Southern Oregon is poised to become a nationally recognized organic vegetable seed growing region with at least fourteen farmers in the area are already selling commercial seed on contract for regional, national and international seed companies. While the climate of Southern Oregon is well-suited to seed production, growing seed is complex and challenging and requires significant training and education. The goal of this project has been to increase the number, capacity and success of organic vegetable seed producers in Southern Oregon in two ways; 1) through a comprehensive seed training program for both beginning and established farmers interested in growing seed and 2) conducting research on the barriers and challenges to developing a regional market for local seed producers.
The Seed Growers Training Cohort (now called “Growing Seed Agripreneurs”) took place at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, which is part of Oregon State University. Ten individuals, many of whom own small farms, attended the course which met weekly on Thursday evenings for 3 hours from April 5th through October 18th, 2018. A 29-class curriculum was developed and presented that covered the planning, field preparation, growing, harvesting and cleaning of seed crops. It included 6 field trips to regional seed farms and collaborated with Rogue Farm Corps on several of the classes and field trips. In addition, the members of the cohort created and managed a seed garden on the Teaching Farm for a hands-on learning experience. One-third of an acre was planted to various crops for seed harvest including lettuce, onion, tomato, pepper, bok choi, basil, cosmos, zinnia, beans and radish. All seed crops were harvested, threshed and cleaned by the course participants.
Two half-day workshops on seed harvesting and cleaning techniques were held at Chickadee Farm (8/30/18 and 9/30/18) and open to anyone interested in seed production. Total attendance was 34 and four commercial seed growers helped teach one class and participated in a Q&A panel.
For the research into the barriers and challenges to developing a regional market for local seed producers, contact has been made with both seed producers and produce farmers (seed buyers) to solicit their opinions on the subject. After working to organize a gathering of farmers on the subject and encountering scheduling and commitment challenges, it was deemed more effective to solicit the information through individual phone calls. A formal survey for broader distribution is being developed and will be sent out soon.
Seed trials to compare the performance of local varieties next to commonly used varieties are planned and will be planted this spring. Both seed producers and produce farmers (seed buyers) will contribute either seed or input on the varieties to include on the trials. Vegetable producers will be invited to attend a field day in June to observe the variety trials, sample the produce and discuss the results of the trials. Research findings will be used to problem-solve and determine ways to better connect local seed growers with regional fresh market producers. Results of the trials will be documented in a 2-page publication and distributed to regional producers, presented at three conferences and posted on two University websites.
This project will increase the number, capacity and success of organic vegetable seed producers in Southern Oregon through the following objectives:
- Train 10 beginning seed farmers through the Seed Growers Training Cohort, to be held at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center (SOREC) in Central Point Oregon on the 1 acre organic Teaching Farm. The Training Cohort will be seven months long and include the following components:
- 3 hours of weekly field hours, working alongside Seed Training Coodinator and other Cohort members. The 1 acre teaching farm will be planted out to approximately ten different vegetable seed crops, as well as seed variety trials. (April-October 2018)
- Monthly three-hour classes taught by Extension specialists on the following topics: Soil Fertility Management; Irrigation; Integrated Pest Management; Seed Breeding; and Business 101. Class instructors will provide publications and resources. (April-October 2018)
- Monthly tours of participating seed farmers including Seven Seeds Farm, Dancing Bear Farm, Wandering Fields, Wolf Gulch Farm and White Oak Farm. Tours will highlight the following seed production activities: Planting for Isolation between plant families; Rogueing off-types and Seed Selection; Seed Harvesting; Seed Cleaning and Threshing; Contracting with Seed Companies; and Breeding New Varieties. (April-October 2018)
- At the SOREC Teaching Farm, conduct one workshop demonstrating seed harvesting and cleaning techniques open to area seed producers and the public. 40 producers will attend. (September 2018)
- Develop local markets for Southern Oregon Seed Producers
- Contact 10 commercial vegetable producers to discover challenges and barriers to purchasing seed from regional seed producers.
- Survey 50 vegetable producers in Jackson, Josephine, Klamath and Douglas counties of Southern Oregon to discover challenges and barriers to purchasing seed from regional seed producers.
- At the Teaching Farm, trial seed varieties from five participating seed producers (chard from Seven Seeds Farm, corn from Lupin Knoll Farm, onions from Wolf Gulch Farm, parsnips from Wandering Fields, winter squash from Dancing Bear farm and lettuce from White Oak Farm) alongside the varieties most commonly used by Southern Oregon vegetable producers. Trialing will consist of planting 25 foot beds of four comparable varieties and compare plant vigor, disease pressure, and yields. (April-November 2018)
- Conduct two field days for 50 vegetable producers (100 total) in Jackson, Jospehine, Klamath and Douglas counties showcasing the variety trials during the late spring and early fall. (June 2018 and September 2018)
- Produce one-page publication detailing results from the trials which will be distributed to Southern Oregon producers and posted at the SOREC and Southern Oregon Seed Growers Association websites.
The research component of this project is to determine the barriers and challenges to developing a regional market for local seed producers. This is being done through recording the views and opinions of regional seed buyers on seed selection and purchasing. This is being accomplished through individual phone calls and an online survey.
