Vegetable seed growing handbook
Through this year and into 2011 the writing for the Vegetable Seed Growing Handbook is being finished from much accumulated information that was gathered through several years of investigation. This investigation began with library research and interviews with many seed growers who had years of experience with aspects of sustainable seed production.
Much of the material that has been gathered has been presented to farmers interested in seed production through a series of workshops and classes given by both the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) and Restoring Our Seed, both of which had SARE grants to teach seed growing skills. This interaction with hundreds of farmers through at least a dozen workshops and field days in these programs enabled me to have a very good understanding of which information was most beneficial to the farmers and how to present it to be best understood. It is currently being presented to a whole new group of farmers via trainings presented by the Northern Organic Variety Improvement Cooperative, a cooperative project funded through the USDA OREI grants program. This includes classes and workshops taught by myself at Cornell University in the Northeast. The content of this class is described in detail in the 2007 annual report.
Since 2007 all of the work on this grant has gone into writing and assembling all of the accumulated information into a readable, useable whole. It is now in the editorial stage with transcript chapters being turned into Ben Watson (the Chelsea Green editor) on a regular basis.
A) Farmers incorporate improved practices learned at workshops for seed production.
We have certainly achieved this target as we have seen many of the farmers we have worked with over the last 5 years incorporate many of the practices that we have taught and demonstrated in our classes and workshops. This has been very evident in at least three ways. First of all in the first two years of this grant we had extension agents Tom Stearns and Mark Hutton (I replaced Mark) visit farmers growing seed crops and they witnessed from 12 to 14 farmers who were using these techniques with some degree of success. Secondly, through the aforementioned SARE grants and work with OSA we have had field days with cooperating farmers at their farms and have seen at least 15 marvelous examples of farmers that were incorporating these techniques, achieving what we had hoped would be the change we were seeking. This was true not only at the farms where the workshops were held, but we would always take side trips during each field day and visit other interested seed growers in the area and be very pleased at their progress as well. Lastly, we always had farmers fill out questionnaires at all seed growing workshops and would often have 30 – 40 % of the farmers as repeat attendees. From these repeat attendees were many of our best students and their comments were invaluable in learning just which techniques they did indeed incorporate into their production practices. It was also great for the development of the book and to determine all of the techniques that would indeed be incorporated into the manuscript.
B) Farmers keep track of % vigor, seed yields, severity of disease, flowering dates and times. We achieved this target with work done during the first two years of the grant. By organizing 15 “Target Growers” from Vermont and the Pacific Northwest (they were replacements for the original Maine growers) we were able to monitor the amount of seed they grew (seed yields), extent of crop and seedborne diseases, and the percent change in the vigor of the seed they’d grown from one cycle to the next. Much of this was possible due to the good fortune of having Tom Stearns as “lay extension” in Vermont and the fact that he was already working very closely with the good growers who had taken at least one of the Restoring Our Seed (LN02 – 160) classes. As someone running a seed company he was already monitoring yields, incidence of disease, and the germination and vigor of seed lots he was buying. I was able to do the same with western growers who were working with seed companies like Seeds of Change and Territorial Seed Company. As far as monitoring “date of flowering” and “days to flowering” (flowering time) we did fall short and we were only hit or miss on actually monitoring and attempting to improve the seed crops on these traits.
C) Farmers incorporate seed cleaning practices to improve time spent and % of their harvestable yield. Yes, this goal was achieved in a significant way for almost all of our Target Growers. In fact, several of our growers went beyond what we initially envisioned when teaching them how to clean seed. We were very fortunate to have Tom Stearns in Vermont as he not only taught the growers in his region many of the seed cleaning methodology but was instrumental in exposing them to the appropriate technology to improve the time that they spent cleaning seed. Also, several of the seed workshops we held in the Northwest were at either Don Tipping’s farm or Nash Huber’s farm, both of whom have small scale threshing, winnowing, and cleaning equipment and were instrumental in teaching our growers efficiencies in their seed cleaning.
Overview: The last two years has been very important for advancing the work that was originally conceived when stating the original Milestones for this project. The continued increase in exposure that many of our growers are receiving from the seed companies that are increasingly selling the seed from 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 “Target Growers” described in my annual reports. Another organic seed company, 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. Fedco Seeds in Maine is increasing their reliance on purchasing seed from some of our best growers and there are several smaller seed companies in the Northeast and the Northwest that are sourcing all of their seed from these start-ups!
The demand for organic seed and organically bred varieties has also led to the four institutions, Cornel U., U of Wisc., Oregon State U. and the Organic Seed Alliance getting a grant from the USDA to both breed for organic conditions and to train organic farmers how to grow seed organically. This continues the outreach that began with this project! Starting in 2009 we will be teaching at least 75 people per year in organic seed growing techniques!
