Saving our seeds
A network of organizations sets out to grow organic, regionally-adapted crop seeds for the southeastern United States.

By Mark Schonbeck

Project partners

Saving Our Seed
www.savingourseed.org
706-788-0017

Carolina Farm Stewardship Association
Lead organization; nonprofit sustainable agriculture organization for the Carolinas
www.carolinafarm
stewards.org

919-542-2402

Anson Mills, Inc.
Seed company
www.ansonmills.com
803-467-4122

Clemson University Fertilizer and Seed Certification Services
http://dpi..clemson.edu
864-646-2140

Georgia Crop Improvement Association
www.certifiedseed.org
706-542-2351

Georgia Organics
Nonprofit sustainable agriculture organization for the state of Georgia
www.georgiaorganics.org
770-993-5534

NCSU Cooperative Extension Service
www.ces.ncsu.edu/fletcher
828-684-3562

North Carolina Crop Improvement Association
www.nccia.ncsu.edu
919-515-2851

North Carolina Foundation Seed Producers
919-269-5592

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Small seed company specializing in heirloom and locally produced seed
www.southernexposure.com
540-894-9480

Southern Seed Legacy
www.uga.edu/~ebl/
southernheirloom

706-542-1430

WANTED:
Grower participation

The Saving Our Seeds project is seeking growers to:

• Participate in its ongoing survey to set seed-production priorities
• Produce organic, locally adapted crop seeds during the 2005 season.

SOS invites all farmers and gardeners in the southeastern United States to share their priorities—crops for which you have had the most difficult time finding organic seed. You can fill out the survey on line at:
www.savingourseed.org/
Survey/survey.html

SOS seeks growers keenly interested in organic seed production to help produce organic, locally adapted vegetable and cover crop seeds in the 2005 season. Experience in certified organic farming and/or growing seed is strongly preferred. This is an excellent opportunity to explore a potential new enterprise for your farm while helping to secure a reliable supply of locally adapted, organically produced, non-patented and non-GMO seeds for your region.

Contact:
Ira Wallace
540-894-0595
ira@southernexposure.com
OR
Cricket Rakita
706 788-0017
cricket@savingourseed.org

Certified organic seed sourcing services

Are you a certified organic producer and wondering whether and where you can obtain organic seed of the crops you plan to grow? Now there’s help!

Send a list of all of the crops and cultivars (varieties) that you will be planting, to the Saving Our Seed project, along with the quantities of seed needed. In turn, SOS will promptly send you a list of all of the certified organic sources for every variety. For any variety for which no organic seed sources exist, SOS will send full documentation of this fact that you can submit to your certification agent.

SOS has been working hard to document all crop varieties for which organic seed is currently available. The organization’s list includes seeds, tubers (e.g. potatoes, garlic) and rootstocks. Not yet available for 2005 are mixtures (e.g. summer mesclun), trees and seedlings.

This service is available free of charge for the 2005 season. Growers can submit their lists by fax, mail, email to:
sourcing@savingour
seed.org

or directly online at:
www.savingourseed.org/
pages/sourcing.htm

If the service is successful this year, we hope to expand it next year. For further questions, contact:

Courtney Guido
Seed Sourcing Service Coordinator
Carolina Farm Stewardship Association
49 Circle D Dr.
Colbert, GA 30628
706 788-0017
(fax) 706-788-0071

May 12, 2005: A network of growers in the Carolinas, Georgia and Virginia has launched a daring enterprise to meet an emerging need: organically produced crop seeds for certified organic farmers. In the fall of 2003, the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA) and nine partner organizations received a SARE grant to launch Saving Our Seed (SOS), a program to recruit and train farmers in the fine art of producing high-quality seed by organic methods, and to lay the groundwork for developing a regional seed supply. The project also aims to maintain regional heirloom varieties, give farmers greater control over crop germplasm, and eventually breed and select varieties for the Southwest’s regional climates and soils.

Thus far, SOS has conducted grower surveys to identify priority crops, held intensive hands-on seed production workshops, published several in-depth seed-saving guides, and produced small quantities of seed for at least 10 vegetable varieties that project partner Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE) is marketing this growing season. Among the project’s key personnel are SOS project coordinator Cricket Rakita, SESE manager Ira Wallace, and longtime sustainable plant breeder and seed grower Jeff McCormack, who founded SESE and now manages Garden Medicinals and Culinaries, another small seed company in Virginia. Rakita and Wallace have organized the survey and the producers’ network, while McCormack writes seed-saving guides and teaches many of the workshops. CFSA Executive Director Tony Kleese provides publicity and other support for the project.

