Seed Growers’ Handbook: Producing Vegetable Seeds for Sustainable Agriculture
Fundamental to the health and relevance of sustainable agriculture is the development of a seed production infrastructure with its foundation rooted in sustainable practices. The number of farmers growing seed either for commercial sale in the organic market or for specialty markets has increased substantially over the last several years. With a burgeoning demand for vegetable seed that is organically grown and for specialty varieties from independent breeders there are many opportunities for this market to continue expanding.
Essential to the success of any farmer who wants to try their hand at growing seed for this market is their ability to produce good yields of high quality seed using sustainable techniques. Producing high quality seed has the potential to both sustain the economic viability of family farming operations and enhance the quality of life for rural communities that are able to close the loop on the source of the seed that is used by many farmers in a particular region of the country.
Seed production has, in large part, become a very specialized field within modern agriculture that is practiced by very few large-scale companies with a limited number of large-scale contract growers actually producing the seed. Because of this there are precious few resources, either within state agricultural extension programs or in reference publications that are available to farmers on seed growing techniques. This lack of appropriate information that addresses many of the fundamental principles and practices involved in successfully growing, harvesting, and cleaning a seed crop has created the necessity of this project.
The goal of this project is to produce a Seed Grower’s Manual with detailed practical information on the techniques of producing vegetable seed using sustainable farming practices. This project involves; 1) gathering information from many varied sources, both published in agricultural research publications, older USDA/state land grant bulletins, or from individuals within the seed industry with practical “field knowledge” that may not be documented in any publications, and 2) receiving feedback from farmers interested in producing seed crops who participate in a series of workshops that present many of the core concepts of growing seeds. By interacting with these participant farmers through questionnaires and on farm visits by extension staff it is possible to gauge their level of understanding of the materials being taught and to determine which material might either be too simple, too difficult, not appropriate, or not appropriately presented.
I am involved with two projects that are currently sponsoring workshops that are designed to teach farmers the basic theories and practices of producing and improving seed crops for sustainable agriculture. The first project “Restoring Our Seed” [ROS] is supported by NE SARE (LNE 02-160) and has a large component in which the educators are able to interface with farmer participants to encourage them to incorporate skills they have learned on their own farms when growing a seed crop. The next project is a series of similar workshops sponsored by the Organic Seed Alliance [OAS], a non-profit organization in Port Townsend, Washington that educates farmers in sustainable seed production techniques. Both projects have a classroom as well as a field component and both incorporate questionnaires to gather information in order to utilize feedback from growers in order to shape the content of the Seed Growers’ Manual.
1) That farmers incorporate improved practices learned at workshops for seed production.
2) Farmers keep track of % vigor, seed yields, severity of disease, flowering dates and times.
3) Farmers incorporate seed cleaning practices to improve time spent and % harvestable yield.
Degree of Change That Constitutes Success:
1) Of the 150+ farmers taking these workshops each year at least 35 will incorporate two of the following seed growing practices:
1) planting at the appropriate spacing,
2) planting in the appropriate time slot for seed production, or selecting for
3) seedling vigor,
4) cold soil emergence,
5) Horizontal resistance [HR] to diseases,
6) uniform flowering,
7) prolific flowering,
8) early seed maturity, and for
9) high seed yield.
2) Of the 35 growers who participate, 15 farmers will be Target Growers and work with extension agents who will monitor their progress and verify changes with on-farm visits.
Verification of Change: Extension agent Mark Hutton, and “lay extension agent” Tom Sterns, will each visit the 15 seed growers in their respective states to verify the changes in seed yield and quality at the end of the season. Measurable changes could be;
1) Extension agents see less disease during the season due to selection practices.
2) Increased seed yield on plants selected for HR and prolific flowering.
3) Cleaner seed (higher quality) on plants selected for HR and early maturity
4) Farmers able to cut cleaning time by 1/3 and retrieve a higher % seed after threshing
We will know when we have met the above performance goals based on reports from the growers themselves as they return questionnaires and actually report on specific verifiable changes. Also the extension visits can verify some of the specific measurable changes listed above during visits.
A fundamental building block to the success of this SARE project is my ability to gather and utilize constructive feedback from farmers that are already growing appreciable quantities of seed or would like to grow appreciable quantities of seed. This is done through the relationships that we are forging with growers in the workshops sponsored by the Restoring Our Seed [ROS] project and the Organic Seed Alliance [OAS] educational program. Through comprehending the workshop participant’s level of understanding, the accessibility of the workshop content, and the issues in seed growing that are most important to both the beginning seed grower and the more experienced journeyman seed grower alike, it is possible to write a Seed Grower’s Manual that presents the most pertinent and practical information to guide seed growers through all of the fundamental steps needed to produce vegetable seed successfully and sustainably.
Our first milestone listed in the grant proposal was to inform as many potentially interested farmers as possible of these workshops for seed growers. We have been very successful in this endeavor. Through ROS and OSA websites, mailings, and various presentations to target audiences we have reached well over the projected number of potential participants of 500. The topic of producing seeds for sustainable agriculture has received much interest in North America this year and through several agricultural conferences in 2003 I have announced both the two-day ROS workshops and the three-day OSA workshops to the hundreds of conference goers who have attended my presentations on seed growing. This has generated an increased number of requests for new OSA workshops for 2004 in the Mid-Atlantic region (Virginia), Rocky Mountain region (Montana and Colorado) and Northwest (Washington and Oregon). This increased publicity has also served us very well in attracting close to 100 people to each of the large ROS winter workshops of 2003 (held in Maine in January and Vermont in November).
Our second milestone was to have at least 150 people register and attend seed workshops for both ROS and OAS. We have proudly met our projections for both registering and having excellent attendance at ROS and OSA workshops. The attendance for ROS workshops in 2003 has been over 250. Once I had been notified that the funding had been approved for this grant in the late spring I designed both pre-workshop and post-workshop questionnaires for all of the subsequent workshops that I would be involved with in 2003. I passed out and collected ~ 20 questionnaires each at the summer “Selection Theory” workshop for the ROS project in Maine and at the summer “Growing Commercial Seed” workshop for OSA in Washington. Questionnaires intended for gathering feedback for the Seed Grower’s Manual were also passed out at both of the OAS workshops held this fall in Occidental, Calif. and in Vancouver, B.C. These two classes together generated ~ 50 completed questionnaires. Finally, I was able to get ~ 75 questionnaires completed by participants at the ROS winter workshop in Vermont in November. Questionnaires for both the pre-workshop assessment of farmer’s knowledge base and skill set concerning seeds (Milestone II and the post-workshop assessment of farmer’s level of understanding of content and their further educational needs (Milestone III) were completed.
Thus, I have easily reached my goal of 150 questionnaires this year that will help guide the direction of the topics that I am currently researching and writing about in the Seed Growers’ Manual. I am currently updating and designing new questionnaires for the 2004 workshops.
The next milestone that I set in my grant proposal was to enlist “Target Growers” from the attendees of the workshops to grow “selection plots” on-farm that will serve as an educational opportunity for the farmer to practice the techniques of seed production and selection that they are learning in the workshops. In order to set this program in motion it is imperative to work with the farmer in mid to late winter (mid-January through early March) to determine the best seed crop for their region, their farming schedule, and the type of farming operation they have. Farmers must complete their plans for field projects before planting begins in spring. As I did not receive confirmation that funding was assured for this project until May of 2003 I am now in the process of talking to a number of interested growers who I got to know through the ROS workshops in Maine and Vermont in this past year and recruit them as “Target Growers” to grow selection plots in 2004.
In discussions with farmers attending the ROS workshops I found a number of willing farmers in both Maine and Vermont who would be willing to be Target Growers and would welcome working with extension agents Mark Hutton (in Maine) and Tom Stearns (in Vermont). While I received a warm reception to this idea with growers in both states it seemed that some of the Vermont growers attending the ROS workshop near Brattleboro, Vermont in November were more attuned to the concept of how their participation as a Target Grower would be to their benefit in becoming better seed growers. This understanding of how this program with its interaction with knowledgeable extension agents, can help them become better seed growers, is an important step towards my first Performance Target of farmers “incorporating the improved practices learned at workshops for seed production.”
In order to insure that I am able to work with farmers who are fully motivated as the 15 Target Growers that will grow a “selection plot” in 2004, I would like to change the original plan of having growers in only one state per year (originally Maine in year 1 and Vermont in year 2). Instead I am recruiting the most willing 15 growers from either state to be involved in this Target Grower program for 2004. In this instance I will work with both Mark Hutton and Tom Stearns and the growers from each of their respective states who they will be visiting during the 2004 season. With 15 motivated Target Growers working with extension it will possible to reach performance targets #2) Farmers keeping track of % vigor, seed yields, severity of disease, flowering dates and #3) Farmers incorporating seed cleaning practices to improve the time spent and the % harvestable yield. Through a system of simple record keeping with scoring for vigor and extent of disease, as well as keeping track of flowering dates and yield it will be possible for Dr. Hutton and Mr. Stearns to give advice on procedures during farm visits and to record a Verification of Change. The Verification of Change will be corroborated by these extension agents as they plan a visit to the Target Growers’ farms to verify selection for; 1) less disease of seed crops, 2) increased seed yield due to less reproductive diseases, 3) “cleaner” [less disease on seed], higher quality seed, and 4) less cleaning time with a higher clean seed to trash ratio.
