Restoring Our Seed: Extension Program to Train Farmers in Ecological Seed Crop Production

2005 Annual Report for LNE02-160

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2002: $135,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Matching Federal Funds: $15,000.00
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $54,000.00
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
Project Leader:
Co-Leaders:

Restoring Our Seed: Extension Program to Train Farmers in Ecological Seed Crop Production

Summary

Restoring Our Seed coordinates a team of organic farmers, cooperative and ‘lay’ extension, and seed companies to conduct a training program in seed production and crop improvement in organic systems. Farmers learn how to integrate seed production into an ecological whole farm system, incorporate habitats for pollinators, select seed-crops for disease resistance and local adaptability, and how to harvest and clean seed.

The team is conducting conferences, seminars and field days, producing an on-line manual posted on growseed.org, establishing a regional seed-saving network, and generating participatory on-farm breeding projects. A Seed Stewards educational curriculum is posted on our website and being taught to involve teachers and young people. The project represents a community-based approach to strengthen our regional seed supply.

Objectives/Performance Targets

  • To conduct a farmer training program in organic seed crop production to increase on-farm sustainability and farmer profit, with supporting community education.

    To increase the number of farmers trained in organic seed production, on-farm selection and breeding for crop improvement.

    To increase the quality and quantity of organically grown open-pollinated vegetable seed by growing-out and improving seed.

Accomplishments/Milestones

FOURTH YEAR MILESTONES

OUTREACH
Participant numbers:
–80 farmers and gardeners at our fall seed conference, Oct. 29-30, Amherst, MA.
with a teacher workshop attended by ten teachers
–20 farmers at Small Farm Field Day, July 31, MOFGA, Unity, ME.
–30 farmers and gardeners at Field Workshops on On-Farm Crop Improvement, Sept. 23 and 24, MOFGA, Unity, ME.

ROS EXHIBITS
–at NOFA Summer Conference, Aug. 12-14, Amherst, MA.
–at MOFGA Common Ground Country Fair, Sept. 23-25, Unity, ME.
–at Seeds & Breeds Conference, Sept. 11-13, Des Moines, IA.

–Field days, workshops and exhibits reached at least 250 people.
–Farm visits with seed producers in Maryland, Connecticut, Vermont and Massachusetts.

ARTICLES, EVENT POSTINGS AND ADS
–Articles in Fedco catalog, MOF&G (MOFGA newspaper), Saving Seeds (GE-Free Maine newspaper), advertisement in the Natural Farmer (NOFA newspaper), coverage on Seeds of Change website, MOFGA and all NOFA websites, link to Organic Seed Alliance website.
–Took part in Scionwood Exchange and Seed Swap in late March at MOFGA.
–Mailings to core mailing list of over 400 farmers and gardeners who have attended at least one event during our project.

NEW MASSACHUSETTS DEMONSTRATION SITE
Established cooperation with University of Massachusetts Cooperative Extension–Ruth Hazzard and Plant and Soil Science Dept.–Robert Bernatsky to establish a demonstration site to produce cold-hardy greens seed crops and to investigate flea beetle preferences. We also provided funding for UMASS GardenShare Program student garden to purchase open-pollinated seed, and conducted a workshop.

COOPERATION
–CR Lawn, Eli Rogosa Kaufman and Bryan Connolly attended Save Our Seed Field Day at Even’Star Farm in Maryland to coordinate activities and share resources with SARE-funded group coordinating a similar program in Virginia and the Carolinas.
–Continued collaboration with Organic Seed Partnership in New York. Elizabeth Dyck from OSP presented at our fall conference and Michael Glos provided seed for Brandy Rose tomato, one of our breeding projects.

INSTRUCTIONAL MATERIALS
A coordinated series of instructional materials have been produced at increasing levels of depth:
–An 11 x 17 brochure has been distributed to at least 500 farmers and gardeners.
–NOFA-MA published Organic Seed Production and Saving Handbook authored by Bryan Connolly with CR Lawn as contributing editor. All paid attendees at ROS fall conference received a free copy.
–Maintained and updated our illustrated Restoring Our Seed Manual of more than 200 pages which can be downloaded for free on our website.

