Small Farmer's Journal

Facebook  YouTube

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

Seed Quality from Two Perspectives

Seed Quality from Two Perspectives

Seed Quality from Two Perspectives

by Stephen Scott of Chino Valley, AZ

The marriage of the concepts of heirloom seeds and seed saving is not new by any means, but rather one that has been growing and gaining ground in the past several years. For some this is a welcome return to a more traditional method of agriculture, while others use heirlooms for their flavor and diversity to improve the breadth of their production and offerings to the public.

Whether you are a home gardener, small scale grower or large farmer, whether you buy all of your seeds, save some for next season or a combination, this information can help you be better informed, make better choices and buy more wisely.

Cindy and I have been home gardeners for 18 years and involved with soil restoration and rangeland improvement projects with local ranchers for 20 years. Our interest in food, especially good food, goes back a bit further than that! The appreciation for seeds and seed saving came from both our work with soils and interest and enjoyment of good food. Tasting the flavors of our garden produce sparked the interest of how to keep those characteristics that the seed produced for the future, to be able to enjoy them and share with others. Thus our seed saving education began.

Several years after taking over, refining and expanding an established family owned heirloom seed company of 20 years, we’ve gained knowledge from the differences and similarities in seed production and seed saving from these two different perspectives. We want to share some of these with you; along with lessons we’ve learned along the way that can help improve the quality of all of our seeds. We will work from a point-to-point framework, showing the goals, concerns, differences and similarities in both types of seed production and preservation approaches.

The foundational goal is the same for both the home gardener and seed company – having a sufficient quantity of high quality seed stock of each variety needed for next year that is pure and true to type. This sounds simple enough, but in practice is not always easy to accomplish for either one.

We are approaching this from a seed quality standpoint, not just a seed saving one. Saving seed is fairly simple to do, but the results from planting those seeds can be very mixed; without a basis of understanding of seed quality, people can be disappointed and confused as to why they got the results they did. Both the home gardener and the seed company must understand seed quality to be successful in their respective endeavors.

Seed Quality from Two Perspectives

Coconut Geranium ready to be cleaned.

Goals

Let’s look at the goals and concerns from both points of view:

The home gardener might state the reason for saving seeds as, “Enough seeds for next year’s planting, reduce the amount of seeds needed to buy, take advantage of selection and adaptation to achieve better production in our local climate.” These reasons are the very roots of why home scale seed production is important on a local and regional scale. A diversity of varieties are kept alive that are simply not possible on a national scale, as some regional adaptation can only happen in a small geographical area and won’t be applicable to a larger audience, but are no less important for the local people in that area.

As a seed company, our goals might be, “Produce a sufficient quantity of enough varieties and volume of seed to sell next season, introduce several new varieties, provide a wider selection for gardeners than they can produce themselves and provide a high quality standard that maintains our reputation.” This reflects how the seed industry started, by offering varieties that were new, unusual or were not available in an area and offering a professional standard of germination and production that benefited the gardener and grower.

These are similar goals, but on completely different scales and for different results. Their achievement, and success, depends on how the concerns or challenges are recognized and approached. We have economies of scale as a seed company with our network of growers, but the home gardener has some advantages that we would have a hard time taking advantage of, like keeping a locally adapted regional variety alive.

There are no one-size-fits-all best solutions to the availability of quality seed. A resilient, robust and diverse seed and food economy requires home gardeners, regional and national seed exchange programs to participate alongside independent seed companies to contribute all of their unique advantages and skills. Only in this way can the full expression of the diversity and adaptability of open pollinated seeds be realized and utilized.

An obstacle for the home gardener used to be the lack of access to solid, proven and reliable seed saving information and resources. There were lots of introductory articles, booklets and classes on seed saving, but little in the way of intermediate or advanced classes, books, forums or articles for the home gardener. Thankfully, this is not the case anymore, as the internet has given the home gardener access to more detailed and advanced information.

A few examples are Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org), an excellent resource for the home gardener to learn from and exchange seed stock with. There are also online resources usually used by seed professionals but accessible by anyone such as GRIN, the Germplasm Resources Information Network of the USDA (www.ars-grin.gov) and PFAF, Plants For A Future (www.pfaf.org). There are several books available that are excellent in their education of producing seeds; one is “Seed to Seed” by Suzanne Ashworth that has been one of the standards for seed production and saving for over 20 years. Another newer one is “The Complete Guide to Saving Seeds” by Robert Gough & Cheryl Moore-Gough, which covers flowers, trees and shrubs.

In addition to the above mentioned resources, as a seed company we have access to our growers and other professionals – a group of experienced food and seed producers who have learned through years of training, experience and trial- and-error how to produce the best seeds to continue the traits and characteristics of each variety they grow. These resources are closely guarded, as a highly experienced seed grower is a very valuable resource for any seed company.

