Training Small Farmers for Commercial Seed Production while Exploring Profitability of Annual Vegetable Seed Crops in West Virginia

Progress report for ONE21-403

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2021: $16,996.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2022
Grant Recipient: West Virginia University
Region: Northeast
State: West Virginia
Project Leader:
Dr. Mehmet Oztan
West Virginia University
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Project Information

Project Objectives:

While I have been working with farmers to establish commercial seed market in the state since 2019, this will be the first time I will work one-on-one with farmers on the field tasks related to seed production.

This project aims to:

  • Train the partner farmers to grow and maintain selected seed crops of tomato, pepper, bean, squash, lettuce and arugula in open-field and tunnel conditions;
  • Train the partner farmers to produce high quality seeds that meet the minimum federal seed germination requirements and commercial seed standards;
  • Train the partner farmers to evaluate the seed yield of each crop for profitability;
  • Walk the partner farmers through the successful completion of commercial seed production contracts and development of seed enterprise budget;
  • Improve the productivity of the partner farmers and the economic viability of their farms through increasing land use by commercial seed production as a financial incentive;
  • Educate the partner farmers to steward regionally-adapted heirloom seed varieties, carry on the cultural and agricultural traditions associated with seeds, and engage other farmers in their network for growing seeds; and
  • Reach out to more small farmers, via workshops, visual materials, Zoom presentation, seed growers’ manual, and social media, who would be interested in growing seeds, to assess their needs and answer their questions.
Introduction:

In early 2021, I distributed an online needs assessment survey (attached to my proposal) to WV’s small farmers to better understand the needs of and evaluate the interest among the state’s small farmers to grow seeds as an economic opportunity. I asked the 24 respondents why they never explored growing commercial seeds. Among the 17 people who answered this question, 13 of them said that they were not aware of this economic opportunity, they didn’t have the network to connect them with seed companies, or they don’t have the resources/training needed. Most importantly, 18 out of 24 farmers expressed interest in growing seeds for the commercial seed market that would also advance their sustainable farming practices.

The farmers’ responses are consistent with the observations I have made since arriving in WV in 2018. In a conversation with April Koenig, co-owner of Gaea Farm (Lindside, WV) and the executive director of Sprouting Farms (Talcott, WV), she stated that “Seed saving and generally more regenerative practices are definitely part of the direction we are looking to go with our practices. We are trying to figure out how we can produce higher volume and quality farm products.” Encouraged by Koenig’s statement, in 2020, I remotely did a pilot study with two farms in the state, to grow tomato and bean seeds for our seed company’s catalog. This study generated an income of $900 for the farmers while allowing them to also save seeds, a new skill that will help them advance their sustainable farming practices, preserve regionally-adapted seeds, reduce their dependence on hybrid seeds, and decrease their overhead costs.

In our pilot study, I identified the problems that reduced the quality of the seeds that farmers delivered to us. These problems include low seed yields, lower-than-ideal germination rates, moldy seeds, seeds that weren’t clean, and problems with packaging for delivery; these issues require training to be resolved. Farmers also need help in identifying which crops can potentially be more profitable and how they can improve seed yields without changing the production scale.

There is a growing interest in the retail seed market nationwide (Mordor Intelligence, 2018; National Gardening Association, 2014). The value of the seed market was $717.6 million in 2017, and forecasted to reach $827.4 million in 2024. Furthermore, vegetable seed category is predicted to be the fastest growing (Mordor Intelligence, 2018). In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic increased nationwide awareness about how important seeds are to maintain food security. This awareness reflected on seed sales of small seed companies across the U.S. Since spring 2020, small seed companies have seen an increased number of orders. This growing demand for seeds also increased the demand for seed growers. We can take advantage of this by training seed growers in West Virginia to grow commercial seed.

This project will help me train the partner farmers in growing and harvesting high quality seeds for a variety of annual vegetable seed crops, improve farmers’ use of land, and analyze the profitability of commercial seed crops.

Cooperators

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Research

Materials and methods:

January 2022 report:

I met and discussed with all partner farmers about the project proposal to plan for the next steps and project tasks.

Sprouting Farms in Talcott, WV, purchases fertilizer and lime in bulk before every growing season from sources outside the state for the farmers they incubate on their farm. We don't have any commercial sources of organic fertilizer available in bulk quantities in West Virginia. Hence, using the grant funds, we will purchase the fertilizer and lime the partner farmers need for this project from Sprouting Farms at cost. Partner farmer Silas Childs is located in Morgantown. In collaboration with Turnrow Appalachian Farm Collective, Sprouting Farms sends produce trucks to a variety of locations in the Collective's network. We will have the fertilizer and lime Childs needs delivered to him in one of these trucks at the time of a pre-scheduled produce delivery. April and Doug Koenig and Tamara Eskridge will pick up the fertilizer and lime available in Sprouting Farms' storage.