ROS SEED PRODUCTION AND IMPROVEMENT DEMONSTRATION SITES:
CONN.–Bryan Connolly, Mansfield Center
–In 2006 Bryan O’Hara, Lebanon, will also establish a demonstration site.
ME.–MOFGA Common Ground, Unity
MA.–Jeremy Barker-Plotkin, Simple Gifts Farm, Belchertown
–UMASS Farm, Ruth Hazzard, UMASS Extension, Deerfield
VT.–Middlebury College Garden, Middlebury

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

FROM TRAINING TO PARTICIPATORY BREEDING
We have conducted four annual New England-wide seed conferences, the cornerstone to our training program in organic seed production. From the top-down classroom teaching approach at the first conference in Maine, we have evolved into a truly farmer-led participatory program. Through roundtable discussions and their own initiatives, farmers are conducting more than a dozen on-farm selection and breeding projects.

Each year many of the same farmers and gardeners return to network, exchange experiences, new knowledge and seed from their projects. We have rotated the location of our events to reach as wide a group of participants as possible, yet we have also maintained continuity. This year more than 25 conference registrants had been at one or more prior ROS events.

At each conference we attract people with wide differences in skills and experience levels. This has been both a challenge and an opportunity. We see a continuum from seed-saving on a small scale for home garden use to serious seed production as a value-added farm product to breeding to create superior adapted varieties for marketing to gain a competitive edge.

We provide instruction at these events suitable for all levels to de-mystify the art of selection and breeding and to bring it back to the farms as part of their age-old heritage. While that can sometimes be daunting to do well, we see beginners becoming truly inspired by coming in contact with experienced farmer-breeders and larger-scale seed producers.

NEW BREEDING PROJECTS
In 2005 we added the following breeding projects to the seven initiated in the first three years of our project:

Dancing Kales: John Sokoloski over-wintered 30 kales in Connecticut with no protection, and let the surviving plants go to seed and cross. We are selecting for a diverse gene-pool of cold hardy kales with good flavor.

Even’Star Cold-Hardy Winter Greens: We have established a close collaboration with Maryland market grower Brett Grohsgal, who has developed his own lines of winter-hardy salad greens over the past fifteen years. Eleven farmers received breeding packets of one or more of his Arugula, Thick-stem mustard, Tatsoi, Smooth Kale, Collards, Tenderleaf and Segregating mustards for over-wintering 2005-6. Grohsgal provided optimal planting dates, advice on populations, and cultural hints for New England farmers to select for cold-hardiness in our more challenging climate. Even’Star arugula proved so superior in summer trials that Fedco added it to their catalog. They also introduced one of Grohsgal’s currant tomato gene-pools.

Bryan O’Hara’s Connecticut Winter-Hardy Greens Gene-Pools: Market grower Bryan O’Hara has had great success over-wintering greens in low tunnels. After multiple harvests of leaves, he lets the plants go to seed and saves his own replanting seed. He has allowed them to cross, creating gene-pools with a great deal of hybrid vigor (beneficial to his production) as well as a variety of leaf shapes, colors, textures and flavors highly valued by his customers. At our fall conference he made seed available for a mizuna/tatsoi cross, a maruba/mizuna/tatsoi cross, and a gene-pool of 7 mustards which have been crossing since 1999 and been saved season-by-season for winter hardiness in our even colder climates, and for flavor and texture.

CONTINUING BREEDING PROJECTS in 2006
–the fourth year for improvement on Pruden’s Purple
–the third year for selecting Winter Luxury pumpkin
–F2 seed for the Brandy Rose tomato
–F4 for the Wonder Pickle
–F2 for Scarlet Mizpoona
–the third year for Potato Dance

We received a 1-year extension on the project so that farmers will have another year of selection under SARE funding to further the breeding and benefit from its learning opportunities and to continue to strengthen our ROS organization at the grass-roots to maintain the projects after outside funding ends. We plan to hold an annual participatory conference and seed exchange and to continue to mail packets to those who are interested but unable to attend the gatherings.

DISTRIBUTION
For the 2005 growing season we distributed 156 packets of breeding project seeds to 45 participating farmers. Some were distributed free at ROS conferences and events. Others were distributed through the mail-order arm of ROS that we call the Dancing Seed Company, formed to distribute germplasm for continued on-farm selection as a teaching tool. We charge $2 per packet for this service; $5 where large packets/populations are required, such as for wintering-over projects. At least 7 of the growers produced sufficient seed to share with ROS and with the growers at our conference. Many more saved seed for themselves. We recently sent out a survey to assess the success rate, and to try to determine what key obstacles need to be overcome to improve it.

