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
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
Richard wonders if he is alone in his negative experiences
with organic seed. If you have comments on this topic,
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 and
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
- 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
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
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
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
|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.