Seeds and Vintage Vegetables
CR Lawn, November 2004
Thank you, it’s been a great pleasure to
be in Michigan. Years ago when I started our seed-ordering cooperative
in Maine, I little dreamed that it would someday so connect me to
growers in the Midwest and all through the country. Through the
years these connections have been the most rewarding part of my
I love growers. I love growers because in a world
of reality TV and virtual reality you live a real reality. I love
growers because in a world where some politicians pay lip-service
to family values, you live family values. I love growers because
in a world of excuses, you live and work in a world of no excuses.
Farming is work of a thousand details and in the long run we get
back exactly what we put out. I love that about farming. I love
growers because in a world of Homeland Security, we are about the
only folks working directly to secure our homelands. As anyone who
has ever had to secure fields from Quackgrass or Canada Thistle
knows, we have a whole different definition of homeland security!
I love growers because you are consistently the most honest people
I have met, having long ago learned that there is no value in posturing
and pretending. We don’t posture to our soil, our plants our
livestock or even our machines (although once in a while we might
cuss at the machines!) because there is nought to be gained by it
and so for the most part we have learned not to posture to our fellow
human beings either.
Most of all, I love CSA growers, because CSA is
not just about agriculture, it is about community and support, and
it is about securing our communities and supporting each other.
I love CSA growers because we stand in defiance to the false idol
of privatization that has done so much damage to real American values.
In an age when we’ve been told to mind our own businesses,
to compete not co-operate, to always charge whatever the market
will bear, and the Devil take the hindmost, we have deliberately
chosen the different path of mutual support rather than private
competition. We are in the great American tradition of public libraries
and public schools. We live in a time when we are going to need
that mutual support more than ever because the majority of our politicians
don’t care about us hard-working honest people. They care
only for the rich, and one thing we all knew when we took on this
great calling is that we will never be rich in that limited way
that is the only riches that they seem to understand. Here in this
room we seek the greater riches of the spirit, the riches that come
with being outdoors, being stewards to the land, pursuing right
livelihood and caring for our communities and each other.
Last night we got to hear Farmer John’s compelling
story. But each of us should have the chance to be on this stage
because each of us has a compelling story to tell. I daresay that
none of us would be able to tell it with the artistry of Farmer
John, but I daresay that nevertheless all of our stories are equally
as compelling. You had the courage to choose the road not oft taken,
to fight the good fight. The only extent that I deserve even a minute
of your time is if somehow the work I have been doing is furthering
the greater work that all of us in this room are doing.
And so I work, as we all do, with seeds. But we
have all barely begun the work we must do with seeds. It goes far
beyond sticking some seed in the ground. Whose seed are we planting,
anyway? From whence does it come? Seed remains the last frontier
of organic agriculture. Today we stand in relation to the seed as
we stood two generations ago to the soil and one generation ago
to the creation of community. Could we have imagined in 1970 that
we would have this remarkable new form called CSA, could we have
imagined that in fewer than 20 years we would have developed more
than 1,000 such communities? Let us dare to imagine what we could
do in the next generation in relation to the seed.
Over the years part of my job has been to find
the best vegetable varieties to put in our catalog. For the most
part, the best vegetable varieties are those that taste the best.
I am open-minded about taste. Although I prefer open-pollinated
varieties, I also offer hybrids. But I prefer open-pollinated varieties
because you can save the seeds of them and they will reproduce true-to-type.
This gives you as growers the opportunity to take more control over
your production if you choose. You can grow seed as well as vegetables.
I prefer open-pollinateds because they are part of our heritage.
Many have been around for a long time and stood the test of many
different seasons––whether too wet, too cold, too hot,
too dry, some combination of the above, or just right. Among the
open-pollinated varieties I like the heirloom varieties the best.
