Farmers need an organized way to
improve organic seed quality

We support organic seed, even after battling black rot in 2006.

By Atina Diffley

Editor’s NOTE:

Response to Richard Glenister’s letter Organic farmers left holding the bag for substandard seed in response to Jeff Moyer’s column titled Let’s 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 importance.

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 production.

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 cultivar plants.

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 it again.

Is development of a procedural recommendation something New Farm could develop and publish?