Seed Growers' Handbook: Producing Vegetable Seeds for Sustainable Agriculture

2006 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


I have submitting a second request for a one year extension for this project to Northeast SARE. When I submitted my first request for an extension one year ago I had just completed a particularly tough round of chemotherapy and radiation for cancer of the rectum. I fortunately responded well in terms of ridding myself of the tumor and while I was very weak I was very hopeful of a speedy recovery. I was told it would be take a considerable amount of time till I was fully recovered but I have always been healthy and was not prepared for how tired and worn out I would feel for most of this past year. I do not like to make excuses but I have only been at half speed for the past year. This, coupled with assuming a new position at Prescott College, has been tough. Thereby, I will report my progress despite my setback in the form of an annual report, delivering a final report in one year’s time. I am most happy to report that I have now been operating at about 80% of my capacity for the last couple of months and will spend a large proportion of my time on finishing this project in 2007.

Many of the project activities that I have reported on in the last 4 years have both continued and expanded in the past year due to the overwhelming interest in organically produced seed for certified organic growers. The specific project activities that gave many specific examples for Performance Targets and Milestones have not been done since the funding for them ceased on 3/31/05, but I am well aware of the continued activities of a number of seed growers that have been inspired by this work and can address some true milestones that have occurred as a result of this and other SARE funded projects.

The profile for organically produced seed is increasing monthly and demand for high quality organic seed far outstrips the current supply. The key remains “quality” as there are many less than professional contracts being grown by organic farmers that still have no single, truly useful manual to guide them. The objective of my work with this grant is to produce a seed grower’s manual with detailed practical information for small to medium-sized farmers on the techniques of producing appreciable quantities of vegetable seed using sustainable/organic production farming techniques. This has involved; 1) gathering information from many varied sources, including published material from agricultural research publications and bulletins (from both federal sources and state universities) and from people within the seed industry with practical knowledge gathered from the field, 2) receiving feedback and innovative techniques from the farmers I have been working with through my work in the seed industry and through this grant and the other SARE grants I have been working on. By interacting with these participant growers through workshops, questionnaires, and on-farm visits by me and my colleagues at the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA is a non-profit advocacy organization in Port Townsend, WA that educates farmers in sustainable seed production techniques) it is possible to gauge their level of understanding of the materials being taught and therefore determine which material is most appropriate for a seed grower’s manual for organics.

I am currently involved in several activities where I teach the techniques of organic seed production to farmers and future farmers alike. This is the third and final year of a project “Producing Organic Vegetable Seed – Farmer Education Project” that is funded by WSARE (SW04 – 115) which has a strong emphasis on field days where we teach growers many of the specific skills that they will need to successfully grow a vegetable seed crop. Topics include selection to type, maintaining stock seed for quality, recognizing/controlling diseases and pests, harvesting, cleaning, and marketing the seed crop. Members of the OSA staff along with university and seed industry cooperators present these topics and gather input from the growers on the appropriate material for several seed production bulletins that we are preparing on specific crops. This information is also invaluable for the Seed Grower’s Manual. I am also teaching a series of 2 to 3 day intensive classes for seed growers through OSA. We have sponsored these classes in at least 14 states and Canada in the past four years. We incorporate questionnaires to gather information/feedback from these growers to shape the content of these classes and all educational activities that we are involved in. I was also quite fortunate to have worked with the Restoring Our Seed project (NESARE – LNE02 – 160) in New England which supplied me with very valuable insights into how best to serve farmers’ educational needs in the arena of regional organic seed production.

Last, but not least, I currently teach a series of sustainable agriculture classes at Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona that all have an emphasis on sustainable agriculture’s need to develop its own crop genetic resources (especially an introductory Plant Breeding class. While many of the students are at the beginning level in their biological understanding of the systems that will make this a reality, I now realize how the Seed Grower’s Manual can also play a pivotal role as a text in a sustainable agriculture curriculum.

Objectives/Performance Targets

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: a) planting at the appropriate spacing, b) planting in the appropriate time slot for seed production, or selecting for c) seedling vigor, d) cold soil emergence, e) Horizontal Resistance [HR] to diseases, f) uniform flowering, g) prolific flowering, h) early seed maturity, and for high seed yield.

2) Of the 35 growers that 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 agents mark Hutton and Tom Stearns 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.

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 yield after threshing.

We will know when we have met the above performance goals based on reports from growers themselves as they return the 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 has been a very important year for advancing the work that was originally conceived when stating the original Milestones for this project. The most exciting occurrence this year is the increased exposure that many of our growers are receiving from the seed companies that are increasingly selling the seed from the growers that have been trained through our outreach and through the work of our extension personnel. High Mowing Seeds in Vermont continues to increase the amount of organic seed offered that is grown by many of the growers described in my previous reports. Seeds of Change is now able to “source” enough organic seed from some of our best growers to be able to offer large enough quantities to satisfy the needs of commercial organic farmers that are their customers. Seeds of Change also did wonderful profiles on several of our best growers in their 2007 catalogue with wonderful pictures and portrayals that really tell a story of independent seed production that wasn’t possible only a few short years ago. Also the WSARE sponsored workshops held in the Northwest were well attended with so many university researchers showing up for the one in Corvallis, Oregon (they were all interested in new avenues of research and heard that organic seed production is the next big thing) that they almost out numbered the farmers! Lastly, in January of 2006 we had a National Seed Growers Conference in Troutdale, Oregon that exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations with over 200 attendees (we had to turn some people away who tried to register at the last minute as there wasn’t enough food!) We had a number of people from Vermont, Maine, New York and Tom Stearns of High Mowing Seeds presented some of the info originally generated by this project! We also had folks from the Southeast and Midwest as well as all over the West – this movement is coming of age!

The first Milestone of announcing these workshops was again easily met as we have continued support from alternative agricultural publications such as Growing for Market, Mother Earth News, New Farm (on-line), and the Capital Press. The Organic Seed Alliance website has also been a very valuable way to disseminate information as the visitation to this site is steadily rising. We also had a very nice feature story done in the Oregon “Tilth” newspaper on the OSA seed growers conference that generated much interest in all other activities for the year. The combination of all of these publications (several with a national scope) means we easily reached thousands of potential interested parties, far surpassing the 500 people that we originally concerned ourselves with reaching!

My second Milestone was again easily met. We easily had 150 people register and attend workshops. We had excellent attendance for one day workshops at Nash Huber’s Farm in Sequim, WA for a spinach seed training (40+ people), at Frank Morton’s Farm in Corvallis, OR for a lettuce/brassica seed training (50+), at Bill Reynold’s Farm in Eureka, CA for a zucchini seed training (30+), and at Don Tipping’s Farm in Williams, OR for a radish seed training (40+). The crown jewel was the Seed Grower’s Conference in Troutdale, OR with 200+ people for 3 days with lots of workshops, panel discussions and presentations from academics and farmers alike!

The third Milestone of gathering 150 questionnaires was again easily met as we have become fanatical about getting all participants in all our workshops to fill out questionnaires. By now we have many experienced growers attending our workshops and their input into our programs and ultimately into the content of my book is taken very seriously. Much of this information that we have gathered helps shape the classes and workshops that we are providing. It also is an incredible guide in helping to shape the content and areas that will be stressed and given the most attention in the book.

The fourth Milestone was set to document the successes and failures of 15 of the most progressive farmers identified by me and the two extension agents (Tom Stearns and Mark Hutton) in New England who could work closely to monitor their progress. As I reported two years ago the Maine growers working with Dr. Hutton did not work out and I replaced these growers with 8 Pacific Northwest seed growers that I had a good working relationship with. I have again kept abreast of their progress and can report on it briefly in the OUTCOMES section. As to Tom Stearn’s commitment to report on the cadre of Vermont growers that formed part of this original group of 15 growers, the procedures to continue with the work of these growers has not been funded for almost two years. In the 2005 yearly report I retold much of their story of improvement from 2004 and I will refer any reviewers to check the previous two year end reports for that information.

Indeed the fifth Milestone where I gave a summary of the responses to the comprehensive questionnaires was completed for the 2004 annual report and was again included in my 2005 annual report. Therefore I’ll direct any reviewers to these two previous annual reports. We continue to collect questionnaires at all OSA seed workshops and classes and I am always reviewing them for insights into the extent of material that needs to be represented in The Seed Grower’s Manual. The very positive news that I can report is that we continue to see the kinds of improvements that we were monitoring for in addressing the fifth Milestone whenever we interact with farmers who are growing seeds. A sizeable percentage (at least 75%) of the growers that we trained in various forums are actively selecting for improved traits in their seed crops. This same percentage of growers has increased the population size and the isolation distances since learning about these techniques from our work. At least half of these growers are also monitoring for seed born diseases and selecting for plants with some level of Horizontal Resistance to any diseases that may be present. We are very proud of this accomplishment as many of these growers were completely ignorant of these procedures before we started to give these trainings.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

In the 2004 annual report I described a Verification of Change that was based on 15 target growers from both Vermont and the Pacific Northwest (they were replacements for the original Maine growers) which was based on the original Performance Target from the original grant. These “outcomes” of real improvement on the farm were verified and mediated by the extension agents that I recruited, i.e. Tom Stearns in VT and Mark Hutton in ME. As I reported in that 2004 report Tom did an exceptional job mentoring the growers and reporting the results while Mark met with real resistance in Maine. I therefore recruited a number of Pacific Northwest growers that I had trained and worked with as their replacement. I refer any reviewers to both the 2004 and 2005 annual reports to see the entire description of these favorable Outcomes and the techniques that both the Vermont and Northwest growers incorporated into the cultural practices that they use. While I have not kept abreast of the progress of the Vermont growers I will briefly update the continued success of the Northwest growers based on their continued success incorporating many of the methods presented in the workshops that we have led.

Fred Brossy: Fred has continued with his interest in growing high quality green bean seed with the help of the Idaho Foundation Seed Program. Through a series of WSARE supported workshops Fred (and a number of other fledgling organic bean seed growers in the area) has learned how to rogue his seed crop so that it is pure from off-types and free of seed-borne diseases. Fred has now gotten work from several seed companies that have given him the job of cleaning up stock seed lots for future seed production.

Randy Carey: Randy has continued to make progress in his Rhizoctonia nursery with the selection for Horizontal resistance in what has now become ‘Shiraz’ beet. His ability to determine degrees of disease resistance were instrumental in the release of this fine new beet variety with better Rhizoctonia resistance than the standard hybrids currently on the market. Randy also continues to improve in his ability to select for shape, color and strong, tall tops. His understanding of cropping systems for beets to avoid seed-borne disease is now after by at least two seed companies.

Steve Habersetzer: Steve continues to make progress selecting for Fusarium resistance in spinach. His improvement of a savoyed leaf spinach for uniformity and Fusarium resistance is exemplary, cleaning up a variable spinach variety that was not commercially acceptable when he started. Steve has also learned to time his seed harvest for very high quality, high germination seed.

Nash Huber: Nash has been very vital in the success of our seed classes in Western WA. He and his crew have continually improved their skills in timing the planting and harvesting a number of crops (spinach, cabbage, kale, and chard) as well as cleaning and conditioning of the seeds. He has learned which equipment is appropriate for which crop and has continually improved the methodology of the harvesting and cleaning of all his seed crops. Best of all Nash has been very gracious about sharing this knowledge with many young aspiring seed growers.

Frank Morton: Frank has not only incorporated many of the best techniques learned from our earliest workshops in the NW, but he has also been a pillar of innovation. Frank’s research into harvesting seed during wet conditions has continued to improve and identified specific field fabrics that can shed water. Frank has continued to improve this innovation with methods of placement and angles of stacking crop plants into windrows before covering. Frank has made the information of this innovation freely available to all other growers in the NW.

Bill Reynolds: Bill has recently acquired a Stationary Thresher that he has used for two seasons for all of his dry seeded crops. He had quite a hard time adjusting the heads for the varied seed crops he was threshing. Through one of our workshops he learned some new techniques to fine tune his adjustment of the heads and now in the second year of intense use he was able to show marked progress in his ability to get the seed cleaner and with less damage.

Don Tipping: In a series of workshops on radish seed production we all learned of the progress that Don made in his ability to plant and properly space his radish seed crop, this improved both his ability to harvest and the kinds of yield that Don was able to realize. Don also improved his harvest technique with the use of a chain saw to take down the plants at harvest to lay them into windrows.