"We will do the same process again [for 2005], starting with a new survey to select three new crops to add. We will grow out all six and aim for larger-scale commercial production of beans, tomatoes and cover crops—as many varieties as practical."

Initial survey results identified tomatoes, beans of all kinds (snap, dry, edamame, cowpea) and cover crops as highest priorities. Project leaders recruited 31 growers in the four states to produce organic seed for these crops during the 2004 season. Half of these growers planned to market their seeds through SESE; the other half grew crops for Southern Seed Legacy, an heirloom seed bank in Athens, Georgia. Most participants took on one or two varieties; a few grew three or four. More than half of the SESE growers successfully brought their crops to maturity, harvesting up to 3 ounces of tomato seed and up to 10 pounds of bean seed. Tomato varieties include ‘Mortgage Lifter,’ ‘Verna Orange,’ ‘Tropic,’ and a new ‘Large Mennonite Beefsteak’ that Wallace says “is a good slicer, yet dry enough to be a paste tomato.” Beans include the older bush varieties ‘Contender’ and ‘Provider,’ for which organic seed has not been previously available, ‘Black Seeded Kentucky Wonder’ and ‘Potomac’ pole beans, and a green-podded, red-seeded asparagus bean. Wallace noted that ‘Potomac’ is an 1880s heirloom from the Potomac River region that emerges well from cool soil, while asparagus bean, a close relative of cowpea, is used like a snap bean in oriental cooking. Project leaders said they were very pleased with the first season’s accomplishments in the challenging work of organic seed production.

“We will do the same process again [for 2005], starting with a new survey to select three new crops to add,” says Rakita “We will grow out all six and will aim for larger-scale commercial production of beans, tomatoes and cover crops—as many varieties as practical. We are doing several southern heirloom bean varieties. [For tomatoes] we are emphasizing southern varieties, with disease and insect resistance.”

In addition to vegetables, cover crops have emerged as a high priority for SOS. Two growers planted ‘Wrens Abruzzi’ rye—a variety that has produced superior biomass and allelopathic properties (weed suppression by substances released into the soil) —last fall in field trials in the southeastern U.S. Rakita is looking for seed growers for sorghum-sudangrass, sunnhemp (Crotolaria), browntop millet, velvetbean and clovers during 2005. He especially likes arrowleaf clover, “an old traditional variety with high aboveground growth. Its seed is easy to produce in this region.” Buckwheat and vetch are more difficult, because they form seed over an extended season, and wind or rain can knock early-formed seed off the plant while the grower waits for later-formed seed to mature. SOS continues to invite grower input on seed production priorities through its online survey and to recruit experienced growers for organic seed production.

Training organic farmers to save seed

Producing good crop seeds is even more difficult and knowledge-intensive than growing market-quality, organic vegetables. So the project leaders did not just give growers a bag of seed and let them “sink or swim;” instead they organized a series of intensive, one-to-three-day Organic Crop Seed Production workshops for network participants and other aspiring seed growers in Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia. Crop breeders John Navazio, who manages the Organic Seed Alliance (www.abundantlifeseed.org) in Washington State, and Tom Stearns, founder of High Mowing Seeds, an all-organic seed company in Vermont (www.highmowingseeds.com), joined McCormack, Rakita and Wallace in presenting the material. They covered all aspects of seed production, including whole-farm planning, cultural practices for different crops, minimum populations and isolation distances to maintain varietal integrity, roguing and selection, harvesting and cleaning, seed storage, germination and vigor testing, and disease prevention and management. Sessions included hands-on, in-the-field training as well as classroom instruction. Vital information on the seed industry, marketing and business management was also presented.

If a gardener collects seed from 50 bulbs of a favorite onion variety, seed and crop quality will deteriorate within a few generations. Most varieties require careful roguing (removing weak and off-type plants) and selection to maintain or improve them.

Seed production is a highly skilled task. Each crop has its own cultural requirements, minimum population, isolation distance needed between varieties, and specific conditions for seed maturation, harvest and processing. A main distinction is between crops that are mostly self-pollinated and those that are mostly cross-pollinated by wind or insects. The latter require larger isolation distances and can suffer from “inbreeding depression” if seeds are collected from too small a population. For example, if a gardener collects seed from 50 bulbs of a favorite onion variety, seed and crop quality will deteriorate within a few generations. Most varieties require careful roguing (removing weak and off-type plants) and selection to maintain or improve them. The trick is to select sufficiently to maintain varietal integrity and adaptation to local conditions, yet not so narrowly as to lose vital genetic diversity.