These are the ones that have come down from Native Americans like
the Long Pie Pumpkin, or been brought across the ocean by religious
communities like the Hutterite bean or by immigrants like Jimmy
Nardello’s pepper, or have been maintained for generations
by families like Boothby’s Blonde cucumber, or introduced
by seed companies like Golden Bantam corn and Brandywine tomato
or developed by public breeding programs at our great universities
like Golden Gopher melon, or right here at the Michigan Experiment
Station, National Pickling cucumber.
Russell Libby, the Executive Director of Maine
Organic Farmers and Gardeners Assn. likes to talk about food with
a face, a place and a taste, and I to talk of seeds with a face,
a place and a taste. These heirloom varieties each have a wonderful
story to tell–a story which usually includes geographical
origin and travels, people who were important in their development
and most significant,–their flavor, and best usage, the reasons
they have lasted through the years and come down to us intact. Sweet
Corn breeders talk of 17-year cycles of planned obsolescence in
the market. Some of our heirlooms are already ten times as old and
still going strong.
Meanwhile, good hybrids blaze into the marketplace
like meteors in the sky only to disappear just as quickly. Where
are you Bravo, Emperor and Signal broccolis, Burgundy Delight and
Platinum Lady sweet corns, Sugar Bowl melon, Columbia cabbage and
Portos and Vidi peppers? We don’t know why the trade dropped
you. We can’t preserve you because you were hybrids. If we
save your seeds they won’t come true-to-type, and the parental
lines which went into your make-up are a trade secret. That is another
reason why I prefer the open- pollinated varieties, If we love them
we have the power to keep them around.
Those are the vintage vegetables, but what about
the slow seeds? What on Earth do I mean by slow seeds? Who wants
slow seeds, anyway? Don’t we prefer our seeds to be quick
rather than slow? After all, we want them to germinate quickly,
grow quickly, and develop marketable leaves or fruits quickly. Why
slow? Slow is from the Slow Food Movement which started in Italy
and is now spreading on our side of the Atlantic. Slow Food USA
believes that "pleasure and quality in everyday life can be
achieved by slowing down, respecting the convivial traditions of
the table and celebrating the diversity of the Earth’s bounty."
It celebrates foods that are part of our cultural identity, which
reflect generations of commitment to the land and devotion to the
processes that yield the greatest achievements in taste. By contrast,
the effects of the fast life manifest in the industrialization and
standardization of our food supply, the degradation of our farmland,
and the decline of our rural communities.
Slow Food is to endangered regional foods as the
Seed Savers Exchange and alternative seed companies are to endangered
regional crop varieties. As the Slow Food Movement seeks to revive
the time when the kitchen and table were centers of pleasure, culture
and community, so must a slow seed movement look to the time when
our communities once again regard the seed as a vital center of
life force in our farming endeavors. Just as preservation of our
heritage foods is a necessary but not sufficient condition for restoring
the missing conviviality in our kitchens and lives, so preservation
of our heritage varieties is only the beginning of the seed revival.
Ever tasted wild lettuce or Queen Anne’s
Lace root? These are the unimproved relatives of our present lettuce
and carrot. The wild lettuce is amazingly bitter, inedible to our
tastes, and the Lace is pretty tough, though sweet. For thousands
of years farmers, through observation, selection and amateur breeding,
have improved our food crops and developed the food we eat today.
There were no seed companies until the eighteenth century. There
were no university breeding programs until the nineteenth. There
were no hybrids or multinational seed conglomerates until the twentieth.
The work was done by farmers like us who observed sports, mutations
or superior plants in the field, and selected, consciously and unconsciously
for traits they wanted to encourage. They stabilized and preserved
the best of what they observed. And they are mostly responsible
for the best varieties we have.
Most of this work and improvement came slowly.
It takes a minimum of seven generations to observe, isolate and
stabilize a new variety, usually more like ten to twelve. Our farming
forbears were patient. They did not know Mendelian Laws of inheritance.
They employed observation and trial and error. Yet for all their
slowness they had a profound understanding of the cycle from seed
to seed. It was a process they lived and understood.
