Seed Growers' Handbook: Producing Vegetable Seeds for Sustainable Agriculture

2004 Annual Report for LNE03-186

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2003: $62,925.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:

Seed Growers' Handbook: Producing Vegetable Seeds for Sustainable Agriculture


In the evolution of organic agriculture many growers have become interested in the availability of seed stocks that are raised in accordance with organic certification and have traits that make them more compatible with the challenges of organic farming practices. Many conscientious organic producers have seen larger seed companies getting into the organic vegetable seed marketplace without incorporating any of the practices that will make the seed truly compatible with the sustainable ideals that are fundamental to organic agriculture. The seed that is developed and produced for organic agriculture must reflect the traits that are most important to organic cultural methods and principles: 1) It must be produced with minimal inputs and 2) It must be adapted to the cultural practices used by a majority of organic growers.

As the largest vegetable seed production companies are not inclined to embrace true sustainability in their farming practices, whether conventional or organic, many of the best organic farmers in the USA realize that the future of our seed supply will have to come from more decentralized and regional sources that are sensitive to our needs. Therefore in the last few years we have seen a substantial rise in the number of organic farmers growing vegetable seeds. This seed is being produced for either their own use, for commercial sale, or for both. Commercially there is a growing market for organic seed as there is much more demand than there is seed available. Many of the large seed companies that are beginning to produce certified organic seed are not committed to supplying a wide array of choices. Also a number of older “workhorse varieties” that many organic farmers have come to rely on are being dropped from these same companies. Meanwhile, these standard workhorse varieties are actually growing in demand among organic farmers. All of these factors are contributing to a very widespread interest among organic vegetable farmers and the small regional companies that serve them in producing high quality certified organic vegetable seed.

In modern agriculture seed production has become a very specialized field. Through corporate consolidations the number of “production-research” seed companies that produce most of the vegetable seed that we use can be counted on two hands. The farms that produce this seed for these large trans-national companies are generally quite large, mono-crop producers that rely heavily on inputs. It has become a very specialized agricultural business. Because of this specialization many of the informational resources that were once available to farmers wanting to grow vegetable seed as a commercial crop are no longer available. Before 1960 there were a number of State Ag Extension Service bulletins, USDA pamphlets, and the like that are now strangely absent. While there is some information available from “seed saving” organizations, it is geared to the backyard gardener and does not address commercial seed production.

The purpose of the work involved in producing a Seed Grower’s Manual is to supply detailed practical information on the techniques of producing vegetable seed using sustainable organic farming practices. This 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 currently involved in two projects where I am training farmers in the theories, cultural practices, and technical aspects of producing and improving organic vegetable seed crops. The first project “Producing Organic Vegetable Seed – Farmer Education Project” (POVS) is funded by WSARE (SW04 – 115) has a strong emphasis on Field Days where we teach growers many of the specific skills that they will need to successfully grow a seed crop. Topics include selection to type, recognizing diseases and pests, maintaining quality, harvesting, cleaning and marketing of the seed crop. Educators will interface with growers for their input on appropriate material for specific crop seed manuals. This information will also be used for the Seed Grower’s Manual.

The next project is a series of 2 to 3 day workshops sponsored by the Organic Seed Alliance [OAS], a non-profit organization in Port Townsend, Washington that educates farmers in sustainable seed production techniques. We sponsor these from 5 to 8 times per year and have offered them in 9 states and in Canada in the past three years. Importantly we incorporate questionnaires to gather information in order to utilize feedback from growers in order to shape the content of the Seed Growers’ Manual. We also gathered quite a bit of information from a two-year involvement in Restoring Our Seed (NESARE - LNE 02 – 160) which supplied us with valuable information via questionnaires from growers.

Objectives/Performance Targets

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.


This year has been very productive for reaching the milestones laid out in the original grant proposal. In a series of workshops to train organic seed growers that was sponsored by the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) we were able to reach close to 220 participants. These workshops took place in California, Virginia, Washington, and in the province of British Columbia (with a number of WA growers in attendance). We were able to get questionnaires completed by veteran seed growers attending the Virginia and B.C. workshops.

We had 8 farmers in Vermont who worked closely with Tom Stearns of High Mowing Seeds to measure some of the benefits in their seed crops’ performance with excellent feedback for this project. Likewise we had 8 farmers working with me in the Pacific Northwest to report on a number of the improvements that they experienced from working with concepts learned in our workshops. This information has been invaluable in directing my attention to the most pertinent and practical information to include in the Seed Grower’s Manual at the end of this project.

The first milestone of announcing these workshops was easily met as we had enthusiastic support from several prominent organic agricultural publications and a truly remarkable network of farmers hungry for information on this subject. The periodicals that were so helpful in disseminating the news of our workshops included Growing for Market, Mother Earth News, New Farm (on line), and the OSA website and mailings. Through these media we easily reached 500 people and had many people contact us from parts of the country not included in our itinerary that inquired on when we would hold a class in their region.

Our second milestone was to have 150 people register and attend seed workshops. This goal was easily met with wonderful turnouts for one day workshops at the Eco-Farm Conference in CA (~40 people) and at the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange workshop in VA (~65 people). At Southern Exposure ~30 of the established seed growers stayed for days 2 & 3 of intense seed study). In British Columbia we had one of our most experienced groups with a great mix of Americans and Canadians (~30 people) for a winter workshop and then we had almost 25 of the same people at a summer field workshop. This fall we had a splendid group for both in the class/out in the field at The Evergreen State College in Washington state (~25 people).

The third milestone of gathering 150 questionnaires was easily met. Of these the most valuable were the questionnaires from 24 of the most experienced BC and WA growers (collected in BC) and the 16 most experienced growers in VA [see milestone 5]. We also have comprehensive grower information from Target Growers in VT and 8 Target Growers in the Pacific Northwest [milestone 4 and 5].

The fourth milestone that I set was to find 15 target growers from among the attendees of the workshops. Initially it seemed logical to enlist growers that were in close proximity to the two extension agents that had an interest in vegetable seed crops in New England and that were working closely with the Restoring Our Seed SARE project. In the case of Tom Stearns of High Mowing Seeds this was a very logical choice as Tom works closely with a number of farmers who grow seed in Vermont. Tom’s official position is as a "lay" extension agent on this project. Tom has done a splendid job enlisting 7 farmers (and his own farm as no. 8) to keep track of successes and failures in vegetable seed production, in the context of techniques learned through our workshops. The other extension agent I enlisted in this project is Mark Hutton, a real Maine ag extension agent. As stated in last year’s annual report, the reception among growers in Maine to the idea of monitoring their progress in using concepts from the classes was quite a bit more reserved than what I felt from the Vermont growers. This proved very true indeed. Mark received a cool reaction from the Maine seed growers who I thought I had enlisted for the project. In his words, “They didn’t seem to be interested in going to the next step in developing their commercial market with seeds.” In fact, in my assessment I believe that they are in part fearful of learning about what they are doing wrong. Mark has a lot of wonderful experience in the seed industry (he was a breeder at three prominent seed companies) and is getting rebuffed for reasons that have kept some farmers isolated for countless generations.

Learning of this problem in the implementation of my fourth milestone I decided to enlist the best 8 growers from my region of the country (Pacific Northwest) as replacements to the Maine growers. I have gotten a great response from these growers on relative short notice and although I didn’t get as detailed notice on their progress as I would have liked I definitely saw real improvements in their cropping successes with vegetable seeds in several key areas. Successes and failures with Target Growers will be discussed in Milestone 5.

