our ability to conduct research. We adapted to these conditions to the extent possible.

Objective 1: Assess relationships between fruit/seed phenology and physiological aspects of seed development to identify harvest timing thresholds for maintenance of seed quality.

Seed Development StudyFlowers from each crop were tagged at peak anthesis and fruit/seeds harvested at four subsequent time points referred to as days after anthesis (DAA). For instance, Yukina Savoy, Bellevue Butternut squash, and Purple Hull cowpeas had four harvest periods at approxiamtely 10, 20, 30, and 40 DAA; but Milkweed was grouped in 20-29, 30-39, 40-49, and 50-59 DAA. Harvest of Yukina Savoy seeds at predetermined times was interrupted due to Covid19 lockdown but, we were able to bulk harvest mature seeds  from each farm. Availability of developing seeds was limited for Bellevue Butternut, Purple Hull cowpeas, and Milkweed due to logistical complications associated with conducting field research during the pandemic. We will double the amount of flower tagging for these crops during the 2021 field production season. 

We were able to conduct some lab-based developmental studies with available seeds from squash, cowpeas, and milkweed. For instance, water content and water potential of squash seeds decreased to 12.4% and -97 MPa, respectively, during development. This indicates that seeds are most likely desiccation tolerant. Seeds of cowpea and squash gain the ability to germinate about mid-way through the developmental program. Seeds of neither crop display dormancy and germination capacity is high > 85%. Alternatively, seeds of milkweed most likely possess non-deep physiological dormancy. Seeds of milkweed also preferentially germinate at alternating rather than constant temperatures.

Mature seeds of Yukina Savoy germinate rapidly (50 % in 3 days), uniformly, and to a high percentage (>95 %) at 25 °C regardless of the farm on which seeds were produced.

Objective 2: Compare desiccant-based drying technologies that maintain quality of crop seeds produced in warm, humid environments.

Experiment 1 Seed DeteriorationWe were able to set up seed deterioration experiments with mature seeds of Yukina Savoy harvested from each farm. We stored seeds in three different environments, room temperature (23°C), fridge (11°C), and a non-climate controlled barn. Germination tests at 1-, 3-, and 6-month periods of storage already took place in the lab and in the greenhouse. Nine, 12, 15-, 18-, 24-, and 30-month periods are to follow during 2021 and 2022. We harvested enough seed of Bellevue butternut at UF Field & Fork to evaluate seed deterioration stored at room temperature (23°C) and at the barn at Grow Hub. Germination test after 6-month storage period was performed in the lab (incubator at 25°C) and greenhouse, and 18, 24, and 30-month will follow in 2021 and 2022.

Yukina Savoy seeds exhibit high germination capacity across the first 6 months regardless of storage conditions when tested in an incubator at optimal temperature. However, seeds stored in the barn and germinated in liner trays within a greenhouse are starting to show some deterioration of germination capacity (Fig 1).  This implies that controlled storage conditions are necessary to maintain higher seed quality.

graph showing germination after storage
Figure 1. Germination of Yukina Savoy seeds after storage in a refrigerator (black bars), climate-controlled laboratory room (grey bars), or non-climate controlled barn (white bars) for 1, 3, or 6 months. Data to the right and left of the dashed blue line indicate germination tests performed within incubators and liner trays within a greenhouse, respectively.

Alternatively, seeds of Bellevue Butternut squash maintained germination capacity equivalent to initial germination (95%) after 6 months of storage in the barn regardless of whether germination was tested in an incubator (95%) or greenhouse (98%). These early findings suggest that selected crops will display variable responses to deterioration.

Objective 3: Develop a socio-ecological model of farmer decision-making that accounts for the roles of economic factors, farmer expertise, known and unknown risks, and potential benefits.

 Past project activities (Year 1)

  • We developed a set of questionnaires to evaluate and identify Florida farmers’ barriers and opportunities to directly participate in the seed production system (i.e., growing, sale, distribution, and/or trade). The questionnaires have been designed to target three main groups: seed producers, farmers interested in seed production, and agricultural educators/crop consultants.
  • We developed focus group protocols. We used these instruments during our first meeting with the Production Expert Panel (PEP).
  • For the aforementioned activities that involved human subject research, we completed the UF Institutional Review Board application process and obtained approval to conduct research (IRB #: 201802239).

Project planning activities (Year 2)

  • We will administer a set of questionnaires to seed producers, growers interested in adding seed production as an enterprise to their production system, and agricultural educators/crop consultants. We anticipate obtaining at least 200 responses.
  • We will conduct 10 semi-structured interviews with farmers interested in seed production. Results from the seed production questionnaires will inform the protocol development for this activity.
  • We will cognitively test the interview protocols with the project’s partners (cooperating farmers).

