Slow 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 work.

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 vegetable heritage?

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 tolerance and
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 skills.

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 be needed.