Wednesday, July 16, 2014

a seed manifesto

My friend and coworker, Jennie, is working on a little project on my farm. She's interested in seed selection and seed saving, and she's planning to do a bit of that with some squash and pepper varieties that we're growing this summer. Seed saving is something I don't know much about, but what I have learned so far has been pretty fascinating.

I think often people who are interested in food (including me, for a long time) don't realize that it all starts with a seed, and the story of that seed matters. When you look at those glossy seed catalog photos, or those seed packets in the rack at the garden store, much of what you're seeing is patented seed. Those varieties are owned by someone--sometimes a university, often a private company--and they're making money off every sale of that seed. This isn't necessarily good or bad, it's just the way it is.

But say you like a vegetable variety and don't want to have to buy the seed year after year. You think you can just grow that plant out until it goes to seed, then you can save some of it for next year. Maybe it's your favorite sweet corn, pepper, pea, or tomato. These seeds are easy to see, so they should be easy to save. But here's the rub: You can't save seed from most of the varieties that you buy. Or rather, you can save it, but the vegetable you grow next year with your saved seed might turn out to be very different from the one you loved this year.

Most of the seeds we buy are what's called F-1 hybrids, which means that they are the product of a cross between two very different parents. Often these hybrids are "improved" varieties in some way. They might have better disease resistance, drought tolerance, storability, color. They might grow quickly in a shorter or cooler growing season, like ours. These traits were bred into them by the parents, but they aren't guaranteed, or even likely, to be passed along to their offspring.

So the obvious downside of hybrids is that you're locked into buying these seeds every year. And when you do, you're giving your money to a company that might be breeding some kickass seeds, but they may also be manufacturing chemicals, genetically modifying organisms, or practicing planned obsolescence (taking popular varieties off the market), to make a profit. From the point of view of someone interested in sustainable agriculture, that doesn't feel too good.

But enough of this negativity! What I'm really here to tell you about are some of the awesome open-pollinated varieties that you can grow! Open-pollinated seeds are like choosing homemade seeds over store-bought. Yes, you can buy open-pollinated seeds in the store, but you can also grow them and collect them yourself. And because you can collect them, you can select them. You can choose seed from your most vigorous tomato, your most flavorful squash, your most cold-hardy cabbage, or the only lettuce that didn't bolt in this blasted summer heat. You can select them and plant them, year after year, until you have a vegetable that's an expression of you: your values, your tastes. And that is not only good food, it's a good story!

Brighstone beans
I have lots of hybrids growing on my farm, because they're reliable, and when you're a farmer you want your crops to be reliable. But I'm also growing a lot of open-pollinated varieties. Some are ones I've grown before and I know I can trust them to make good food. Others are new to me, and I want to see how they do. There's Pokey Joe cilantro, a rare variety that's supposed to be especially flavorful and bolt-resistant (a must for summer-grown cilantro!). Sheboygan paste tomatoes come to us from Lithuanian immigrants, via Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Jacob's Cattle dry beans are, in my opinion, the most delicious beans out there. They were said the have been gifted by the Passamaquoddy Indians to the first white baby born in Maine. Oregon Homestead winter squash is a sweet meat type bred by Carol Deppe in Corvallis. She selected for size, flavor, and a small seed cavity (i.e. lots of flesh!), giving the grower lots of bang for her buck.

Oregon Homestead squash
I'm also growing several vegetables that Jennie, my aforementioned friend, brought with her when she moved here from New Mexico. Two of them are winter squashes, big long-storing winter squashes that I can't wait to taste. And the Pueblo chilies, grown by her friends in Colorado, are looking great and already fruiting. Soon we might have our own New Mexico-style green chilies right here in Oregon!

Pueblo chile pepper
One of my favorite things about growing open-pollinated and heirloom varieties is collecting the stories that go with them. When I grow them on my farm, the story continues. If I choose to save the seed, the story grows even richer. And I'm participating in one of the oldest parts of farming: the kind that doesn't just grow food, it grows food that's an expression of the person and the place that grew it.

Want to know more?

There are lots of great books on the topic of seed saving, but the one that I found the most fascinating was Where Our Food Comes From, by Gary Paul Nabham. It's about the Russian scientist Nikolay Vavilov, who traveled the world looking for genetically diverse ancient seeds to protect his country from famine. (Sadly, he had the bad luck to be doing that during the reign of Stalin.)

If you're interested in trying to save some of your own seed, Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth is an indispensable handbook. It walks you through seed saving methods for every type of vegetable you can possibly imagine.

There are some great seed companies that are working hard to make sure open-pollinated seeds aren't lost. Seed Savers Exchange is one of the most well-known. Many more are small companies specializing in regionally appropriate varieties, which I find especially exciting. Here are some that carry varieties specific to the Northwest:

Adaptive Seeds
Horizon Herbs
Siskyou Seeds
Uprising Seeds
Wild Garden Seed


  1. once again Ms Emily your writings are well put and so interesting and fun to read! Even here in sunny SE Florida, where I now reside, I am so much enjoying these stories from you & your farming experiences.

  2. Thanks Josie! Greetings from sunny Oregon! :)