8, 2005: I know it's December and I know the crops
are all harvested. But I'm not quite ready to start thinking
about planting next year's crops.
But the seed catalogs are pouring in. It doesn't seem to matter what you plant—vegetables,
grains, corn, soybeans, whatever--it's time to order those
seeds. Especially if there are certain varieties you know
As a research farm, we have many projects that require certain
varieties or particular seed sizes. That all requires ordering
early. Actually I think it gets earlier every year. The varieties
you order and even the size of the seed can have a huge impact
on the success of your field season. We've been performing
our own variety tests looking at corn, soybean and wheat varieties
grown under our own rotational systems and we've seen some
For example we've seen differences in how various corn and
soybean varieties respond to the presence of weeds. Some corn
varieties have shown a yield differences of up to 60 percent
when weed pressure is at 2000 pounds per acre, while another
variety in the same field, same soil type, all growing conditions
the same, showed no reduction at all. So in this case, yields
for the same variety without weed pressure were 120 bushels
per acre. But in the presence of weeds the yields dropped
to 75 bu/ac. At $6.00 a bushel, that 45 bu/ac means a difference
of $270.00 per acre. So you see, variety selection really
does make a difference.
One of the big problems we have as organic farmers is the
lack of research exploring variety breeding and selection
under organic conditions. Most of the germplasm all of us
use was propagated under conventional growing conditions where
all the weeds are eliminated with herbicides and all the nutrients
are supplied through chemical fertilizers. As organic farmers
and growers we are taking those seeds and growing them in
fields that depend on rotations, cover crops and cultivation
to manage the weeds and legumes, composts, manure or natural-source
fertilizers to supply the nutrients. We have seen that the
plants respond in different ways to these different growing
As organic farmers we often have different criteria by which
we judge the quality of a variety. For example in soybeans
I want a plant that grows fast, gets tall and bushy, and closes
the canopy quickly. I plant soybeans on 30-inch rows and cultivate.
Many conventional farmers today plant soybeans on 7-inch rows
so they like an upright bean to take advantage of this particular
seed spacing. For corn I’m willing to sacrifice some
yield potential to get a plant with fast germination, early
seedling vigor, and a robust root system. I want corn to jump
out of the ground and grow fast to get a jump on the weeds.
Then I want it to have good root growth characteristics to
forage for the nutrients it needs since I don’t place
them conveniently at the base of the plant in a soluble form
using chemical fertilizer.
As organic farmers we really need to support the breeding
of crops and the production of seed for the organic industry
by asking for and buying organic seed whenever and wherever
we can. I know some farmers have said to me, “Yeah,
but it costs more and the rules say you can plant conventionally
grown seed as long as it is untreated,” and technically
they are correct. But until every segment of the industry
benefits we all suffer.
When it comes to vegetables the choices are infinite. I always
look for seed varieties that exhibit good disease resistance,
weed tolerance, good root growth, and of course flavor since
I generally know my customers and I’ll hear about it
if they aren't the best. Now that’s not to say that
my conventional counterparts don’t often want the same
things I do, it’s just that different varieties respond
to different farming systems and as organic farmers we need
to know what those responses are. Since most seed companies
and university test plots don’t include duplicate variety
trials, with one representing a conventional system and one
that represents an organic system, it’s up to each of
us to experiment on our own farm.
As you look through those seed catalogs over the next few
weeks or months, don’t be fooled by the glossy pictures
or yield data reporting. Ask the right questions, shop for
varieties that express the traits you need on your farm and
try some test plots on your own with the weeds, rotations
and production systems you use. This is all time well spent.
If you’d like more data on the work we’ve done
here at the Institute’s research station in Pennsylvania
drop me an email
and I’ll be glad to send it to you.
For now I wish for all of you a joyous holiday season. Stay
warm and safe.
From One Farm to Another