In addition, a variety trial is being planted to compare the performance of local varieties next to commonly used varieties from national retailers. Input for varieties in the trial, for both the local and national entries, is being solicited from local farmers through phone calls and emails.
Results are yet to be determined. A summary of seed buying preferences and the barriers to local seed use is awaiting input from more growers. The variety trials will be planted this spring and will be ready to evaluate in mid-summer.
The variety trials were begun in 2018 but results were poor so they are being redone in 2019. Challenges included poor germination and pest pressures. These challenges are being directly addressed and we are looking forward to a successful trial this spring.
Educational & Outreach Activities
The activities indicated above include 1) the “Growing Seed Agripreneurs” program, 2) a “Seed Cleaning and Equipment Workshop” and 3) outreach to local farmers for the research aspect of this program.
The “Growing Seed Agripreneurs” program was a 29-week course for aspiring seed growers that was held at OSU SOREC from April 5th through October 18th, 2018. Participants met every Thursday evening for three hours for both a lecture/discussion on seed production as well as hands-on time in the Teaching Garden learning and working with the seed and variety trial garden. In addition, the class went on 6 field trips to local seed-producing farms. The “Growing Seed Agripreneurs” program course schedule and curriculum can be viewed here. 10 people enrolled in the program and weekly attendance averaged between 6-8 people. Seed crops grown and harvested by participants in the Teaching Garden included lettuce, onion, tomato, pepper, bok choi, basil, cosmos, zinnia, beans and radish. Participants observed each crop from planting through harvest with attention focused on the seed producing aspects of each crop including modified spacing, plant supports, flowering habits, fruit/seed set and timing of harvest. All crop were threshed and the seed cleaned by participants as well. Seed was distributed among participants at the end of the course.
The “Seed Cleaning and Equipment Workshop” was held at Chickadee Farm in Talent Oregon and was repeated twice, once on 8/30/18 and again on 9/30/18. 24 attendees came to the 8/30 workshop and another 15 attended the 9/30 workshop for a total of 34 attendees. The workshop demonstrated the seed cleaning equipment used at Chickadee Farm including a modified portable thresher, scalping table, plot combine, winnow wizard and a clipper air-screen machine. The second workshop also included a guest panel of 4 local seed farmers to answer participant questions. Participant feedback was very positive for both workshops.
Finally, 5 seed producers and 5 produce farmer/seed buyers have been interviewed for the research component of this project.
An evaluation survey was conducted for graduates of the 'Growing Seed Agripreneurs' course and the results can be viewed in the outcomes section of this report. 7 of the 10 participants completed the survey and all 7 reported increased skills and knowledge on the topic of seed production. The course included 23 lectures on various seed-production related topics, hands-on seed production in the Teaching Garden and field trips to local seed-producing farms. The course schedule is attached.
Several course participants reported currently working on incorporating new or increased seed production and sales into their small farm operations.
Seed threshing and cleaning techniques and equipment:
While a formal evaluation survey was not conducted, verbal feedback from participants at the two workshops held at Chickadee Farm was very positive. Participants were strongly engaged and appreciative of both the demonstrations and the grower Q&A panel. The 35 participants are not represented in the above count as we did not formally evaluate them.
Of the project’s two main components, one is completed and one will be conducted in spring 2019. The completed portion of this project is the comprehensive seed training program for both beginning and established farmers interested in growing seed.
All participants in the seed training program verbally reported increasing their skills and knowledge on seed production and seven of them indicated so on the end-of-course evaluation (the evaluation results can be viewed here). Of the participants, four reported starting or increasing their commercial production of seed and two others reported their interest in doing so in the future. The other four participants all indicated a likelihood to start, continue or increase non-commercial seed production. There was also strong interest shown by all in plant breeding and regional varietal adaptation. All participants showed a continued commitment to organic agriculture and the course provided them with new strategies to manage seed production organically including organic soil, weed, pest and disease management.
The seed threshing and cleaning workshop that was held as part of this course yet open to the public had a strong showing of local growers who were engaged in learning what tools, equipment and strategies they would need to incorporate organic commercial specialty seed production into their operations. Unfortunately we did not survey participants but verbal feedback indicated this information was very well received and would likely encourage some participants to start or increase their own seed production.
These results of this course and workshops will likely contribute to agricultural sustainability through 1) an increased number of organic seed producers, 2) seed producers being more efficient and profitable and 3) an increased number of growers adapting varieties to their local conditions.
Outcomes of the research component are yet to be determined.
While the overall results of the educational course were positive, we did realize potential improvements. Aspects contributing to the success of the seed training course were:
- The combination of classroom presentations with hands-on activities and tours of production farms.
- The opportunity for group discussions after each presentation.
- The practical experience of the instructor and his sharing of that experience.
Aspects that would be improved in the future include:
- Because many farmers who could not attend a 7 month long weekly course, a series of shorter course or workshops could have better accommodated their time availability.
- Course participants varied in their previous experience and splitting beginner-level information and advanced-level information into separate courses would enable advanced participants the option of skipping the beginning-level instruction.
- If the course were to be split into several components, moving some or all of the hands-on component to an existing seed production farm would eliminate the need to create a demonstration garden and yet still provide participants with the valuable in-field experience while better demonstrating aspects of seed production on a commercial scale.
As the research component of this project is conducted this spring, we will assess our approach and look for it’s strengths and weaknesses.