For the 2006 season, we distributed 112 packets to at least 30 farmers at the conference. Recently we sent our seed catalog offer to our entire core mailing list and are just beginning to get response. We estimate that we will distribute at least another 50 packets to 20 or more farmers through the mail and other events before planting time in 2006.

Essentially there are three levels of participation. The majority are saving seed and selecting for their own use. They benefit by having greater control over their seed supply, saving money, and gaining progressive varietal adaptation to their climate and farming conditions. A second group are those who wish to produce seed as a value-added crop for sale. One of our performance targets is to increase the number of farmers engaged in that enterprise and to increase the quantity and quality of the seed being offered. In 2005 one of our growers sold seed to Fedco for the first time and another greatly increased the production and varieties of seed crops he was growing for Baker Creek, Southern Exposure, Fedco and other seed companies. The third group is perhaps the most important. They are those selecting and breeding on their own farms to create varieties especially adapted to their conditions, climates and marketing needs. When we wrote our proposal, we did not even consider this third option, but we now believe it offers the most potential benefit for farmers. For that reason, when we discovered Brett Grohsgal in Maryland, we invited him to be lead farmer at our 2004 conference, and we visited his farm during an SOS program this summer. Bryan Connolly subsequently introduced us to Bryan O’Hara, the farmer in our region who most closely follows the Grohsgal model. We invited him to be lead farmer for our 2005 conference, where he gave a rousing presentation.

NEW LEARNING–NEW BENEFITS
O’Hara has made some critically important discoveries. He noticed that with winter annual production in unheated low tunnels there were almost no insect infestations, especially no flea beetles, and almost no disease. North Carolina farmer Doug Jones confirms that finding.

O’Hara reports,
“There is some resistance to insects which is nothing short of astounding where the flea beetle will not assault over-wintered brassicas in our field. I could plant mizuna in the spring, right next to this over-wintered mizuna, and it would be absolutely devastated by flea beetle. The over-wintered mizuna will go without damage.”

O’Hara continues,
“Not only are these plants resistant to the flea beetle in terms of some physiological change or some difference in the plant itself, but the flowering of the plants attracts a phenomenal number of beneficial insects that are the predators of the caterpillars that assault my brassicas later in the season…It became clear that the wasps that are your allies are going to feed on the flowers as a nectar source for food for themselves where they intend to lay their eggs, and their larva are going to develop inside the caterpillar that feeds on that crop. It makes all too much sense and I started thinking that there might be something vastly missing in not producing flower and seed crops.”

“By cutting the plant growth short and always harvesting all the vegetables and never allowing for flower and seed production, how would these wasps proliferate on my farm?”

There are very good reasons to think that over-wintering annuals for seed crops can bring great benefits to many regional farms. Thus, we have increased our emphasis on cold-hardy greens among our breeding projects.

Collaborators:

Jack Kertesz

jkertesz@uninet.net
Demonstration Site Farmer
204 Clark Rd.
Unity, ME 04988
Office Phone: 2075683444
Bryan O’Hara

Lead Farmer
373 Tobacco St.
Lebanon, CT 06249
Office Phone: 8604234834
Bryan Connolly

connollybryan@yahoo.com
Demonstration Site Farmer
76 Warrenville Rd.
Mansfield Center, CT 06250
Office Phone: 8604238305
Jay Leshinsky

jay.leshinsky@verizon.net
Garden Coordinator
Middlebury College
Middlebury, VT
Office Phone: 8023883850
Dr.Mark Hutton

mhutton@umext.maine.edu
Maine Cooperative Extension
Highmoor Farm
PO Box 179
Monmouth, ME 04259
Office Phone: 2079332100
Dr. John Navazio

jpnavazio@earthlink.net
Extension Trainer
PO Box 1988
Port Townsend, WA 98368
Office Phone: 3606768622
Will Bonsall

Farmer-Trainer
39 Bailey Rd.
Industry, ME 04938
Office Phone: 2077783387
Dr. Raoul Robinson

Breeder Consultant
445 Provost Lane
Fergus, ON N1M2N
Brett Grohsgal

Even Star Farm
Far Cry Road
Lexington, MD
Frank Morton

s2sfarm@peak.org
Extension Trainer
PO Box 1509
Philomath, OR 97370
Office Phone: 5419294068
Jeremy Barker-Plotkin

jbp@the-spa.com
Demonstration Site Farmer
22 Poole Rd.
Belchertown, MA 01007
Office Phone: 4133239608