Cultural needs can differ radically from the same vegetable grown for fresh produce. For instance, lettuce grown for salad stays in the ground for only a few weeks, whereas it requires four months to produce mature seed. During this time, the crop becomes vulnerable to fungal diseases, and the maturing seed must not get wet or Botrytis mold will destroy it. Spinach and chard both appreciate fairly cool, moist weather for greens production, and temperatures above 85°F can stop seed development, yet the maturing seed must stay dry; thus it is extremely difficult to produce seeds from these crops on a large scale in the southeastern United States. Beans also require relatively dry conditions during seed maturation, and SOS bean seed growers had some mold problems in the moist 2004 season.

Climate is the main reason that 95 percent of all bean seed marketed to U.S. growers is currently produced in Idaho. Then how does one grow regionally adapted beans for moist climates? Rakita and Wallace suggest doing the breeding and selection in the Southeast, producing small batches (e.g. 30 pounds) of high-quality seed, then sending these lots to Idaho for large-scale production (e.g. 1,000 pounds). Seed would be grown out West for one generation only, then brought back to the Southeast for continued selection.

Proper post harvest cleaning, grading, air-drying and storage are critical for all crop seeds. “Never store dirty seed,” cautions Navazio. “Damp leaf tissue can promote mold, and damaged seed are sitting ducks for disease.” Some seed crops require specialized cleaning equipment not readily available in the Southeast. For long-term storage, a good rule of thumb is that the temperature in Fahrenheit and the relative humidity should add up to less than 100. One of the hurdles to successful seed production that the SOS project seeks to address is obtaining or devising equipment for cleaning, processing and storing different types of seed on a production scale.

Sourcing organic seed

The current USDA organic standards, requiring the certified grower to use organically grown seed “if commercially available,” offers little real stimulus to the seed industry to produce organic seed and puts the onus of proof on the organic grower. Stearns states that “the big boys in the seed industry are waiting for NOP rules on seed to have ‘teeth’ before they get into this market. Wholesale companies won’t start until the demand is large. Seed growers are scared of seed-borne disease, so organic is particularly scary.” Certified growers need help in tracking down organic seed sources of the varieties they want to grow, and in documenting due diligence in attempting to do so before planting non-organic seed. SOS has responded to this need with a new Certified Organic Seed Sourcing Service initiated in January 2005.

"The big boys in the seed industry are waiting for NOP rules on seed to have ‘teeth’ before they get into this market. Wholesale companies won’t start until the demand is large. Seed growers are scared of seed-borne disease, so organic is particularly scary."

Farmers growing their own seed are bucking a megatrend in the seed industry. Commodity crops like field corn and soybean are dominated by a handful of biotech corporations, and vegetables have also undergone much consolidation.

Stearns notes that most retail seed companies grow very little of their own seed, but purchase seed from wholesalers. They have trial grounds to evaluate seeds obtained from these suppliers. For example, Alf Christianson produces 90 percent of the world’s spinach seed (through contract growers) and sells it to retailers. Exceptions include Seeds of Change, which obtains most of its seeds through direct contracts with certified organic farmers, and High Mowing Seeds which grow some of their own lines and obtain the rest through direct contracts with growers. SESE now obtains about 30 percent of its seeds directly from farmers, Fedco about 13 percent. Fedco and a few other small companies are beginning to produce organic seeds on their own premises.

Some of the consolidation in vegetable seeds relates to the crops’ specific cultural requirements. For example, how many places in the country have a summer that is reliably cool and dry enough for spinach seed production?

Despite all these hurdles, Stearns remains convinced that local, organic seed production is well worth the effort. “Seed has a history and a future and impact on farms’ future,” he says. With at most 5 percent of organic vegetables now grown from organic seed, “the market is huge. I grow as much as I can each year, and I have yet to throw seed away because it is too old.”

SESE manager Ira Wallace looks forward to the coming season as the project has attracted some interesting new participants, including an organic growers’ co-op in South Carolina that has successfully produced collard, okra and corn seed in addition to many other regionally popular crops. Another hot new seed crop this year is winter-hardy arugula. All indications point to an exciting second season for the Save Our Seeds project and a growing network for regional, organic seed production in the Southeast.