By John Navazio

This is an excerpt from the book The Organic Seed Grower, by John Navazio. This book is produced by Chelsea Green Publishing and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.

Over the past decade it has become apparent that there’s a real need for a comprehensive guide to growing organic vegetable seed. For some time now it has been obvious to dedicated practitioners of organic farming that, to be in harmony with the philosophical underpinnings of organic agriculture, it’s important to use seed produced using organic practices.

This same dedication to organic principles is integral to the mind-set of a number of worldwide organic certification agencies’ governing bodies, all of which have added an organically grown seed requirement since 2002. Of course such regulations can’t be implemented overnight, but the very existence of the rules has dramatically increased the market for, and use of, certified organically grown seed. Several other important factors are also creating the increased interest in growing seed among organic farmers, though, and these are based on more than just the economics of supply and demand.

hands holding seeds and plant

What the Growers Need

For instance, there is a growing awareness among many organic vegetable farmers that we need a reliable supply of high-quality organic seed that’s truly adapted to the challenges found on organic farms. What’s more, astute farmers—those with years of experience under their belts—are increasingly realizing that the number of vegetable varieties suited to their operations is diminishing. Growers are seeing a real narrowing of the vegetable varieties that are commercially available, due in large part to the consolidation that has taken place within the seed industry.

A series of corporate mergers among the most important seed companies has been ongoing since the 1970s, and the trend has only accelerated in the past decade. Whole market classes of vegetable varieties are being lost as an inevitable result of this. Many varieties that have a certain specific climatic or cultural adaptation, or perhaps have specific market traits that are considered limited in their sales potential for the new corporate owners, are cut from a company’s sales list and replaced with varieties that have more universal appeal.

In almost all cases, the varieties that remain are those exceptionally well suited to high-input production systems and geographic areas with ideal climates. The varieties that are dropped are the ones less well suited to large-scale centralized agricultural areas. It goes without saying that a large percentage of diversified organic growers are producing vegetables regionally, across the many and varied climates of North America, and not under the ideal cropping conditions nor with the high external inputs that are taken as a given by large-scale conventional farmers.

Amid this climate of consolidation and diminishing choices, there is also the fact that varieties in many crops have been reduced almost exclusively to F1 hybrids. While it’s true that most commercial organic vegetable growers have been using a good number of F1 hybrid varieties for their market production, the standard open-pollinated (OP) varieties that have been around for years have also played an important role in many of the planting slots that make organic cropping successful. Many of these successful OP vegetable varieties were bred during a prolific era of plant breeding that extended from the late 1940s through the 1970s. And many of the best varieties from this era were carefully maintained by seed companies, becoming reliable workhorses for organic farmers—notable for their ability to produce good crops in less-than-ideal situations.

Unfortunately, a major trend in the seed industry since the 1980s has been a gradual abandonment of these varieties, leaving us with a syndrome I call “hybriditis,” where virtually every variety available in certain crop types is a hybrid. The common refrain repeated by large seed companies has been, “Hybrids are much better than open-pollinated varieties.” This has certainly become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as many of the OP varieties haven’t been adequately maintained through selection and proper varietal upkeep for many years.

Over the past decade it has become apparent that there’s a real need for a comprehensive guide to growing organic vegetable seed.

With all these factors contributing to the loss of crop diversity and crop choices, the idea of organic farmers producing vegetable seed began to gain traction in the 1990s. For some growers it was purely an act of necessity: Seed of an OP variety important for their production was no longer commercially available. For others, growing for a nascent organic seed market seemed a potential moneymaking opportunity. Still others simply felt that the seed industry was going to hell in a handbag, and it was time to take back the seed.

Many of these vegetable farmers had never considered producing their own seed before. They might have saved some of their own pea or bean seed, yes, and many were already saving seed from certain heirloom tomatoes or peppers for their markets, but growing seed of the more difficult dry-seeded crops was a different kettle of fish. Much of this process seemed to depend on technical know-how and fancy threshing and cleaning equipment, all of which made the prospect of seed growing seem completely out of reach. But necessity once again proved the mother of invention, and a number of pioneering farmers started to find ways to grow, harvest, thresh, and clean seed.

Until very recently the growing of seed was an integral part of all agricultural practice, in all agricultural societies. Growing, harvesting, cleaning, and storing seed was simply something farmers did to ensure that they could plant the same crop the following year. Keeping an eye on a crop’s performance and selecting seed from the best plants was a vital part of the process. Indeed, a farmer’s ability to maintain a good seedstock was—and still is in many parts of the world—one of the key elements in determining his or her prosperity. Maintaining a good seedstock has many parallels with maintaining good breeding stock in livestock, and both have always been good indicators of the overall health and well-being of a farm.

The model of vegetable seed companies being the exclusive purveyors of seed has really only existed for roughly the past 50 to 100 years. This model developed in the global north due to many of the same forces that were at play in the industrialization of agriculture. Growing vegetable seed commercially has become an increasingly specialized skill—one most farmers have little knowledge of—handled by large specialized companies that both do the research involved in breeding vegetable varieties and produce large quantities of seed. This seed is then disseminated through smaller distribution and retail companies that generally have little or no involvement with seed growing.

As the production of vegetable seed has become concentrated into the hands of these very few, large “production research” companies, as they are commonly known, it’s left fewer and fewer people in agriculture who possess the skills to produce high-quality vegetable seed. In a very real sense we have lost the diversity of people who know how to perform all the steps in this process, which isn’t about just growing the seed but also maintaining the variety, keeping it free of seedborne diseases, and harvesting and milling it to the point where it’s suitable for commercial use. Also, because seed companies often only breed and produce any given seed crop in one or two of its most ideal climates, few new vegetable crop varieties are adapted to a wide array of conditions—something that was once an important part of the picture when there were many more regional seed companies distributed around the world.

To continue reading, find your copy of The Organic Seed Grower at the Acres U.S.A. Bookstore here.

About the Author

John Navazio, PhD, is the senior scientist and a plant breed with the Organic Seed Alliance. He also serves as the organic seed research and extension specialist for Washington State University. John lives in Port Townsend, Washington, on the Salish Sea.

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