The next Beneficiary Milestone concerns the 35 growers (or more) who are interested in incorporating at least two of the practices that they have learned while attending one of the workshops and then report back their results via a questionnaire at the end of the season. To track this I am sending questionnaires in late winter to growers from the Vermont ROS workshop and the OAS workshops in British Columbia and California that have identified themselves as being interested in growing commercial quantities of seed. By identifying growers who are producing commercial quantities of seed, having them answer a grower’s questionnaire at the beginning of the season and then having them report on their potential successes in the fall it will be possible to monitor their progress. In the Performance Targets I have listed 9 different indicators of seed grower practices that will indicate the Degree of Change that Constitutes Success. These will be the indicators that potential cooperators will be made aware of as criteria at the beginning of the season to mark progress with throughout the season. Target Growers will answer a longer, more comprehensive version of this questionnaire.
The last Milestone concerns a questionnaire postcard at the end of the project, upon the printing of the first 1000 copies of the Seed Growers’ Manual. Questions on this card will be shaped, in large part, by the success of certain types of questions that will be used with participants of workshops over the next two years. This “postcard survey” will be used for further class development and future editions of the Seed Growers Manual.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
The primary outcomes in this first half-year of executing this grant have been in three areas. First, we have been very successful in both publicizing and recruiting participants to the series of workshops sponsored by both ROS and OSA. From these workshops I have identified a number of potential Target Growers to be enlisted in 2004 and 2005 to work cooperatively with extension agents Mark Hutton and Tom Stearns to document their application of seed growing methods. As explained in the Milestones section, in order to properly execute any field projects with Target Growers or with Participants willing to respond with questionnaires, it is imperative to work with cooperating farmers in mid to late winter (mid-January through early March). This is necessary because to perform any cooperative work with seed crops it is important to determine the best seed crop for their region, their farming schedule, and the type of farming operation they have well before planting time. Because the approval of funding was not given until May 2003 when all of the crops were already planted I decided to perform the two seasons of cooperative work with Target Growers and Participant farmers in 2004 and 2005, as it will then be possible to begin serious planning early in the year.
Secondly, I have received over 150 questionnaires at workshops since the onset of this grant. These have already shaped the content of the classes since this summer and most importantly they have directed my research for the Seed Growers’ Manual. This Outcome is quite important in the context of the ultimate end product of this funding. The Seed Growers’ Manual will be shaped by the response of the Seed Growers that are attending these classes and much of this feedback will come from the questionnaires. As an example, in 2003, our largest response to the question of what topic we should cover was, by far, for more information on seed-borne diseases! In response to this I spent a considerable amount of time at the Washington State University Library and on the internet tracking down information on the most common seed-borne diseases, the crops they infect, their relative importance, and the organically accepted seed treatments that can be used to control them. I then condensed this information into a four page handout for subsequent workshops and it also formed the backbone of a chapter on seed crop disease for the Seed Grower’s Manual.
The third major outcome for this first half-year of funding has been the preparatory information gathering and the writing of the Seed Grower’s Manual. Most of my time on this aspect of the project has been split between doing the actual writing of the text as well as information gathering on a number of the topics to be presented in depth in the Seed Grower’s Manual.
The writings that are in progress that will form the basis for chapters or subheadings in chapters for the manual will include; 1) Why grow seeds? 2) Are hybrid varieties really superior, 3) Reproductive biology of your seed crop, 4) Managing self-pollinated crops vs. cross-pollinated crops, 5) Seed-borne diseases of seed crops and their control, and 6) Performing trials for crop improvement.
The information for the manual that I have been gathering over the past half year has required some extensive detective work. As stated in my original proposal much of the basic cultural information surrounding seed production is very hard to find in the modern literature. I have been gathering much of what I have found from older publications (much thanks to my university colleagues who have supplied old reprints) and from seeds-people in the seed industry. These topics include; 1) Isolation distances for production vs. stockseed, 2) Plant spacings and plant per acre conversions for seed crops, 3) optimum population size for selfers vs crossers, 4) Comprehensive list of vegetable seed crops and which can cross, 5) Comprehensive list of seed-borne diseases of North America, and 6) A seed grower’s map of appropriate climates in North America for seed production (by crop).
I am grateful to NE SARE for funding this very important work of gathering this arcane, widely dispersed information on growing seed, so that I may make it available to the next generation of seed growers.