Objective 4: Perform quantitative economic and risk analyses that examine the economic feasibility of new production methods for selected crop seeds.

 Past project activities (Year 1)

Project planning activities (Year 2)

  • Based on the feedback obtained in the cognitive testing phase, we will modify the budget template.
  • We plan to start collecting economic data related to seed production in all four of the cooperating farms.
Participation Summary
5 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
2 Workshop field days
1 Created webpage that includes project objectives, activities, photos, and team members.

Participation Summary

12 Farmers
4 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Past project activities (Year 1)

  • We recruited a diverse panel of eight growers to serve in the Production Expert Panel (PEP) for this project. We recruited these experts based on needed technical expertise and prior experience with production systems and/or extension engagement in seed improvement, saving, and preservation. The PEP governs the project through biannual facilitated meetings and evaluations. The PEPis empowered to make decisions to ensure that the research continues to address critical grower needs and opportunities and to provide us with continuous assessment of our progress toward project goals, with recommendations for making adjustments that may improve performance over the life of the project.
  • We held the first PEP meeting on January 20, 2021 (1:00-3:00 p.m.). During this session, experts provided feedback and calibration for the seed production survey.
  • Members of the research team co-authored a technical publication Basic Seed Saving describing important information to be considered when deciding to save seeds from vegetable crops. This publication is currently under review and will be published in the UF Electronic Data Information Source (EDIS) portal.
  • We held an in-person team gathering/retreat on Wednesday, October 14, 2020. UF approved this in-person activity, and participants followed COVID-19 guidance provided by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The purpose of the retreat was for the research team to provide an update on activities progress and the project’s next step. Also, we asked farmers to describe lessons learned during the first year of the project.
  • We created a webpage that includes the project’s objectives, activities, photos, and team members. Website link:https://floridafoodandag.com/new-home/enhancing-seed-production-of-regionally-adapted-crops). The website is housed at the Center for Sustainable and Organic Food Systems’ main webpage.

 

Project planning activities (Year 2)

  • We plan to conduct a field day in the Fall of 2021. The field days are intended to attract regional growers that visit our field trials. Participants will learn about our research, seed production, and perspective on what we are doing. Field days will run about 3-4 hours. This includes an introduction to the field site, input and evaluation of the trials, (i.e., stand establishments, vigor, seed maturity), lunch, and a discussion workshop.
  • We will hold a PEP meeting in the Fall of 2021. During the meeting, we will present a report on the progress of activities, and request feedback and calibration for interview protocols.

Learning Outcomes

8 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation

Project Outcomes

2 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Our project will contribute to sustainability for southeastern farmers by matching market requirements and economic decision-making factors to production methods that augment physiological seed quality for limited resource farmers growing regionally-adapted crops in warm, humid conditions. This represents a fundamental building block for establishing a regional seed system.

Our project will improve farm profitability by: 1) providing farmers with more control over seed availability and varietal selection – farmers can create inventories of high-quality seeds to offset shortages and substitutions from seed companies, improve crop production timing, and secure seeds that they continually need; 2) integrating seed physiology research with economic analyses and risk assessments to better understand how farmers can apply proven seed production methods and new technologies; 3) reducing seed market entry risks for new or existing farmers – our economic and risk assessment models act as a driver for the seed production methods and technologies farmers decide to implement; 4) creating potential additional revenue through seed production; 5) bolstering marketing to customers who demand local or regional crops that stand out compared to regular varieties (e.g. restaurants, farmer’s markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members); and 6) offering cost savings to farmers producing some of their own seeds.

Our project will sustain and improve the environmental quality and natural resource base on which agriculture depends by: 1) reducing the need for intensive crop production inputs – farmers expand use of varieties attuned to local conditions; 2) advancing the use of non-toxic, re-usable, energy-efficient drying technologies (e.g. ceramic drying beads known as zeolites); 3) shrinking the use of pesticides – farmers use drying technologies, rather than chemical controls, that prevent pathogen and pest activity in stored seed lots;  and 4) promoting crop diversification – farmers expand the pool of crop genetic resources available via seed farming of heritage or regionally adapted crops and gain seed production knowledge applicable to many emerging varieties.

Our project will enhance the quality of life for farmers, communities and society by: 1) addressing the needs and promoting success of farmers – farmers inform our research plan, identify potential barriers to technology adoption, and receive foundational knowledge regarding advanced seed production methods; 2) increasing food security – farmers apply methods across crops that reduce post-harvest seed losses due to high humidity, while helping inform and adopt seed production methods for the very foundation of a sustainable food system; and 3) expanding food choices – farmers produce an assortment of crops, from high-quality stored seed lots, that address changing consumer preferences.

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.