Preservation is necessary but not sufficient. One
of the most important reasons why I prefer open-pollinated varieties
is that they are breeding material for future improvements. Seeds
are live beings, constantly evolving to cope optimally with their
environment. If I grow Kentucky Wonder Beans in Maine for a few
years and save my seed, my crop will adapt over time to cope better
with my conditions in Maine. If you do the same in Michigan, your
crop will adapt to your conditions. After twenty years of each doing
this, our seeds will be different strains of the same variety. Do
this long enough and significant differences will evolve. While
I respect preservationists for their contribution, I think we as
farmers are summoned to an even deeper commitment. We are invited
not just to grow food as a commodity to be consumed by eaters, not
just to preserve varieties and traditions as if they were museum
pieces, but instead to swing into this dance of life, to join our
farming forbears as culturalists, not just growers. My partner Eli
likens agriculture to music. Both are living cultural traditions,
constantly evolving. We can grow a period heritage garden and join
a band that plays only fifties be-bop. But isn’t it more meaningful
to be playing music that fuses a variety of cultural heritages?
Isn’t it more exciting to be part of the evolution of our
Yesterday, Elizabeth Henderson called upon us to
push beyond our comfort zone to learn new skills. Seeds is such
a skill. Last night when I was talking with Laura Delind of Michigan
State University, one of the organizers of this conference, she
called it "getting off the seed grid." We come to the
realization that saving seeds and breeding plants is too important
to be left to multinational corporate hired guns in lab coats whose
real agenda is what’s good for Monsanto not what’s good
for our farms. You can bet that when the large multinationals like
Seminis and Novartis develop a variety with broad adaptability,
they are breeding for the needs of the big growers in California,
Florida and South Carolina, not for the needs of growers in the
Upper Peninsula or Wisconsin Dells and you can bet they are not
breeding for adaptation to low-input or organic conditions. With
little adjustments by you, their varieties might work for you anyway,
but we need breeders for our own inputs,, climate and conditions.
Who might they be? They could be us!
Already breeders like Frank Morton are leading
the way. An ecologist from Oregon, Morton has seven of his spectacular
designer lettuces, three of his mustards and one cress, two oraches,
two calendulas, a celery and a broccoli in our catalog. And that’s
only in our catalog. He has some of the same and other creations
in some of the other catalogs as well. From Montana, Dave Christensen
has bred Painted Mountain Corn, the most cold-hardy flour corn.
Oregon wizard Alan Kapuler took Christensen’s corn and bred
it with heirloom white sweet corn Luther Hill to create a multi-colored
sweet corn we are calling Painted Hills. These visionaries are setting
the example for scores of would-be farmer-breeders, people you’ve
never heard of yet like Bryan Connolly, who is breeding powdery
mildew resistance into Patty Pan squash and combining heirloom pumpkins
Winter Luxury and Long Pie, hoping to come up with a beauty that
will have Luxury’s unique russeting combined with Long Pie’s
superior keeping quality. Another, Robert Schick, who calls himself
relentless, an apt name given his dogged perseverence, is working
with sweet peas, electric eclectic Swiss chards with some spectacular
orange colors, crossing grape and cherry tomatoes in search of that
elusive combination of sungold flavor with storability and crack
resistance, crossing cleomes to try to achieve a sky blue one, working
as well with at least a dozen other species from brussels sprouts
to somniferum poppies. He describes his commitment as "passionate
over-the-top, wild-assed natural plant breeding." Some day
in the not distant future, these and others like them will get their
creations in some of the more adventurous seed company catalogs.
You’ve probably never heard of Brett Grohsgal,
either, unless you read Growing for Market. Grohsgal is a pretty
large scale Maryland market grower who also happens to be a plant
breeder, but none of his creations have yet made it into a seed
catalog, because he has used them exclusively on his own farm. He
has bred brassica greens, particularly arugula,, for cold-hardiness
so he can make them available to his restaurant accounts year-round,
he has developed crack-free tomatoes, and he has introduced disease
resistance into at least 45 lines of tomatoes, peppers and cole
crops. He says his superior varieties give him a competitive edge.
My partner Eli and I got funded by SARE for a project
called Restoring our Seed aimed at stimulating regional seed production
in the Northeast. We have had two well-attended winter seminars
with a third coming up Dec. 4 and 5 in Brattleboro, VT to which
you are all cordially invited. These conferences bring together
seed- savers, extension people, seed companies, seed growers and
other experts to share knowledge and work together on seed-saving
and breeding projects. They have the same kind of excitement and
flavor of this conference–much like CSA people, when seed
people get together, something magic happens. We have almost thirty
farmers involved in projects to improve Pruden’s Purple tomato
for more disease resistance, to de-hybridize a superior pickling
cucumber and to cross brassica greens for purple stem coloration.
Now the land-grant universities have gotten into the act. A group
called the Public Seed Initiative, a collaboration of New York NOFA,
the USDA experiment station at Geneva and Cornell University is
completing a very successful project working with farmers in New
York and surrounding states to test the suitability of some of Cornell’s
varieties for organic conditions and to develop collaborative farmer-breeder
projects. They have a mobile seed-cleaning unit that they have brought
to farms in several states to help growers clean their seed crops.
Cornell’s department of Plant Breeding has just gotten SARE
funding to hold three farmer-breeder roundtables in New York, Pennsylvania
and Maine. 20 farmers in each state will gather with seed company
reps and breeders to talk about their varietal needs and collaborate
to develop six breeding lines to meet some of those needs.
Undoubtedly, some outstanding varieties adapted
to sustainable practices in cold climates will come out of these
initiatives. But even more significantly farmers will be brought
back into these discussions to resume their rightful heritage as
the keepers of our food supply. If we are serious about food security
we can do nothing less, because true security depends on having
many centers of decentralized control instead of just a few vulnerable
loci of centralized control.
As Connolly says, "anyone can do plant breeding.
It is not very complex, you don’t necessarily need a large
area to do it in and you can work with whatever plants you want.
If you have a problem, for example, a special heirloom plant that
you really love but it doesn’t yield well, or the flavor is
great but it doesn’t look so good, you may be able to fix
these things without a lot of effort." And I would add, you
don’t need to be a laboratory technician, a statistician or
a biometrician. You do need to know how to observe detail, how to
communicate with plants and how to develop an almost clairvoyant
sense to know that this combination of colors, shapes, maturities
and flavors could mesh into something special. Who better than farmers
to do this? As farmers, we have already developed most of these
Why save seed? Why add to our already lengthy list
of tasks and responsibilities? Says Grohsgal, "Because we can
get much higher quality seed for replanting. Because we can save
a good deal of money. Because we can guarantee our seed source for
key crops and don’t have to cope with other seed producers’
failures or shortfalls. And for certified organic farmers, because
we’re required to use organic seed or document why we didn’t.
…And why should we genetically manage our own crops? Because
most of us can do a much better job of it than can large national
seed companies. Because we can build in outstanding degrees of local
adaptability, disease tolerance and weather hardiness without sacrificing
flavor. And because year after incremental year, genetic management
lets the rest of the farming operation develop and profit from always
improving, superior seed. "
I have a fantasy that someday soon CSA will become
a seed community as well as a food community. I have a dream that
some CSA’s will produce most or all their own seed. That you
will be saving and growing seeds particularly adapted to your locales
and your methods of sustainable agriculture. That maybe some will
even be able to provide seed to other CSA’s just as CSA’s
now often trade goods, relying on each other to fill production
gaps so all members can benefit. I have a dream that someday our
communities will again produce seed as well as food to meet most
of our needs, and seed companies like Fedco will no longer or rarely