us your organic seed stories…after reflecting
on the whole experience.
Richard Glenister is loathe to give the detractors
of organic farming ammunition to fight their losing
battle, but he is even more intent on bringing
professional seed quality, reasonable customer
service and accountability when organic seed companies
do not deliver what the label says. The success
of organics is always the best argument.
In allowing us to edit the letter for publication,
he wrote: “I know that to build the organic
farming infrastructure will take time. We essentially
need to learn (or re-learn) a whole new way of
Seed producers with good seed, farmer-directed
research and responsible business practices are
to be commended for their role in building the
organic crop industry. Those trying to do the
same need to be accountable in the process, and
work with farmers trying to work with them.
Richard wonders if he is alone in his negative
experiences with organic seed. If you have comments
on this topic, please
Organic seed producers will ask the following
questions, so please consider:
- What were the soil conditions just before
and in the two weeks after your planting?
- What were the weather conditions at planting,
and in the two weeks after planting?
- Was your planting equipment working properly,
and was it properly calibrated?
- Were there any conditions or events that
might have influenced germination?
- Did you promptly report any trouble to a
seed company representative, provide lot numbers
and other information that the company would
need to assess its liability in your problem?
Glenister says he tends to avoid unpleasant conversations,
and admits he didn’t take the time to call
during the press of planting season when the field
was ready to plant. Some of the apparent quality
lapses (mislabeling) emerged a full year after
they happened. He’s sharing the agronomic
problems to spark dialogue on ways to strengthen
the entire organic seed industry.
Posted February 16, 2007: Jeff Moyer’s
recent article concerning using organic certified seed really
touched a sensitive nerve here. (See Let's
get real, and all commit to using organic seed.)
First, you are absolutely correct when you say that we organic
farmers should be committed to using organic certified seed.
Second, the issue is much more complicated than just price.
It is a serious problem that is also controversial when you
begin looking at what is happening on farms.
Here’s my experience, so you know what I mean. I’d
like to know if other NewFarm.org readers have similar experiences—one
or several—or if I am alone in these situations where
organic seed has caused me problems.
I operate a small organic grain farm producing corn for grain,
soybeans for livestock feed and small grains (wheat, triticale
In the past four years my certified organic purchases included:
- three lots of corn seed
- three lots of soybean seed
- two lots of spelt seed
- one lot of sweet corn seed (containing four varieties)
In addition, I purchased two lots of untreated conventionally
grown corn seed (one of which was open pollinated) and one
lot each of untreated soybean and spring triticale seed.
Also, one year I planted some untreated conventionally grown
wheat which I had grown myself. Currently I plant about half
of my corn with open-pollinated seed that I save back as well
as all my own soybean and triticale seed.
Now of the three lots of organic corn seed, there was:
- Poor germ: One (planted in 2003) arrived
here with 85 percent germination indicated on the tag, but
when it was planted under excellent growing conditions it
had a 25-percent emergence.
- Excellent germ: The other organic variety
planted that year the same day in an adjacent field with
the same soil type had excellent emergence and produced
a good crop.
- Mislabeling: In 2004, concerned that
the previous organic corn variety was too long-season for
my area, I requested a shorter-season variety from my local
organic seed supplier (the major organic supplier in this
area). They supplied a variety labeled: 88 days good for
both grain and forage. Planted right on time in mid-May
it gave every appearance of an excellent crop until autumn.
That corn was as green October 31 as it was August 1 and
didn’t begin to dry until the killing frost that Halloween
night. I was forced to harvest and sell that crop as high
moisture corn at 45 percent in mid-December at a substantial
Have you ever tried to combine 45-percent moisture corn?
Meanwhile the open-pollinated Wapsie Valley, planted a week
later, matured on time and made a respectable crop in mid-November
at 25 percent moisture.
Interestingly enough, this past winter I attended a farmer
meeting where the company that produced the long-season corn
seed gave a presentation. I learned after the fact that the
variety was a “stay green” type completely inappropriate
for my situation. In addition, I also learned the self-same
organic seed supplier planted untreated conventional seed
for their own corn crop the same year they sold me inappropriate
certified organic seed.
Low germ rate, again
This past season (2006) I planned to grow about 3 acres of
organic sweet corn and purchased certified organic seed from
a widely advertised supplier. I should have suspected a problem
when I noticed their planting recommendations were about four
times higher than I would have expected, but the sales representative
couldn’t explain why.
When the seed arrived, I carefully determined the number
of seeds per pound and consulted with a successful local sweet
corn grower. He indicated that since the size of sweet corn
seed varied so greatly, the current agronomic practice was
to try to plant about 27,000 seeds per acre. So after spending
considerable time adjusting the planter for each of the four
varieties, I planted the sweet corn. In fact, when I reweighed
and calculated, the actual planting rate was about 10-15 percent
higher than planned. However, for three of the four varieties,
only about 25 percent emerged.
Discouraged I reordered conventional, untreated seed from
another supplier (some of the same varieties) and replanted.
Upon comparing the seed from both sources, the difference
was obvious. The organic seed had about twice the seeds per
pound. I suspect the certified organic seed was either from
a drought-stressed crop or had been improperly conditioned
after harvest. As you might expect, the conventional seed
performed much, much better.
Dirty spelt seed
Similarly, this past season I planned to plant about 50 acres
of spring spelt for which I purchased certified organic seed.
But when it came time to plant—with the ground all prepared—I
discovered the seed had been so poorly threshed, treated with
diatomaceous earth (which hadn’t been removed), and
not re-cleaned that I could not plant this seed with a grain
drill. The trash in the seed alone repeatedly plugged the
drill, and the diatomaceous earth dramatically reduced seed
After working all afternoon trying to plant 10 acres with
about one third the proper rate, I stopped. When I called
the seed supplier they responded, “Oh, we had that same
problem last week ourselves and we had to use a broadcast
As a consequence, I had to locate a seeder (fertilizer spreader
due to the large seed size, trash and planting rate), wait
a week, then refit the ground following rain, plant and disk
to cover the seed. I later encountered a serious problem during
cultivation. Since the seed had been placed at varying depths
by the disk, the plants growing too close to the surface were
destroyed by the tine cultivator.
I was faced with the dilemma of cultivating and losing about
half the crop or letting the weeds grow. As a compromise,
I cultivated half the acreage and left the remainder. As you
might expect, the weedy fields were extremely difficult to
combine but actually yielded better than the cultivated fields.
In sharp contrast, the untreated conventional spring triticale
seed, properly planted with the drill, withstood cultivation
with acceptable losses.
Seed quality first
The point I am trying to make here is that many of the people
who are trying to grow and sell organic seed are not experienced
seed producers. They apparently lack the skills and knowledge
to produce the high-quality seed that is especially important
for organic growers.
Poor quality seed is poor quality seed whether certified
organic or not. The fundamental requirement for any seed is
to make a good crop that can be sold. Organic farmers are
still subject to basic economics. Besides, organic farmers
have enough other challenges that they don’t need to
struggle with poor seed as well.
I farmed for many years conventionally and only recall one
bad lot, and that of trefoil seed. Organic seed producers
can and must do better as a group if farmers, as a group,
are required to buy organic seed.
|When he wrote,
Glenister was under the impression that the seed
company he knew as Blue River had an association
with the Monsanto Company. That link would have
made it ethically impossible for him to buy the
organic brand’s products, despite its strong
reputation for seed quality. He’s since learned
that Blue River Hybrids (www.blueriverorgseed.
com) today has no such association. It was formed
in 2005 when Monsanto purchased the non-organic
portion of NC+ Hybrids, and the organic portion
of NC+ (seeds and all) became an independent company.
Maury Johnson is head of production and sales.
Having limited maturity options is something else that complicates
things for organic farmers this far north. The Rodale Institute
is located in southern Pennsylvania where you can easily grow
100- to 105-day corn. Here in upstate New York we wouldn’t
dream of planting longer than 90-day corn. Further, as I gain
experience with growing corn using legume plowdown-based system,
I have come to understand that the delay in nitrogen availability
seems to significantly delay corn maturity. Where I could
easily grow 90-day corn with conventional fertilizer, I now
want to plant no more than 85-day corn—even shorter
if I could find the variety.
If you survey the Internet you can find several sources of
long-day certified organic corn seed. I know of only two sources—one
of which is mentioned above—who produce corn in the
maturity range I need. I know, because I have actively looked
during every winter planning season. The situation is of such
concern to me that I have actively lobbied Cornell Plant Breeding
to establish a project to help reconstitute a hybrid corn
seed production infrastructure in New York State. I asked
them for organic varieties based on public hybrids bred for
New York conditions specifically for organic production.
I hope you can see that organic farmers are faced with some
very real difficulties in finding sources of acceptable seed.
I am not even at the point of asking for a higher-yielding
better variety. I just want a variety that will satisfy the
basic requirements for quality and maturity group.