The Case for Regional Seed
By Petra Page-Mann
There is so much in a seed.
Each seed tells the story of its entire life history, millions of years in the making. A few seeds, in a single generation, may travel the globe. Most will stay within their watershed and most likely, their microclimate. In this way, seeds become profoundly adapted to place. The selection pressures of the environment (drought, low-nutrient stress) are key in the evolution of every seed.
Agricultural seed tells an additional story, one of human relationship. Historically they remained fairly static, slowly adapting to place and becoming spread wide first on our backs, then by camel, then by boat. Fast forward to 2013: most seed companies offer seed from all over the world.
If ‘regional seed’ is seed becoming adapted to a bioregion, then all seed before World War I was regional. Farmers in both industrialized and developing nations saved their own seed. Integral to livelihood, maintaining good seedstock was equally important as keeping a good bull for livestock. Over time, each variety was selected to meet the environmental conditions and farmer’s needs on the farm.
We share a blind faith that seed is produced by the companies selling them; this is most often not the case. Although a ‘widely adapted’ seed may grow in your soil, it may not flourish as one that has been ‘regionally adapted.’ Companies with international markets excel in the former, but not the latter.
Most seed is grown where the climate favors commercial dry seed production, such as the Pacific Northwest and Israel. Much of this seed is adapted to modern agricultural techniques (mechanization, increased external inputs), allowing for wide adaptation and the high yields resulting from high inputs. Further, breeding for resistance to pests and disease is rarely prioritized, relying heavily on chemical applications, resulting in varieties adapted to these sprays.
Is regional seed a thing of the past?
Following the rebirth of regional organic vegetable production, awareness of regional seed production is gaining momentum. Regional seed is the natural root of local food. The Pacific Northwest has a thriving network of small-scale seed growers and here in the Northeast we have our own burgeoning community of committed seed growers. Perhaps evidence of a shift in public awareness, many of these growers are experiencing significant sales growth each season.
The Case for Regional Seed
Each region has specific resources, growing challenges and market opportunities; regional seed is uniquely able to adapt all of these needs and conditions.
Not all seeds are readily produced on a commercial scale in the Northeast (on account of our humid growing season), but many could be with proper techniques. Few seed companies sell seed grown in the Northeast and even then it is only a small percent of their offering. This means you may be buying good seed but not seed selected to excel in your specific climate and soils.
Fruition Seeds offers a different perspective, providing varieties grown organically in and for the Northeast. Raised in the Northeast, co-founders Petra Page-Mann and Matthew Goldfarb have worked in agriculture for over thirty collective years. With knowledge of local production, local markets and operating on a relatively small scale, they offer seed grown on their farm in the Finger Lakes of Upstate New York as well as seed from other excellent organic growers throughout the Northeast.
“Without a company to serve the market, how do we have access?” asks Dr. Michael Mazourek with Plant Breeding and Genetics at Cornell University. “Seed customized to our growing conditions gives us freedom from ‘making do’ with what serves major national markets. A region’s ability to have vibrant, productive seed is critical.”
“Each farm is unique, especially each organic farm,” observes Michael Glos, also with Cornell Plant Breeding and Genetics. Conventional seed, produced with quick-release fertilizer and pesticide, may perform with little variation between farms. Organic systems, however, have a spectrum of variables for seed to respond to, increasing the significance of regional seed.
“Regional seed is important,” continues Michael who, ten years ago, saved kale seed on his farm. Having only grown that seed since, “nothing can replace seed selected on the conditions of your specific farm.”
Will Bonsall agrees: “We like to hire everything out: washing the car, fixing the deck. But some things are too compelling, too important to leave to the professionals, like tucking in our children at night. Everything related to food, and especially the seed, must be seen in this light.”
Bonsall has been saving seed in Maine for decades, witnessing the impact of regional and on-farm selection in many crops. His work with grain is an excellent example. “Wheat bred for the prairie soils of the grain belt, rather than the forest soils of the Northeast, are notably different. Additional breeding for yield has neglected the flavor, nutrition and bread-making qualities of wheat.” Adapting grains to his soils has taught him much and he continues to learn more each season.
How is Regional Seed Developed?
Bonsall sources multitudes of wheat to ‘trial’ from germplasm banks around the world, Seed Savers Exchange, neighbors and seed companies. Variety trialing is central to the growth and vitality of regional seed. Grown side by side, varietal characteristics are evaluated from seed currently grown in a region as well as seed from around the world. In many ways, trialing is as important as seed production itself because it illuminates the spectrum of genetic diversity within a crop type, offering us the range of what is possible. Once a consistent, quality variety has been identified, it moves into production to be ‘customized’ to our growing conditions.
Like growing seed, trialing is done by seed companies and universities. But perhaps most important, the active participation of farmers is key to the long-term vision and success of these efforts.
Several seed companies based in the Northeast trial extensively to find varieties with potential for growers in the Northeast. Also, Cornell Plant Breeding and Genetics is making exciting progress identifying varieties with resistance to diseases with national and international significance, such as downy mildew and late blight. This season they are growing 56 varieties of cucumber in their downy mildew trials, with over a thousand plants from the breeding program going to the field for selection. We are fortunate here in the Northeast (especially the Finger Lakes!) because diseases with international relevance studied here offer tremendous regional insight, as well.
Cornell also engages growers in our bioregion who participate in variety trial and breeding. “Come to a field day,” encourages Michael Mazourek, “meet us and get more involved!” The Cornell Organic Vegetable Research Farm in Freeville, NY will hold a public field day in late summer (date to be determined) and can always be found at NOFA conferences and many NOFA-sponsored events.
Regional seed, like local food, is too important to our lives to be fringe for long. The extraordinary elasticity of genetics offers ample opportunity to customize our seed to meet the specific conditions and needs of individual and regional farms. The seed we have now is good but truly excellent, well-adapted and regional seed is our privilege to cultivate. With the collaboration of seed companies, universities and individuals alike, building a regional seed supply in the Northeast is gaining momentum with each season. ‘Trial’ some regionally adapted seed in your garden this season and see how ‘local’ can go deeper!
Petra Page-Mann lives and farms in Naples, New York and founded Fruition Seeds in the Fall of 2012. She may be reached at email@example.com.