Seed Quality from Two Perspectives

Roto-Fingers Pea and Bean Sheller cleaning cowpeas.

Challenges

When looking at the challenges of producing high-quality, viable seed in enough quantities for next year, both the home gardener and seed company face similar concerns. Seed quality should be the primary concern for both. Without high quality, true seed there would be too much variability in all aspects of agriculture, from seed germination, growth, health, pest and disease resistance, food production and the harvesting of more seed. The quality is achieved through proper management, isolation, harvesting and testing ensuring the viability, vigor and growing true to type of next year’s seed crop.

Management methods

Management for the home gardener starts with the decision of how many plants to use for seed production as opposed to food production, which can be quite different. Ripe vegetables often have immature seeds, while mature seeds are normally found in inedible, overripe or almost rotting vegetables. Some varieties can produce both food and seed by simply letting chosen specimens ripen and mature their seeds on the vine or bush, while the rest are harvested for food, such as a perfect tomato tagged to let ripen for its seeds. Others will need to be kept solely for producing seed, such as a lettuce plant that needs to be allowed to bolt to set seeds.

Minimum Viable Population

A sufficient number of plants, called a minimum viable population, should be used to avoid a genetic bottleneck or the loss of genetic adaptability and diversity that inevitably occurs over time. Sometimes this is hard for the home gardener to do, as often there isn’t enough space for the population needed while allowing for other vegetables to be grown. Our tomato example serves here, as the minimum viable population is 100 plants, way too many for most home gardeners. The rule of thumb is that out-crossing varieties such as tomatoes need 100 plants as a minimum genetic population, while inbreeding ones like peppers need 20 plants. So what is a home gardener to do?

Even modest home garden seed production often results in much more seed than one gardener will use in several years. One very effective solution is participation in member to member seed exchanges either locally, regionally or nationally. This has the dual benefit of introducing a greater amount of genetic diversity to overcome a smaller plant population from any one garden while dispensing extra seed.

As a seed company, this concern is overcome by the amount of plants needed to produce the quantity of seed for next year’s sales, and most seed growers who are also food producers have separate fields for seed production, so there is no conflict with seed vs. food growing.

Seed Quality from Two Perspectives

Isolation cages for tomato breeding or trait correction.

Isolation and Selection

To keep seed quality high, isolation and selection are both used as part of quality management. Isolation simply means keeping two similar varieties, such as peppers, from cross pollinating. Selection chooses the most desirable characteristics to save seed from, or removes undesired characteristics from the seed producing population.

Isolation methods can be time, distance or physical. The time method is simply planting two cross pollinating varieties at different times so that they aren’t flowering at the same time. Distance isolation involves planting far enough apart so that the pollen or pollinators cannot reach each other. Physical barriers prevent the spread of pollen from one plant population to another by cages, pollen sacks or socks, a thorough but time and labor-intensive approach.

Home gardeners often use time isolation by either planting at different times during a growing season, or only planting one variety each season. Distance isolation can become a challenge, depending on the size of the garden or property. Usually only very dedicated seed savers will use physical barriers.

Our seed company utilizes a network of seed growers to solve the different seed crop isolation requirements. Time isolation is used by those with longer growing seasons while larger growers use the distance approach, having the needed space on their properties. Another solution is several growers producing different seed varieties at the same time. Physical isolation is used extensively when correcting undesirable traits in a variety, during grow-outs to re-introduce a new or rare variety or for traditional seed breeding and stabilization.

Selection is another aspect of quality management in seed production, with two approaches – negative and positive. Negative selection, or rogueing, removes undesirable aspects, characteristics or traits from the seed producing population to maintain the established variety. An example of this is a potato-leaved tomato. Any regular-leaved tomatoes growing in the row would be removed as undesirable for that particular tomato’s characteristics. Another might be the color of the flowers of a vegetable – the purple ones would be removed, as yellow is the color of the correct characteristics. Positive selection involves saving seed with desirable aspects, characteristics or traits such as a large, sweet, striped, early paste tomato. Positive selection over a period of a few years is how local adaptation can be enhanced for the home gardener, and new varieties brought onto the market for seed companies.

Both the home gardener and seed company grower would over-plant slightly to account for selection losses, and perform the selection process as part of their daily gardening and inspection activities.

Germination Testing and Trialing

Two final aspects of quality seed management are germination testing and trialing or grow-outs, which give proof of the seed sprouting quickly with lots of vigor and growth energy, growing true to type with weather tolerance, disease resistance and good production amount. This becomes “the proof in the pudding”, as it shows any weaknesses and confirms the desired characteristics of the variety being produced.

