COMMENTARY

Organic farmers left holding the bag for substandard seed
Rules that require the purchase of organic seed—but don’t guarantee seed quality as represented—create inequities in building the new organic infrastructure.

By Richard Glenister

Send 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 doing.”

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 write us.

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.

--NF

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 and spelt).

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 discount.

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 flow.

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 seeder.”

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.

editor's NOTE
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.