In the fifth milestone we have seen some true successes this year. As stated in milestone 3 we had 16 experienced growers from VA and 24 experienced growers from BC and WA (and a couple from Idaho!) who were among the 35+ growers that we enlisted to try at least two growing practices from the workshops [as stated in Milestone 5]. In VA we were very fortunate to work with Brian Rakita from the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Brian has worked with at least 40 seed growers in the Southeast over the last 8 years. He has passed along a number of our growing practices and when we held a class in VA in February this year we were fortunate to get responses from 16 of his growers in our questionnaires. Of these 16 farmers there were 10 who had tried two (or more) of these techniques and noted favorable changes and 6 farmers who had tried one technique with some success. In a breakdown of these VA farmers 7 had started selection programs for various favorable traits, 3 selected for Horizontal resistance to disease, 4 monitored for seed borne diseases, 5 changed their population sizes to avoid inbreeding, 3 changed their isolation distances, and 5 changed their harvest practices. Also 4 were more conscious of the difference between selfers and crossers in the way they managed seed production.

In BC workshops (with growers from the US and Canada) we had a number of great student farmers, many who had attended at least two workshops. Here we had 24 questionnaires from growers who had tried at least one of the growing practices taught at our workshops. In fact 17 had tried at least two of the prescribed growing practices and 7 had tried one practice. Among these growers 13 had started selection programs for various favorable traits, 10 selected for Horizontal resistance to disease, 2 monitored for seed-borne diseases, 13 changed their population sizes to avoid inbreeding, 5 changed their isolation distances, and 5 changed their harvest practices. Also 13 were more conscious of the difference between selfers and crossers in the way they managed seed production (we worked this point hard with these growers!)

These 40 growers (16 VA and 24 BC & WA) definitely satisfied our performance target of having 35+ farmers who incorporate at least two of the seed growing practices (well 27 tried two or more and 13 tried one). But this was quite satisfying for me to know that attendees were definitely responding even when they weren’t being monitored by our extension staff. Hence this was a degree of change that constitutes success in this project.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

In the performance target category of the grant proposal it was stated that a verification of change would be reported by extension staff for the 15 target growers. They would verify a measurable outcome in the quality or yield of the seed produced by these growers. As stated under milestones, our extension person in Vermont, Tom Stearns, has built a solid relationship with 8 Vermont growers and I will list their achievements below.

As stated, Mark Hutton met with a poor response in Maine and thus the decision was made in mid-season to start to build the kind of extension relationship that Tom has with 8 of the best growers in my region, the Pacific Northwest. I was thrilled, at short notice, to get such a good response from these growers, although our measurable data is not what it could have been if I had monitored their results of two seasons. Nonetheless I am reporting the kind of progress that they could verify anecdotally, and I will work with them closely in the coming year to verify their progress in improving the yield or quality of their seed crops.

Vermont Target Growers:

France Prevost; Has selected an Acorn squash which originally had 7% plants with off-type fruits. After 2 generations of selection the number of off-type plants is below 1% and now within allowable limits.

Jodie Lew-Smith; Conducted several research and selection plots on her farm. Different planting regimes based on planting time, spacing, fertility, and monitoring of disease took place. At high density planting a couple of crops were complete failures due to disease. Several plantings were too late to maturity in a cool Vermont summer. These outcomes are very important as information for growers in this region. A notable yield difference was measured when the Asian green tat soi was grown at two different densities. In 90 row feet the 4 inch between plant spacing outyielded the 12 inch spacing by 30%.

Asuyah (Basin Farm); In their first seasons growing tomato seed they were unable to clean dried pieces of tomato skin out of their tomato seed and getting penalized for 5% of the cost of their crop by High mowing for additional labor. After learning a new crushing/extraction method at a seed workshop their efficiency and methodology improved and their seed was clean enough that they received a 5% bonus at High Mowing for clean seed. This is an ~10% increase in profits for improved seed quality.

Thomas Case: This vegetable farmer wanted to grow lettuce seed to augment his vegetable business, but when he attempted to get seed from his lettuce crops that he left in the field they never fully matured. After attending seed workshops he learned of planting lettuce as early as possible and using poly tunnels to increase heat units. He went from no seed from a row of 200 plants to 5 lbs of seed from the same no. of plants under plastic.

Bill Loscomb; This grower went from having fairly poor quality in his first Brassica seed crops (cracked seed, splits, chaff) and getting penalized 5% at High Mowing to having very good seed quality in the same Brassica crops with several low tech seed cleaning devices that he fabricated. He learned of this type of seed cleaning equipment from our workshops. He then received a 5% bonus for clean seed from High Mowing, thus getting ~ 10% more for each Brassica seed crop.

Tim Sanford; This grower has grown Butternut squash for a number of years and was disappointed with the percentage of fruit that did not ripen each year as only ripe fruit produce viable seed. He started to select for earliness and other quality traits based on info gleaned from the workshops. He now has increased the amount of ripe fruit from ~50% of the crop to ~65% of the crop. This has increased his seed yield measurably.

Carl Benson; He is a newer grower for High Mowing and only has a failure to report. Due to lack of rotation from his vegetable crops to his seed crops he was hit with an extreme case of Sclerotinia in his arugula crop. He will pay much better attention to his cropping history in the future.

High Mowing Farm; This farm has grown seed crops for the seed company for a number of years. Most prominent are the Brassica crops, which Tom has selected for disease resistance, most notably Alternaria and Sclerotinia. Selecting for individual Brassica plants with Horizontal resistance to both of these diseases has been successful endeavor for High Mowing. It wasn’t uncommon for there to be between 20% and 40% of the plants affected by these diseases in the past, whereas several of the selected varieties now rarely have more than 10% of the population affected by these pathogens.

Pacific Northwest Target Growers:

Beth Rasgorshek; She had struggled to grow edamame soy beans until she attended a workshop and realized that the style of harvest was different than with common beans due to shattering. She incorporated a swathing at a greener stage and recovers most of her crop now.

Nash Huber: Has grown spinach seed for several years with out selecting against Fusarium root rot. This year we will select for the most resistant plants then compare the two lots in the next cycle. Nash has changed his pacing due to our classes and gets much better seed size in his spinach. (crowding = small seed).

Frank Morton: He learned to recognize partial or Horizontal resistance at our workshops for Downy mildew and now has developed lettuce varieties that definitely have resistance to Downy mildew.

Fred Brossy: Had tried to selectout off-types of an Armenian cucumber after fruit set without much progress. In our class he learned several methods for selecting pre-fruit set and is making much greater progress.

Steve Habersetzer: Is also selecting for Fusarium resistance in spinach. He selected heavily against this disease this summer and we can hopefully note progress in 2005.

Bill Reynolds: Bill has grown Tomato seed for years and always gotten ~70% germination rate. From our class he learned about leaving the fruit on the plant till dead ripe. His germ rates went up to ~90% this year.

Randy Carey: Has started to select against Rhizoctonia in his beet seed plantings. Up to 15% of his roots were affected 2 generations ago. His Rhizoctonia rate is now below 10% and he is continuing his selection.

Don Tipping: Don discovered Downy Mildew in his onion crop this year and made his first selection for Horizontal resistance on this year’s bulbs. He will grow these for seed next year and a comparison will start in the next cycle.

Lastly, the writing of the book is coming along nicely. There is much more detective work on some information than I would have dreamed. 1) The work on seed borne diseases has finally been resolved with help from Lindsey du Toit of WSU and some of the information will be used for a WSU bulletin for organic seed growers. 2) I have gathered lots of information on seed harvesting, threshing, and cleaning this year and will take many photos of appropriate equipment I’ve hunted down in 2005. 3) Isolation distance information was changed due to new USDA info from the study of GM crops and now warrants a whole chapter. 4) I’ve done comprehensive work on the plant families and written several sections for the 9 main families of crop plants. This will become the bulk of the middle of the manual as the crops within a particular family are often treated much the same in their production, their pollination, their fertility and water requirements, their harvest, their seed cleaning and conditioning.