It All Begins With The Seed

CR Lawn, 2011

It all begins with the seed. True food sovereignty depends on seed sovereignty and seed sovereignty starts with saving and growing seeds.

The large corporations who currently control the seed industry will offer seeds for those varieties that profit them, varieties likely to be globally rather than regionally adapted, hybrid rather than open-pollinated, expensive rather than inexpensive, selected to maximize returns on corporate investment, probably not to meet the needs of a cold-climate gardener, homesteader or small market operator like you.

Who will grow the seeds best for you? Many small alternative seed companies offer open-pollinated workhorse and heirloom varieties suitable for specific geographic regions. These seeds can be saved and will come true to type the following year. What happens if your favorite seed company has a crop failure? Will you have saved some seed of your own as a back-up or as an alternative?

How can we build a seed system that is less dependent on big corporations? We have to save and grow the seeds we need on our farms and we need to provide the cadre of growers for seed companies like Southern Exposure, Turtle Tree and Fedco to help preserve these varieties and make them widely available.

Is there a need? A market? You bet. I counted no less than eleven seed crops that Fedco was unable to supply in its 2012 catalog for the want of a grower. Admittedly, some of these were difficult crops such as broccoli, or biennials such as carrots, not good crops for beginners or even intermediate-level seed growers. But there were also three tomato crops and two pepper crops requiring less advanced skills to produce. In addition, there were at least as many more varieties absent from the catalog because the crop failed. Some of these failures were due to weather or other unavoidable conditions, but some might have been successes had Fedco found more and better growers and been able to spread its seed growing contracts more optimally among its network. And Fedco is just one of many seed companies who contract with growers.

Is it easy? I'd be lying if I said it was. During the warm, dry 2010 season, my edamame soybean trials performed wonderfully, the 3' robust plants just loaded with beans and then seeds. They seemed to love my sandy loam soil. As I looked out upon them, I brainstormed that growing an edamame seed crop for Fedco would be an ideal rotation after my partner Eli's heritage wheat crops, filling up a lot of ground with a soil-building legume. So I committed to growing 100 lb. of Beer Friend soybean seeds.

2011 proved to be quite a different season. The optimum planting date arrived in the midst of a cool drought. The stock seed, labeled as germinating at a marginal 84%, proved finicky. In my first try sowing 900 row ft. of soybeans, I got about a 40% stand. My replant to fill in the holes was more fortunate in getting some quick rain. At its conclusion I had about a 75% stand, acceptable if not rousing. The weather continued on the cool side and the plants grew slowly. The next challenge was an invasion of Japanese beetles, who love soybean plants. Making a full pass or more per day through all three of my patches, I picked off an average of more than 100 per day until I had them under control. Now the plants set their pods, reached edamame stage, Eli and I enjoyed a tiny portion of them for dinner and allowed the rest to mature to dry down. Along came Hurricane Irene, dumping 6.5 inches of rain in 24 hours. I was concerned but the plants weren't yet to full dry down stage and they weathered the storm. Next came another six inches of rain from two more storms, in all an inch of rain per day for almost two weeks. Not good for drying seeds! Eli and I left for Common Ground Fair hoping for a spell of drying weather. When we returned, the pods were almost dry enough for harvest but not quite. Along came another seemingly interminable low pressure system that lasted a week and dumped 3-4 more inches of rain. The soybean seeds swelled back up. I was afraid they would sprout, making the crop a goner. Plus I needed to get back to Maine to work on the next seed catalog. I kept postponing that trip, hoping for a harvest window. At last we had 4 or 5 dry unseasonably warm days in a row. At the last possible moment I scurried out to harvest, having time to get only half off the plants into sacks and leaving the rest of the whole plants mounded high to dry in the house.

The seed crop looked marginal from all that abusive weather. I had them all sacked in their pods awaiting the next step, to be spread across the floor in front of the wood stove to dry further to the crackle stage and then get stomped on to encourage exodus from their pods. Then I use a vacuum cleaner in a deep container to blow the rest of the seedpod chaff from the seeds. Meanwhile, I sent a preliminary sample of 400 seeds to Fedco for a germ-in-soil test to see if these were worth the effort of threshing. This is the suspenseful time. Will the seeds pass germ, enabling me to be paid for all this effort? Or will we just have to give them away because they aren't up to snuff for selling? Late good news: The sample sprouted robustly in the soil test, so let the threshing begin! Then I will ship the finished seeds to Fedco for a final conclusive germ test.

So why would anyone want to go through all this? Not to get rich. When all the labor is computed, some seed crops realize $20 an hour. The Long Pie Pumpkin, Boothby's Blonde cucumber, some of the peppers have done this well for some of our growers. This one won't. If I get 50-60 lb. I might make half that. On the other hand, nothing can compare with the satisfaction of guiding a plant through its entire growing cycle, starting with a seed and ending with many. And nothing on Wall Street can come close to nature's return, the magic of multiplying one seed to ten, twenty, or sometimes even 100! The deep sense of fulfillment that this work brings is incomparable. And it is so elemental, so important, because it is the alpha and the omega. Food begins and ends with the seed.

Think you have what it takes to grow seed crops to sell to Fedco? Contact us or check into other seed companies who are in the market. Or grow seeds just for yourself. You'll still realize immense benefits and your standards need not be as high as Fedco's.