The Saving Our Seeds project is seeking growers to:
• Participate in its ongoing survey to set seed-production
• 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:
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.
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
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,
or directly online at:
If the service is successful this year, we hope to
expand it next year. For further questions, contact:
Seed Sourcing Service Coordinator
Carolina Farm Stewardship Association
49 Circle D Dr.
Colbert, GA 30628
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
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
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. We will grow out all six
and aim for larger-scale commercial production of beans, tomatoes
and cover crops—as many varieties as practical."
“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
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
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
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.