Farmers will start their lettuce seeds, soon, and plant other seeds I identified as the season progresses. Our planting schedule is on track. As we keep communicating about project tasks, we will also plan for field trips for the workshops I will hold on farm locations.

April and Doug Koenig told me that they may have a tunnel ready to use on their farm (Gaea Farm), soon. If this happens early enough in the season, we may use their tunnel for seed production purposes in addition to the open-field growing we originally planned for.

Silas Childs reported that in 2022 he will not be able to attend overnight trips to Southern WV due to his current personal commitments. I will still travel to Lindside and Talcott to work with other farmers while I will also work with Childs in Morgantown and keep him informed about the results of my work with other farmers.

Materials and Methods from 2021 Proposal:

Project activities will be conducted at three different locations:

  • Gaea Farm co-owned by April and Doug Koenig (Lindside, WV). Project activities will be carried out on two rows, one 50 ft and one 450 ft (open field).
  • High tunnel leased by Tamara Eskridge on Sprouting Farms (Talcott, WV). Project activities will be carried out in a 22.5x100 ft high tunnel.
  • ¼ acre of farmland leased by Silas Child (Morgantown, WV). Three rows of 180 ft each will be dedicated to project activities (open field).

We will carry out all project activities in plant hardiness Zone 6. We will focus on a low-input system that prioritizes maintaining plant vigor and maximizes seed yields and profitability per planting space for open-pollinated tomato, pepper, squash, bean, arugula and lettuce crops.

Seeds that will be grown for this project were identified based on their cultural significance as heirloom seeds in West Virginia and Appalachia, their popularity among home gardeners and small farmers, and seed company data. Tomato, pepper, and squash seeds are among the top-selling seeds for companies across the country, including Two Seeds in a Pod. Arugula and lettuce are among the top-selling greens seeds for companies such as Siskiyou Seeds (OR), True Love Seeds (PA) and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (VA). Beans are low-input crops that are becoming more popular among gardeners and farmers, due to their high protein content, capacity for canning and easiness to grow. Arugula and lettuce seeds will be purchased from reliable commercial sources, and I will provide all other seeds.

Farmers will plant the pepper, tomato, and lettuce seeds indoors in seed starting soil. The same product will be used to pot up the seedlings until they reach the transplanting stage. Squash, bean, and arugula will be direct-seeded.

Each farmer will plant crops in total irrigated row lengths of 500 ft. Row lengths are chosen to maintain the genetic diversity of each crop while keeping the production scale at a small scale so that the farmers can analyze the profitability of these seed crops. This will help them identify which future seed crops they would prefer to grow at a larger scale and which crops to eliminate from their growing plans. Each of the farmers will grow some combination of the seeds listed below, based on their growing conditions (i.e. tunnel vs open field):

  • Two lettuce (one Romaine, one Batavian type) varieties for each farmer, 50ft each;
  • One bush-type summer squash for tunnel production, one vining summer squash and one vining winter squash for field production, one variety for each farmer, 100ft each;
  • Arugula, 100ft each;
  • One pepper variety for each farmer, 50 ft each;
  • One tomato variety for each farmer, 50 ft each; and
  • One bush-type, one pole-type bean variety for each farmer, 50 ft each.

Seed quality and yield depend on various parameters including soil health, type and quantity of fertilizer used, watering scheme, and weeding frequency. Soil samples will be sent to WVU Extension Service’s soil lab for testing pH and soil fertility. Based on the test results, pelletized lime will be applied to adjust soil pH, and pelletized organic fertilizer will be applied to the planting rows when the soil is workable. Rows will also be side-dressed with fertilizer later in the season to improve fruit and seed yield.

In conjunction with a conservative watering schedule and manual weeding throughout the growing season, hay will be used to heavily mulch around the plants to reduce the need for watering, suppress weeds, decrease disease pressure, and improve seed yields. If necessary, organic pesticide and fungicide will be used to maintain plant health. 

Plants for each crop will be spaced out based on the spacing needs of each crop, and rows will be spaced 4-5 ft from each other. Tomatoes will be trellised using the Florida weaving method, peppers will be staked, and beans will be trellised with trellis net. Plants won’t be pruned unless there is a need to improve air circulation around their canopies.

Plants in the same species will be isolated by distance to eliminate cross-pollination. I will show the farmers how to hand-pollinate, and mark and bag the squash fruits for isolation. I will also talk to them about the importance of removing plants with undesirable characteristics (i.e. rouging) to improve seed quality.

