Improving seed quality of Northeast-grown seed: Focus on disease

Project Overview

FNE13-779
Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2013: $14,940.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Ken Greene
Hudson Valley Seed Library

Annual Reports

Information Products

Commodities

  • Fruits: melons
  • Vegetables: beans, broccoli, cucurbits, eggplant, greens (leafy), leeks, onions, parsnips, peas (culinary), peppers, radishes (culinary), rutabagas, sweet corn, tomatoes
  • Additional Plants: herbs, ornamentals

Practices

  • Crop Production: conservation tillage
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension, farmer to farmer, mentoring, networking, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: whole farm planning
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity
  • Pest Management: biological control, cultural control, disease vectors, field monitoring/scouting, genetic resistance, physical control, prevention, row covers (for pests)
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture, permaculture, transitioning to organic
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems

    Proposal summary:

    Seed production in the Northeast has many challenges associated with disease and climate, and strategies and tools used by large seed companies are not useful to regional growers interested in producing smaller lots of seed. The farmer will focus on ten varieties that are currently unavailable as certified organic seed; each variety will also represent a disease-related seed health concern. Outreach will be through a downloadable production manual, conferences, trainings, and workshops.

    This project proposal is part of the Hudson Valley Seed Library’s greater mission of increasing the sustainability, independence, interdependence, and profitability of farms by contributing to the
    viability and creation of a regional seed economy in the Northeast. Seed health and quality is one of the most challenging concerns facing small scale diversified farmers trying to produce seed to save, share, or sell. Many diseases are regionally based and here in the Northeast we have a particularly challenging climate for growing seeds. There is a lack of information specific to seed health that is specific to the Northeast. The types of strategies and tools used by large seed companies are not available or useful to regionally based growers interested in producing smaller lots of seed. For the Northeast, in particular, more work needs to be done to develop strategies for how to grow seeds in our less-than-ideal seed producing environment. This is especially true in the area of diversified organic farms that are not primarily engaged in seed production. As interest in regionally adapted and grown seed continues to rise, seeds of less than ideal quality, with the potential for spreading disease, are reaching farmers and gardeners. More research and education is needed to ensure that anyone interested growing seed in the Northeast does so with the skills required to produce quality seed. Ultimately, this grant will increase the availability of regionally grown and adapted seed while ensuring that small scale seed growers are producing the healthiest seed possible.

    Regional seed production is one of the missing links of creating a sustainable agriculture system for our region. As interest in growing seeds regionally continues to spread, steps need to be taken to ensure that the highest quality seed is being grown, shared, or sold. Because most seed companies consolidate their growing to regions of the country that do not have the disease pressures we have in the Northeast, there is a gap in breeding and research specific to seed health in our region including:

    1. Lack of availability of a greater diversity of certified organic seed varieties.
    2. Lack of regionally grown seed in the Northeast.
    3. Inefficient and expensive to produce seed in the Northeast on a small scale.
    4. Lack of awareness and training on regionally specific seed health challenges.
    5. Lack of testing and treatment of locally grown seeds to ensure high quality seed.
    6. Lack of resources to support diversified farmers who would like to help increase the availability of seed in our region by growing seed.

    Over the last eight years the Hudson Valley Seed Library has learned how to grow seeds in the Northeast on a small diversified farm. Through trial and error, consulting with more experienced growers in other regions, and reviewing literature and web trainings, we’ve developed ways to deal with some of the specific challenges of growing seed in our region.

    The primary concerns / challenges of both current seed growers and potential seed growers are:
    1. Seed quality of locally grown seed compared to seed purchased from large seed companies.
    2. Communication of seed-borne diseases from farm to farm.
    3. Expense of equipment and labor for seed harvesting.
    4. Lack of knowledge / skills for how to grow for seed.
    5. Resources specifically focused on the seed growing needs of our region.
    6. Accurate identification of plant diseases that affect seed health.

    While we cannot address all of these issues with this grant, we can tackle many of them by developing a one year participatory seed growing program focusing on specific varieties, their associated diseases, and creating a Handbook of Seed Health for the Northeast that will include identification, preventative measures, and organic seed treatments. This handbook will serve as a necessary addendum to Rowen White and Brian Connolly’s excellent book, "Breeding Organic Vegetables."

    Project objectives from proposal:

    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.
    General Schedule:
    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.

    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.