The home gardener can easily test the germination of the current crop of seed early in the winter, as most seed needs to dry completely and age a few weeks before showing the best germination. For most crops a moist paper towel in a sealed plastic bag works very well to test germination. The grow-out can be as a food crop next year, so that the production and garden space are not wasted.

We as a seed company will either have the germination tests performed by the grower so that any issues can be addressed before the seed is shipped to us, or we will perform them once we receive the seed from our smaller growers. Either way, all of our seed is tested for germination prior to being sold to our customers. Next spring’s grow-out will be done either by us or the grower, depending on the grower, the seed variety and seed volume.

There are those that would argue that the heirlooms we have today are the result of families saving their seeds and passing them down from generation to generation. This is partly true, but only partly. We have the abundance of heirlooms today thanks to the families that saved them, the local and regional seed exchanges that helped keep them alive and the seed companies that grew them out, advertised them to a wider audience and sold them across the country.

Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomato is a perfect example — grown in northern TN for over 200 years, passed to a great-grandniece, they would have been lost if they hadn’t been passed to Bill Minkey who donated them to Seed Savers Exchange. They grew the seeds out, told their story and they survive today because of that collaboration. Another excellent example is that of the Concho chile from northeastern Arizona. It was grown in the tiny town of Concho, AZ for several hundred years after being traded by the Espejo expedition in 1563 to the local Hopi Indians. Around 2000 it was almost extinct with only a couple of families continuing to grow it. A local lavender farm resurrected it and shared the seeds with us, and we have helped it to reach all across North America and several other countries.

It took the effort of everyone – the gardener, the seed exchange and the seed company to keep these and many other heirlooms alive; one alone wouldn’t have been able to do it. Thus is the circle of life of the seed, along with those who care for the seed.

Seed Quality from Two Perspectives

Sorting screens for manual Concho chile seed cleaning.

Stephen Scott is an heirloom seedsman, educator, speaker, soil building advocate, locavore, amateur chef, artist and co-owner of Terroir Seeds with his wife Cindy. They believe in a world of healthy soil, seed, food and people. Everyone has a fundamental need for vibrant food and health, which are interrelated. They welcome dialogue and can be reached at Seeds@UnderwoodGardens.com or 888-878-5247.

Terroir Seeds

Spotlight On: Crops & Soil

Seed Quality from Two Perspectives

Seed Quality from Two Perspectives

by:
from issue:

We are approaching this from a seed quality standpoint, not just a seed saving one. Saving seed is fairly simple to do, but the results from planting those seeds can be very mixed; without a basis of understanding of seed quality, people can be disappointed and confused as to why they got the results they did. Both the home gardener and the seed company must understand seed quality to be successful in their respective endeavors.

Making Sorghum Molasses

Making Sorghum Molasses

by:
from issue:

Growing sorghum doesn’t take much work, according to Buhrman. You plant it in the spring, work it a couple of times and that’s about all that’s required until late in the growing season. That is when the work begins. Before it is cut, all the stalks have to be “bladed” – the leaves removed from the stalks. It’s then cut, then the tassles are cut off, and the stalks are fed through a crusher. The crusher forces the juices out of the plant. The sorghum juice is then boiled in a vat for four to five hours until nothing is left but the syrup.

Walki Biodegradable Mulching Paper

New Biodegradable Mulching Paper

Views of any and all modern farming stir questions for me. The most common wonder for me has been ‘how come we haven’t come up with a something to replace plastic?’ It’s used for cold frames, hotbeds, greenhouses, silage and haylage bagging and it is used for mulch. That’s why when I read of this new Swedish innovation in specialized paper mulching I got the itch to scratch and learn more. What follows is what we know. We’d like to know more. LRM

Barnyard Manure

Barnyard Manure

by:
from issue:

The amount of manure produced must be considered in planning a cropping system for a farm. If one wishes to manure one-fifth of the land every year with 10 tons per acre, there would have to be provided two tons per year for each acre of the farm. This would require about one cow or horse, or equivalent, for each six acres of land.

Marketable Cover Crops

Marketable Cover Crops

by:
from issue:

Our cover crops have to provide the benefits of smothering weeds, improving soil structure, and replenishing organic matter. They also have to produce some income. For these purposes, we use turnips, mustard and lettuce within our plant successions. I broadcast these seeds thickly on areas where cover crops are necessary and let them do their work.

An Introduction To Farm Woodlands

The farm woodland is that portion of the farm which either never was cleared for tillage or pasture, or was later given back to woods growth. Thus it occupies land that never was considered suitable, or later proved unsuitable, for farm enterprises.

