Response to Richard
Glenister’s letter Organic
farmers left holding the bag for substandard seed
in response to Jeff Moyer’s column titled
get real, and all commit to using organic seed.
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Posted March 15, 2007: I feel strongly that
the advancement of cultivars specifically developed for organic
systems will, in the long run, provide great advantages to
organic farmers and that as part of “the organic community”
our support in purchasing and using organic seed is of evident
We go to great effort to locate and use new organic varieties
and sources in crop areas we produce and evaluate them for
their potential to replace the proven varieties we have been
using, often for decades. The higher cost for organic seed
is not an issue we even consider. We receive higher prices
for our product and we expect to spend some of that in its
However, the organic seed industry is still in the infancy
stage with problems to be worked out as it matures. Many of
the cultivars we have trialed have had problems with cosmetic
quality or disease resistance that rendered them unmarketable.
For example, in 2006 we grew three varieties of cauliflower:
two untreated cultivars and one organic. The organic cultivar
developed black rot. Seed contaminated with black rot bacteria
is considered the most common source of the black rot pathogen.
As few as three infected seeds per 10,000 can result in a
black rot epidemic. Seed should be tested and certified to
be disease free with less than one in 30,000 infected seed.
The organism survives in infected crop tissue left on the
soil until the crop tissue decomposes.
However, the bacteria do not survive very long in soil as
unprotected free-living organisms. We have concerns that the
black rot introduction was borne on the organic seed. We haven’t
had black rot in the field before and disease symptoms were
evident on the organic cultivar two weeks before it spread
into the untreated varieties. It cost us 100 percent of the
organic cultivar and 50 to 60 percent of 12,000 of the untreated
It also cost us additional expense and labor as we quarantined
the field. Only one person was allowed into the field to harvest
and was required to change clothes/shoes and shower afterward.
We specified one harvest vehicle for use only in the field
and specified harvest bins and cutting tools for use only
in that field. We rented tillage equipment to destroy the
crop without contaminating our own equipment and risking spread
to other fields.
We are an established organic farm and are able to absorb
this financial loss without serious threat to the financial
stability of our operation. A less stable, smaller or beginning
farm could experience a more serious risk to their entire
operation if they sustain these types of losses due to seed
quality. We will continue to use organic seed options but
will isolate them in a field distant from the rest of our
crops to limit potential disease introduction.
Yes, I believe organic farmers have an obligation to support
organic seed development—but it is too soon to make
organic seed a complete requirement. The industry needs time
to develop, and its quality standards need to be equivalent
with conventional seed. Our consumers expect our produce to
be of equal or higher quality as its conventional counterpart,
and we can’t accomplish that with substandard seed.
It is my hope that organic decisionmakers and certifiers
recognize the problems that exist and are being worked on,
and that they will make decisions regarding the complete requirement
of organic seed use with these concerns in mind. (Because
yes, there are many excellent, professional and quality-conscious
seed breeders working on developing high-quality organic seed.)
I think the development of organic seed quality could be
accelerated if a procedure for dealing with organic seed issues
was developed and farmers were educated on such a procedure.
In retrospect, in writing this response I realize that I should
have communicated with the seed producer and requested the
seed be tested. Instead, in the rush of harvest, I destroyed
the crop, threw the seed away and vowed to never purchase
Is development of a procedural recommendation something New
Farm could develop and publish?