Our accomplishments were indeed well represented by the milestones that we set and have largely met during the 5 years that we have worked on this project. The only major course correction that we had to make along the way was with one of the extension staff positions. Mark Hutton, an extension agent in Maine, was going to gather feedback from seed growers in his area and document their successes and failures as beneficiary milestones. As it turned out he encountered resistance in incorporating and expanding on the techniques taught at workshops (in essence they wanted to remain quite small-scale, using home garden scale techniques) and so I personally had to replace Mark, gathering feedback from the progressive growers we have been working with in the Northwest. The number of participants did develop as planned and indeed in some cases went way beyond what we originally expected or planned for. In the following paragraphs below I will explore the specific impacts in meeting our milestones. This is a step-by-step breakdown of the accomplishments made in meeting milestones that were laid out in the original grant proposal.
A) The first Milestone of announcing our workshops was 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!
B) My second Milestone was again easily met. We easily had 150 people register and attend workshops in years 1 – 4. We have had excellent attendance for one day workshops in the past 2 years. This was true in 2006 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 and 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+). In 2007 we had excellent turnout (35+) at the Mt. Vernon Extension Facility for a two day seed workshop for Skagit Valley crops and a very successful day (50+) at Nash’s farm and lots of farmers and researchers (50+) at Frank Morton’s seed operation in Oregon. The crown jewel in 2006 and 2008 was the Seed Grower’s Conferences in Oregon with 200+ people for 3 days both times with lots of workshops, panel discussions and presentations from academics and successful farmers alike!
C) 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.
D) The fourth Milestone was set to document the successes and failures of 15 of the most progressive farmers identified by the two extension agents (Tom Stearns and Mark Hutton) in New England who could work closely to monitor their progress. As I reported in the 2005 annual report 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. As to Tom Stearn’s commitment to report on the cadre of Vermont growers that formed part of this original group of 15 growers was excellent. These relationships supplied us with a lot of excellent feedback for the book.
E) Indeed the fifth Milestone concerned our growers incorporating at least 2 of the cultural practices learned in workshops. Certainly this was true of our Target growers and indeed from repeat attendees we frequently would get feedback where indeed they had used practices learned in previous workshops. 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.
F) The last milestone concerns the feedback that will be collected at the time of publication. Originally conceived as a postcard that would be included in the first 1000 copies of the book that are sold, we now see it as a longer questionnaire with a phone survey to many of the people on our list who are connected to the local growers (i.e. extension agents or seed company field representatives) who can help get in touch with the primary growers who are most likely to respond.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
The impact of this work is far-reaching and still growing much more from my last annual report! Not only are there several more seed companies (Siskyou Seeds, Uprising Seeds, and Irish Eyes) as well as the ones that we have inspired in the past (High Mowing, Fedco, Southern Exposure and Seeds of Change) but there is also a new organic seed cooperative, The Family Farm Seed Cooperative that is made up entirely of organic farmers that we have inspired in the past! All of these companies now rely on many of the growers that we have trained to supply much of the organically grown vegetable seed that they carry more than ever. This would not have been possible without our trainings as many of these growers might not have the tools to do the great job that they are doing without the education that was gained from our workshops.
The number of farmers reached by this project was at least 150 people in each of the years that we have offered workshops and seed growing classes (see Milestone D above). We have also influenced a number of extension agents and university researchers (at least 15 total) in both the Northeast and the Northwest combined since the beginning of this work. This is important as these plant science professionals are now much more aware of the importance of producing quality organic vegetable seed for this important budding market and now know a number of ways that they can help farmers in their area. As an example, Heather Darby, who is now an extension agent for the state of Vermont first learned of this work when working for High Mowing Seeds soon after completing her graduate work in Oregon. She now is intimately involved with a group of farmers from Vermont who are learning how to identify good wheat varieties for Vermont, genetically maintain and select them for their organic production systems and produce seed for themselves and any other wheat growers in northern New England. Another example of extension staff being influenced by this work is Alex Stone at Oregon State University. Alex has attended several of our workshops and has had a number of Oregon farmers come to her for further help. She is now very interested in supporting the budding organic seed growing economy that is thriving in her area and has even published an on-line seed growers resource guide for the entire Pacific Northwest.
Another very important impact of this work has been a new awareness for some of the general public that supports local organic agriculture. There are a number of farmers now growing seed or purchasing seed regionally that are also producing produce for direct sales through Farmers’ Markets or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares. These growers often have an ongoing dialogue with their customers and the customers often learn about the wonderful, regionally adapted crop varieties that the growers are supplying and where the seed comes from. The customers not only learn the names of certain regionally appropriate vegetable varieties as for the quality they offer, but they also embrace the connection between regionally produced (and organically produced) seed and the ability for their regional farmers to be able to produce these unusual specialty items. We know of a number of cases like this in different parts of the country where this ground swell of support for locally produced vegetables with an emphasis on local seed is occurring and only strengthening our effort.
Certainly the way to keep the momentum going on this interest in regional seed, both culturally and economically, is to have awareness by regional seed companies as to the importance of this and to have regional assistance for farmers getting going as seed producers. The regional support could come from regional seed companies needing a distinguishable regional focus and that are willing to support farmers in their region to produce as well as maintain and select regionally adapted vegetable varieties for their markets. Support can also come from state extension, which can give advice on the cultural, production and genetic aspects of raising a seed crop. The help of non-governmental organizations like the Organic Seed Alliance can also be a big help in this mission as well, with direct consultation with farmers through programs funded by grants by private foundations or governmental groups like SARE.