A combination of dry and wet seed harvest methods will be used for tomatoes, peppers and squash whereas dry seed harvest method will be used for beans, arugula, and lettuce. The fermentation method is commonly used in organic seed production from fruiting crops, and provides clean seeds free from fruit debris. The dry seed harvest method consists of steps such as threshing, chaffing and winnowing seeds.

Farmers will take detailed notes regarding their labor, material used, plant growth habits, disease resistance, days to fruit/seed maturity, and average fruit/seed yields. We will take photographs and record video clips documenting the work we will do at the workshops. Specifically, the seed yield data combined with labor and materials required for each crop will be important factors for the farmers to assess which crops are more profitable for them to grow. Partner farmers will also keep track of how much fresh produce they can harvest from the seed crops to make a comparison between potential income from produce vs seeds they harvest to sell. I will also discuss with farmers strategies for improving seed yields.

Our company has the equipment (e.g. hand screens, box fans etc.) needed to process seeds. I will take this equipment with me to workshop locations to demonstrate how the farmers can produce high volumes of seeds using simple equipment.

Silas Childs will be farming within commutable distance to our farm in Reedsville. I will visit him several times throughout the growing season to assist him with the project tasks. I will also take him with me to the workshop locations in the south (Lindside and Talcott) so that he can observe other farmers’ progress and network with them. In addition, many farmers go through apprenticeship programs on Sprouting Farms in growing season. These programs help them learn many skills from learning how-to-grow fresh produce to marketing produce. Prior to the workshops at Sprouting Farms, I will talk to April Koenig to invite these farmers to join the workshops I will be leading to benefit more farmers from the educational aspects of this project.

Overall, I will travel to the partner farms four times throughout the growing season to teach them the topics and assist them with the tasks given below:

  • Identifying significance of heirloom and open-pollinated seeds, ethical seed stewardship, and saving seeds;
  • Identifying seed yields and analyzing economics of commercial seed production, making seed enterprise budget, and fulfilling seed contracts from growing to germination tests to delivering seeds;
  • Maintaining plants according to seed production plans;
  • Following farmers’ progress through on-farm assessment of the seed crops; and
  • Assisting with wet and dry seed harvest methods to ensure high seed quality and germination rates.

In addition, I will communicate with the partner farmers via internet and phone to answer their questions and give feedback in the project’s pre-planning stages and throughout the growing season.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Partner farmers April and Douglas Koenig of Gaea Farm (Lindside, WV) are also the executive director and farm manager, respectively, of Sprouting Farms located in Talcott, WV. Sprouting Farms is a non-profit organization that seeks to develop new and existing farm businesses and increase local food production in the Greenbrier Valley by laying the groundwork for sustainable farm businesses. Sprouting Farms has over 150 farmers in its network across West Virginia. I will work with April and Douglas Koenig to reach to more farmers through Sprouting Farms’ network. Prior to visiting Sprouting Farms, I will make arrangements to have the farmers in this non-profit organization’s network to join us for the workshops.

In September 2022, I will travel to Sprouting Farms to give a presentation to the farmers in the Sprouting Farms’ network and the farmers who lease tunnels on the farm. The presentation will demonstrate the steps partner farmers followed to accomplish the tasks related to growing seed crops, on-farm assessment of seed yields and quality, and seed harvest and economic benefits of growing seeds, and will engage additional farmers who would like to be involved with growing seeds in future years. I will also distribute a survey to the attendees of this presentation to further assess the interest among these farmers to grow seeds.

I previously prepared a seed grower’s manual (attached to this proposal) that addresses many questions of beginner-level seed growers about commercial seed production. I will add a separate section on growing seeds in WV to help the prospective seed growers, based on my experiences with this project, partner farmers’ input, and other farmers’ questions. I will use the photographs taken during workshops in the manual, and will disseminate the clips recorded during the workshops online for farmers’ professional development. I will also organize a Zoom presentation (with partner farmers) in Fall 2022 to answer the questions from the farmers who couldn’t attend previous workshop or presentation sessions. 

I will collaborate with partner farmers to use our social media accounts on Facebook and Instagram to post our progress throughout the project, to make event announcements, and to reach out to more farmers in the state who may be interested in growing seeds.

There is a growing demand from home gardeners and small farmers in the state to purchase seeds grown regionally. I plan to continue to work with the partner farmers and other interested farmers to have them grow seeds for Two Seeds in a Pod’s catalog on an annual basis to meet the demand for regionally-grown seeds. I will also introduce the partner farmers to my network of seed companies outside West Virginia for future collaborative commercial seed production assignments, also known as "shared grow-outs."

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.