Beating the Beetles – War & Peace in a Houston Garden

Blooming that is, unless the cucumber beetles arrive first.
And arrive they have … “At first I thought they looked like big, yellow lady bugs.” Paul said, “Then I looked…

Mullein Indigenous Friend to All

Mullein: Indigenous Friend to All

by:
from issue:

Mullein is a hardy native, soft and sturdy requiring no extra effort to thrive on your part. Whether you care to make your own medicines or not, consider mullein’s value to bees, bumblebees, butterflies, moths, dragonflies, who are needing nectar and nourishment that is toxin free and safe to consume. In this case, all you have to do is… nothing. What could be simpler?

Ginseng Culture

Ginseng Culture

U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmer’s Bulletin No. 1184 Issued 1921, Revised 1941 — The evident preference of the Chinese for the wild root and the unsatisfactory state of the general market for cultivated ginseng have caused grave doubts as to the future prospects of the industry. These doubts will probably be realized unless growers should strive for quality of product and not for quantity of production, as has been the all too common practice in the past.

Purslane, Portahoopies and Plow Planted Peas

Purslane, Portahoopies and Plow Planted Peas

For those not familiar with this tasty, nutritious weed, purslane can be a real challenge to manage in vegetable crops for a number of reasons. The seeds of this weed remain viable for many years in the garden, and generally do not germinate until hot weather — that is, after many of the market garden crops have already been planted. To make matters worse, this succulent plant often reroots after cultivation. Purslane also grows so close to the ground that it is impossible to control by mowing.

Cane Grinding

Cane Grinding: An Age-Old Georgia Tradition

by:
from issue:

Most sugar cane is processed in refineries to give us molasses, brown sugar, and various kinds of white sugar. However, some South Georgia farms that raise sugar cane still process it the old way to produce the special tasting sweetener for their own food. One such farm is the Rocking R Ranch in Kibbee, Georgia. It is owned by Charles and Patricia Roberts and their sons. The process they use has not changed in the past 100 years. This is how it is done.

Low Tillage Radish Onions

Low Tillage Radish Onions

by:
from issue:

The radishes came up quick, filling the garden canopy completely that fall, and the following spring we found the plot was clean of weeds and rows of open holes were left where the radish roots had been growing. Well, we had a few extra onion plants that spring and decided to plant them in these holes, since we already had very clear lines laid out for us and a clean seedbed. What we got were the best looking onions that have ever come out of our gardens.

Open-Pollinated Corn at Spruce Run Farm

Open-Pollinated Corn at Spruce Run Farm

by:
from issue:

The old way of selecting seed from open-pollinated corn involved selecting the best ears from the poorest ground. I have tried to select perfect ears based on the open-pollinated seed corn standards of the past. I learned these standards from old agricultural texts. The chosen ears of Reid’s average from 9 to 10.5 inches long and have smooth, well-formed grains in straight rows. I try to select ears with grains that extend to the end of the cob.

How to Grow an Acre of Potatoes

How to Grow an Acre of Potatoes

by:
from issue:

Heretofore potato production in this country has been conducted along extensive rather than intensive lines. In other words, we have been satisfied to plant twice as many acres as should have been necessary to produce a sufficient quantity of potatoes for our food requirements. Present economic conditions compel the grower to consider more seriously the desirability of reducing the cost of production by increasing the yield per acre.

Of Peace and Quiet

LittleField Notes: Of Peace and Quiet

by:
from issue:

Walk with me for a moment to the edge of the Waterfall Field. We can lean on the gate and let our gaze soak up the mid-summer scene: a perfect blue sky and not a breath of wind. Movement catches your eye, and in the distance you see a threesome hard at work in the hayfield. Two Suffolk horses, heads bobbing, making good time followed by a man comfortably seated on a mowing machine. The waist high grass and clover falls steadily in neat swaths behind the mower. What you can’t help but notice is the quiet.

Raised Bed Gardening

Raised Bed Gardening

by:
from issue:

Raised beds may not be right for everyone, and our way is not the only way. I have seen raised beds made from rows of 5’ diameter kiddy pools, and heard of a fellow who collected junk refrigerators from the dump and lined them up on their backs into a rainbow of colored enameled steel raised beds. Even rows of five-gallon pails filled with plants count as raised beds in my estimation. Do it any way you care to, but do it if it’s right for you.

Fjordworks Horse Powered Potatoes Part 2

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes Part Two

These types of team implements for digging potatoes were the first big innovation in horse powered potato harvesting in the mid-19th century. Prior to the horse drawn digger the limitation on how many potatoes a farmer could plant was how many the farm crew could dig by hand. The basic design of these early diggers works so well that new models of this type of digger are once again being manufactured by contemporary horse drawn equipment suppliers.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT