Growing a Regional Seed Producers network in the Rogue Valley, Oregon

Project Overview

FW15-018
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2015: $23,203.00
Projected End Date: 11/09/2018
Grant Recipient: Southern Oregon Seed Growers Association
Region: Western
State: Oregon
Principal Investigator:
Eric George
Southern Oregon Seed Growers Association

Annual Reports

Commodities

  • Vegetables: Vegetable seed: many species and varieties
  • Additional Plants: Herb and flower seed: many species and varieties

Practices

  • Crop Production: plant breeding and genetics, organic seed production
  • Education and Training: demonstration, farmer to farmer, mentoring, networking, on-farm/ranch research, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: Seed post-harvest systems economics
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture
  • Sustainable Communities: quality of life, social capital, social networks

    Summary:

    Roll-out of our SOSGA project programming was smooth in general, although in the first phase of this project we also hit a few small obstacles during implementation.  Each of those served to teach us things and to better our programs, which should be attributed to the sound leadership and the many friendships within our group.  The necessity of making changes to our plan and budget helped us to gain increasing experience functioning as a team, and showed us early on us how agile we can be in making adjustments and improving our programs and strategy.

    Now a few years in with this organization, we feel that SOSGA can make good use of future opportunities, and that we are generating solutions to some of the issues facing the small seed grower.  Regarding our Project Goals, the Accomplishments and Impacts sections, below, are the best scorecard for our group.

    Thanks for your key support.

    Project objectives:

            

    Project objectives (directly from 2014 Grant Proposal)

    (1) Maud Powell will convene and facilitate 18 bi-monthly Seed Network meetings around southern Oregon, hosted by farmers and accompanied by an on-farm workshop, presentation, or demonstration (May 2015 – December 2017).  Six field events for 2015 have been proposed, to be confirmed by seed grower association members at 2015 general membership meeting (February 2015)

    • The on-farm, public field days were immediately successful and have been a widely appreciated part of SOSGA’s programming. The full 18 events were successfully convened, with attendance ranging from 10 to 50+ with an average of about 20 attendees per event.  In 2018, the final five events were as followed, with attendees in parentheses: Seed Winnowing Demo (22), Garlic Tour (22), Seed Cleaning Demo & Tour (19), Bioregional Seed Operation Tour (18), Medicinal Herb Seed Production tour (43).
    • All cash payments have been promptly mailed to host farmers after event completion.  Our farmers have appreciated that.
    • Powell and SOSGA board members convened regularly for the purpose of charting out the SOSGA Seed Network events.
    • A different farmer hosted each field day, so the events helped spread attention around the valley and they motivated seed farmer visits to other farmers’ operations and fields.
    • Powell’s management gave this program everything it needed. She did a fantastic job planning the program and making it go.  Examples were her skillful program development, effective public outreach, and practiced event facilitation.

    2) Don Tipping will mentor three beginning seed growers during the 2015 and 2016 growing seasons. He will visit each grower two times per season, offering practical advice and feedback to mentees (May 2015 – November 2016)

    • We designed and launched a new mentorship program in 2016, a development which we communicated to SARE along the way. We received very positive feedback from program participants about the mentorship interaction “format” and about the budget as re-designed, with this in it.
    • In year 2016 we were able to support 4 one-to-one relationships in our valley between new seed producers and veteran mentor producers, and in 2017 we facilitated another 3 relationships. The mentors found it worth their time, as well as gratifying, and mentees all bonded through the program, too. So we social capital and the growth of support networks as an additional yield of the program.

    (3) Chris Hardy will plan and host two spring regional seed exchange events (April 2016 and April 2017). He will coordinate and moderate a public Rogue Valley seed farmer panel on the history of open-pollinated plant breeding and seed production in the Rogue Valley.  Hardy will promote the seed exchange and panel to the public and farmers through six Facebook groups, with event page and follow-up materials reaching 50,000-200,000 online readers

    • Hardy managed the agreements with the hosting venue (the Ashland Armory) and led the way through all event and attendee logistics. The spring 2016 seed exchange was publicized to gardeners, farmers, and local seed supporters the Rogue year.  It took place Thursday March 31 2016, from 3-730 pm, and over 50 people attended.  We expect to continue this event and function in the future, and predict an ongoing upward trend in attendance in the coming years. We see this as a sign of our seed messaging reaching broader audiences in our region, and of the interest in small farm seeds work continuing to grow.
    • The event built camaraderie among our grower members. SOSGA members attended to host exhibition tables of their seeds and any related causes or companies they represent (their personal seed companies, non-profit organizations like the Open Source Seed Initiative, etc.).  SOSGA had its own table, staffed by a rotation of the younger SOSGA grower members.  SOSGA also oversaw various seeds related demos, from seed cleaning to fun educational kids activities.
    • The events were photo-documented and circulated by multiple SOSGA member users through Southern Oregon social media networks (Facebook, especially).

    (4) Eric George will upgrade crop pollen mapping system to open source GIS platform (free), to enhance SOSGA’s pinning map quality and enable the measurement of isolation distances and new spatial quantitative data analyses (April – June 2015)

    • George and Andrew Schwarz split efforts and pay on the pollen mapping system to successfully transition the map user interface from a multi-file BatchGeo map set to a single-plane interface, choosing the user-friendly Google Maps platform. SOSGA is continuing to gather and maintain Southern Oregon regional seed geospatial information as the leading seed institution in the area; and this is a regional function that all members agree SOSGA should and will retain into the future.
    • We mapped locations and created detailed metadata for all existing SOSGA paid-member growers; locations of other known or possible seed production sites in our valleys; and locations of major produce farms that merit attention from the point of view of pollen contamination potential… e.g. any winter and summer squash production on produce farms, un-mowed acreage of bolting brassica produce crops, un-mowed rows of bolting Beta vulgaris produce crops
    • This mapping system is now embedded in the SOSGA website interface, where it looks great and is highly usable. We’ve made it public so that established seed growers, but especially new ones, can learn where other growers are located, and who their seed producing neighbors are. In this way, new growers can do more due diligence to ensure that they are not inadvertently encroaching on other growers’ isolations, and likewise, be assured that their own geography is suited to the seeds/pollen that they are interested in producing. 
    • SOSGA seed map here: http://sosgaseed.org/seed-field-maps/

     

    (5) Eric George and Chuck Burr will improve the SOSGA website and increase the organization’s online presence. Projects will include a thematic bibliography for seed production, breeding, and business skills, as well as current news and research. George will collect key references for the bibliography form SOSGA members (November 2015 – March 2016)

    • Similar to decisions about our Mapping component (described above) the SOSGA Board identified the need for an enhanced web site and high quality online ‘landing place’ for seed professionals and for the interested public. We also wanted to transition the website away from a custom-created and managed HTML site (pioneered and maintained by seedsman Chuck Burr), since that meant that all website updating responsibilities would have to fall to the SOSGA members with web site programming skills.
    • With Burr’s assistance, Hardy took the lead on bringing the website forward one substantial step. And in the past year, hte organization used its own funds to contract with an independent professional website designer. The new web site is much more photographic and visually engaging, and represents our SOSGA growers in a professional and positive light.

    (6)  Eric George will research seed cleaning set-ups and systems for different-scaled operations and produce a written report.  George’s publication will be posted on the SOSGA website and presented in person to prospective and experienced seed farmers at the Eco-Farm Conference in January 2017 (December 2015 – January 2017). 

    • George teamed up with SOSGA President and co-researcher Andrew Schwarz to visit, tour, and interview 6 seed farmer SOSGA members. The first round took place in fall 2015, when we visited with Jonathan Spero, Sebastian Aguilar, & Steve Florin.  In a second round of interviews, in fall 2016, we met with Tom Powell, Don Tipping, & Chris Hardy.  Schwarz and George have both made additional visits and research follow ups (substantially traveling in my case) late September 2017, early-mid February 2018, and July 2018.
    • George has produced rough draft stage SOSGA seed farmer Profiles that situate each growers’ seed processing set-up within their strategic seed goals, opportunities, and limitations for their farm. Maud Powell is helping George to edit and hone the profiles so that they read well together, and so that the text functions in the best way for its primary audience (growers). George and Schwarz are returning each farmer profile to each profilee, prior to publishing them together.  In this way we hope to be accountable to our member growers and to make sure that we haven’t omitted or messed up any important pieces of their stories and profiles.
    • Schwarz took the time code through recorded voice interview files that we captured, searching for the best quote-able nuggets to include in the grower Profiles, as in-paragraph quotes, or as side boxes throughout the report.
    • Schwarz did the photography and contributed high quality farm and farmer profile photos to include in the research publication. Like with the writing, above, Schwarz is also delivering these photographs to the grower-members themselves, for use in their own seed and farm marketing and promotion.
    • Our research has shed light on equipment sharing programs, cooperative ownership schemes among young seed growers currently “tooling up,” and the choices around which enterprises and seasonal crops fit well as farm labor and space-filling activities complementary to production seed growing.  Our understanding of ourselves as an organization continues to evolve, and so the research has informed our thinking about what, for us, represents “appropriate technology” with regards to seeds processing.  It has entailed taking a closer look at our particular marketing relationships, and where within our systems and processing we are getting consistently bottlenecked and missing profit potential.
    • We already are applying this research, as demonstrated in SOSGA’s recent investment in shared seed processing equipment. Compared to when we started, we now have a clearer view about what acquisitions would be most appropriate for our group of growers, and why.  As discussed in earlier reports, we re-allocated money originally set aside to purchase a Belt Thresher, to instead purchase a tool much more appropriate for our context: a new instrument designed by Mark Luterra, in Oregon, called the “Winnow Wizard.”  Our research and analysis made it clear to us that Belt Threshers, while seemingly quite useful on their own terms, represents a class of tools that only marginally meets the needs of most of our growers.  Problems include the reality that belt threshers need extensive and meticulous clean-outs between lots, and as a result, in effect require substantial-sized lot minimums. The mismatch is that most of our growers specialize in supplying their seed customers with a higher diversity of smaller-size, higher value lots.  Thus the seed clean out labor is consequently spread across too few units of seed processed.  Additionally, regarding cooperative usage — the threshing step in the production process is a particularly time sensitive one, and within the same bioregion, many growers’ seed harvests come due in the exact same seasonal windows. As you can imagine, with the very time-sensitive nature of harvest for quality seeds, this presents some logistics and sharing issues for group ownership of a Belt Thresher. 
    • The Winnow Wizard, on the other hand, is a terrific fit for SOSGA growers. 

            – It boasts a simplified, streamlined seed handling flow, for no substantial nor daunting clean outs;

            – Elimination of the lot-minimum issue for proper payback with the cleaner;

            – A smaller initial price tag, and much cheaper and more technically accessible for ongoing maintenance;

            – Access and openness, thanks to creator Luterra, to a constantly improving WW prototype and small-lot-processing innovation pipeline; and

            – A long potential window of use by growers, because it’s for the “finish cleaning” stage, rather than a more urgent activity like threshing (so this smooths out the demand-timing issue). 

    • Now, in 2019, a group of SOSGA growers are taking next steps towards systematizing how to share this equipment. So far the Winnow Wizard has primarily been deployed as a mobile unit for farmers to utilize at their own operations.  A multi-day, advance-scheduled “check out” system and calendar is being formalized. Another important idea is to create a logbook that will document seed lots that have been cleaned, which reduces errors and raises accountability among the group. Such a logbook also will produce information about the machine’s usage, and the amount of value that SOSGA growers are getting out of the investment in the shared equipment. Seed grower Sebastian Aguilar brings notable experience to this effort, from his experience developing a shared, mobile seed processing approach several years ago in northwest Washington.  Over the years numerous Rogue Valley seed growers have informally shared and made available their individual farm’s seed processing machines and so this new effort with the Winnow Wizard already precedent in our area, and that foundation of experience has informed the process.  This story and timeline of re-evaluating our collective tool purchase plan is but one example of how our research findings are already affecting the ways we are thinking about growers’ needs and our organization’s potential.
    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.