Oct 29, 2021
The Midwest studies regionally-adapted organic seeds
Stephen Kloosterman

Growers gathered at a Minnesota farm in early September to share techniques and tips for growing organic seed specially adapted to the Midwest’s climate.

Short summers make quick-bearing varieties of vegetables desirable. Moist, moderate weather means disease resistance as a trait is highly favored. The complex organic seed market also means fluctuations in the availability of organic seed.

The Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), a national group that educates farmers, researches organic plant breeding and advocates for policies “that strengthen organic seed systems,” held a Sept. 1 event at Riverbend Farm in Delano, Minnesota in the greater Minneapolis area. In addition to about 20 in-person attendees, online streaming videos gathered more than 500 viewers for the event, which was made possible by a Minnesota Specialty Crop Block Grant Program and the USDA’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative.

“There are certain traits that people tend to aggregate around,” said Kitt Healy, OSA’s Research and Education Associate for the Midwest region. “There’s been a big ask that we’ve heard from growers in this region to look for disease resistance, especially in brassica crops.”

Broccoli and leafy greens are particularly susceptible to fungal pathogens, she said.

“There’s definitely a need to screen and trial many varieties to see what types of resistance are out there, or are already available in the varieties that are commercially available,” Healy said. “And then to consider, ‘Would it make sense do a breeding project to develop a new variety that meets the disease resistance needs as well as commercial market needs of growers in the region?’”

On the farm

Growers gathered in-person and online to learn about seed production techniques at Delano, Minnesota's Riverbend Farm. Photos: Kitt Healy
Growers gathered in-person and online to learn about seed production techniques at Delano, Minnesota’s Riverbend Farm. Photos: Kitt Healy

The growers who hosted the event shared their experiences in saving seeds for tomatoes, squash and cucumbers, and kale and collard greens.

Greg and Mary Reynolds run Riverbend Farm, an organic vegetable operation that provides produce to restaurants, schools, and food co-ops, and through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscriptions. Healy called them pioneers of the organic farm-to-table movement in the twin cities area.

“(Greg is) an example of a farmer who was a pretty dedicated market grower, so he was mostly focused on produce, but he got interested in seeds because he couldn’t find the traits that he needed in seed catalogs,” Reynolds said. “And he found that he had better luck saving seeds from his farm and adapting seeds particularly to his environment.”

While tomatoes were open-pollinated, cucumbers and the leafy greens were intentionally crossed. Offspring were selected, in part, for early production. He discovered many customers weren’t as interested in the consistency of the crop as supposed.

“He’s found that, especially for his restaurant clients, they’re very interested in seeing a diverse crop of his cucumbers than when the fruits are all the same,” Healy said.

Tips and techniques

Presentations at the field day included seed cleaning using winnowing machines and also a series of sieves.
Presentations at the field day included seed cleaning using winnowing machines and also a series of sieves.

The event also discussed seed-cleaning processes to separate plant material, or chaff, from the final product. Healy said these processes are separate from any attempts to sanitize the seed. Also, wet seed-cleaning processes for crops such as tomatoes, eggplant and peppers are distinct from dry processes such as corn, where the dried material can be crushed and afterward separated.

Clint Freund, the proprietor of Cultivating the Commons in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, demonstrated a system of two shallow boxes that fit within each other and separated round seeds from the chaff by weight. Winnowing machines that organize airflow into a consistent stream for blowing chaff out of the seeds, were also discussed.

“You can tell, working with seeds, that this is something people have been doing for thousands of years because there are some really beautiful, elegant, simple ways of doing it by hand, simple technologies for doing it by hand,” she said. “And as you scale up, and as you don’t necessarily have the time or the labor to do a whole lot of seed cleaning by hand, there’s some beautiful equipment that some people have invented to help with the process.”

Expert advice 

seed machine

Field day participants learned from a variety of other seed experts, including Koby Jeshkeit-Hagen of Seed Sages and Julie Dawson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, about how to make selections to improve or maintain crop varieties.

Mike Levine of Michigan’s Nature and Nurture Seeds also spoke, encouraging growers to consider producing organic seed commercially for regional seed companies.

“So, for farmers who may be focused on market crops but who are interested in diversifying their income, regional seed companies are really great places to start looking for small seed contracts for trying your hand,” Healy said. “Regional seed companies are really a great way to start out.”

The organic seed market remains complex. Commercial, certified-organic growers may use untreated, non-organic seeds when organic seeds aren’t available in the quality, quantity or form needed – a federal policy that’s controversial in the industry.

Meanwhile, organic seeds have enjoyed a surge in demand among home growers and farm hobbyists.

“Everyone is still recovering from the rush on seeds that happened during the pandemic, and that continues to define the garden seed market right now,” Healy said. “So, a lot of these regional seed companies were seeing huge boosts in sales as all of these people were staying home and needing something to do and also were feeling fearful about supply, so many seed companies, regional organic seed companies, are looking for contract seed growers.”

Stephen Kloosterman is the managing editor of Organic Grower.

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