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From Seed to Shining Seed

by Petra Page-Mann

Welcome to our new feature column on the topic of seeds! As local and organic become mainstream, the seed sowing our food has largely been left out of the conversation. Why does seed matter? In no way small or simple, each seed (open-pollinated, hybrid, GMO) sows a story much larger and more complex than its unassuming beginning. That we would know and sow seed that embodies the abundance, diversity and tenacity that is agriculture: this is why I live well, grow seed and write. – Petra Page-Mann, Column Editor

The groundswell of small-scale, regionally adapted seed growing across the continent has been a pleasure to watch develop in the ten years that I have been farming.  From Maine to Tucson to Bellingham, I’ve saved seed on diverse farms and seed companies, bearing witness to the increasing interest and awareness of seed by gardeners, farmers and eaters alike.  These experiences have taught me that the significance of seed is in no way small.  Like food, the fact of seed is as much a subject of spirit as it is of supper, impacting every facet of what we value, reflecting the very nature of why we farm in the first place.  We now recognize and celebrate the renaissance of local food, with its innumerable benefits to farmers, eaters and ecology; the celebration of the regionally adapted, open-pollinated and organic seed that sows this abundance is just, and finally, emerging.

Sow Local: Petra Page-Mann, co-founder of Fruition Seeds, is part of the movement making resilient, regionally adapted, open-pollinated and organic seed vital in the Northeast. Photo courtesy of Jack Haley, Messenger Post Media.

Farming is challenging, growing seed no exception.  As members of tightly knit agricultural communities, we know it is the ability to adapt to ever shifting conditions that allows our farms to thrive.  To build this vision we need time, commitment, attention to detail and, above all, patience.  These varieties will not rival hybrid vigor in one or even three generations, though with vision and dedication they will soon become hallmarks of consistency and quality.  The individual and collaborative strengths of farmers, academia and industry making this vision reality in the Northeast give me hope that our grandchildren will know and sow seeds of regional resilience, diversity and abundance.

Chrystine Goldberg of Uprising Seed in Washington describes the significance of open-pollinated and regionally adapted seed beautifully: “If the modern industrial food system has done much to remove the faces behind the foods we eat, the seed industry represents the extreme of that trend.  Information regarding who grew the seeds, where they were grown, and under what conditions they were grown is almost never available to the public. Yet, as many of the traits involving how plants respond to their environment are hereditable, this information is very relevant to how the given seeds will respond in your environment.

As the seed community continues to change with more and more seed companies and varieties owned by a few, and the threat of GMO seed contamination looms, it is even more important to grow open-pollinated seeds, pass them along to others, and learn from all of those around us.  Seeds are ever-changing, relevant to time and place with stories to tell, yet seeds in the hands of common people is something we believe should never change.”

With each open-pollinated, hybrid and GMO seed we plant, we sow a different story.  This story goes much deeper than yield, and some of those stories will be told in future articles. Saving open-pollinated seed, we are reclaiming our agricultural heritage and preserving the wisdom of genetic diversity for generations to come.

A century ago, the Northeast was home to over a hundred seed companies growing their own seed.  This seed was regionally adapted, open-pollinated and organic:  before the 1930s and the birth of the agro-industrial complex, all seed was.

As it became settled, the West with its arid summers quickly became the center of dry-seeded crop production (such as lettuce and onion) whose seed, exposed to the elements, is prone to mold in the humid summers of the East.  With the ‘invention’ of hybrid seed in the 1930s, this production soon emphasized hybrid over open-pollinated (OP) varieties as a function of profitability.  The subsequent selection lacking in OP varieties has led to a completely unnecessary yet virtually systemic slouch in both consistency and productivity in OP, perpetuating the emphasis on hybrids; the nuances of these implications will be the subject of a future article. To this day, the dry summers of the Northwest remain the center of all North American seed production.

These arid summers transformed my own seed saving interest into a full-time passion over the seasons I spent in the Northwest.  Since the skills of saving seed never left the farms of this region, the West Coast has developed its small-scale, regionally adapted, OP and organic seed movement over a couple of decades.  In addition to tremendous conventional seed production, this area is home to well over a dozen small seed companies committed to growing OP, regionally-adapted and often certified organic seed for their bioregion.  For example, Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed has been developing phenomenal varieties, specializing in lettuce, for more than two decades.  Partnering with Oregon State University (OSU) and the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), Frank has built a model for seed production, breeding, marketing and farmer/university/industry collaboration.

There are many other leaders and innovators in the Northwest to be inspired by:  Brian Campbell and Chrystine Goldberg of Uprising Seed have selections from the Slow Food Ark of Taste, Don Tipping of Siskiyou Seeds selects for resilience in permacultural systems, and Andrew Still and Sarah Kleeger of Adaptive Seed are innovating varieties of vegetables worthy of their name.  Western universities such as Oregon State collaborate with small farms as well as industry to actively breed open-pollinated varieties for organic systems and have pioneered participatory plant breeding programs.  These engage organic farmer-breeder collaboration with university, nonprofit and private industry plant breeders to breed and/or improve plant genetics for organic systems.  Exploring and celebrating the significance of sustainable agriculture and seed, the Organicology conference is held each winter in Portland.  Indeed, the culture of growing and sowing such seed is well established and thriving in the Northwest.

Returning to my native Finger Lakes of western New York in 2010, I discovered seeds of the same taking root here in the Northeast. Seed saving in the East was, for decades, relegated to die-hard backyards and farms.  Despite the inherent challenges in growing certain seed crops, a handful of companies both small and large offer OP, regionally adapted and organic seed and are growing each year. Young entrepreneurs, like Ken Greene at Hudson Valley Seed Library, are bringing fresh insight to seed production and marketing in the Northeast, while seasoned veterans of the back-to-the-land era, like Will Bonsall and the Scatterseed Project, continue to preserve diversity and inspire the coming generations.  Tom Stearns of High Mowing Seed is forging new ground in seed production techniques and Lia Babitch of Turtle Tree is taking biodynamic seed to the next level in the Northeast.  Universities such as Cornell are also breeding OP varieties for organic systems and are partners in the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC).  Bringing together organic farmers, researchers and educators from four universities, the Organic Seed Alliance, and the USDA, NOVIC is actively addressing the seed and plant breeding needs of organic farmers through trialing and on-farm breeding.

With wisdom and vision from years of growing seed on both coasts, I am grateful to be launching Fruition Seeds this season with my partner, Matthew Goldfarb.  Growing regionally adapted and OP varieties for organic farms and gardens in the Northeast, we look forward to collaborating with other farmers, universities and industry partners spanning both coasts as we strive to provide and celebrate the diversity and resilience of bioregional seed.

From a rich history put on pause, the Northeast is just beginning to reclaim its legacy of regionally adapted, OP and organic seed.  For the abundance that brings us together at the table each day, for the diversity that adapts with every shift in climate, for the tenacity that keeps us all grateful:  we have much to learn from the seeds we sow.

Petra Page-Mann lives and farms in Naples, New York and founded Fruition Seeds in the Fall of 2012.  Petra may be reached at fruitionseed@gmail.com.

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