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Understanding the seed business

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1 Understanding the seed business on Sun Jan 05, 2014 10:10 am

Omega Blue Farms

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I would like to add some clarification to the understanding of "local" seed trade. There are two types of "local" seed companies.

1)  Most local seed companies buy bulk seeds from around the world and repackage for local sale. The seeds are not produced locally. It doesn't matter whether you buy from West Coast, Johnnies, or Stokes, the actual seeds usually trace back to the same foreign farms.


2)  There is a fledgling cottage seed production industry springing up in Canada that is marketing seeds actually produced here. Often times, the person selling the seeds either produced the seeds or had a hand in their production. Salt Spring Seeds seems like one of the better known members in this class.


So, for those of you who find it important to support local, I invite you to dig deeper and ask yourselves exactly what type of "local" is important to you. Is local labour and profits simply enough? It still supports the local economy more than ordering from the US would , after all. Or do you want local in support of local food security? The only sustainable contributors to local food security are those who actually produce seeds locally.


However, nothing is easy or black/white


Just because a seed supplier is small, it doesn't mean they are producing their own seeds, or all of their seeds. Here is a personal story that helps shed light on the sinister side of the seed trade for me:

I started attending Seedy Saturday events a couple years before I started making my own seeds. I saw Green Goliath broccoli seeds at several vendor stalls but didn't buy them because I was still a novice as per the cultivars and was already trying out Calabrese and De Ciccio that year. It was that season that I decided to get into producing seeds and started doing my homework on cultivars. My research led me to Green Goliath as the best OP broccoli cultivar. So the next season I went back to Seedy Saturday with the intention of buying Green Goliath seeds from as many vendors as I could find and devote the year to testing out the various lines. Problem was, every single vendor that carried Green Goliath the previous year no longer had seeds due to "crop failure". And it wasn't just that year, none of them have brought it back since.

This woke me up to the realities of what was happening behind the scenes. I assumed that the universal crop failure was because all those small mom/pop outfits had actually been buying their broccoli seeds in bulk and repackaging.  I started poking around because I wanted to trial Green Goliath. I finally found a farmer who had some seeds in storage, grew them and was most impressed. It really was just as good as the hybrids!

I also trialed a reseach line from Oregon state University that year and found two plants in the mix that were impressive. I decided to let it flower at the same time as the Goliath. The two batches were 100' apart and the populations were 2 plants vs 50. While I expected (and wanted) some cross pollination, I expected that due to separation and differences in population that the cross pollination would be minimal. Got a great seed crop and therefore had no reason to think there was a problem. The plants grown from the seeds were incredible and they treated me and my customers really well. Problem was, my subsequent seed crops have been complete failures. The seed crop did suffer from aphids and I blamed them for the failure.

Last year, I was determined to get a good crop of seeds and left nothing to chance. Still a complete bust, I now was confident that the problem was genetic, and not my gardening shortcomings. Went back to the plant breeding texts and read the chapters on male sterility that had never interested me in the past. My research had led me to believe that my "Green Goliath" came with cytoplasmic male sterility inserted into it's genepool. This means that the only way it can produce seeds is if pollen comes from an outside source. It can never shed pollen and none of it's offspring will ever shed pollen. It is a genetic dead end.

Well it turns out that one of the big seed companies produced a Green Goliath look-alike that they called Goliath that had this trait. My farmer friend must have bought the Goliath by mistake, or it was substituted without him noticing. Basically, he was tricked into growing a dead end hybrid. After several years, my work with this variety is a dead end. It means nothing and really only hurt our local food security rather than helped. Good intentions all around, but we lost valuable time chasing a dead end. This is where our seed industry is at.

The pollen we need for our own food security is being put under lock and key.



Last edited by Omega Blue Farms on Tue Jan 07, 2014 9:39 am; edited 1 time in total

http://www.OmegaBlueFarms.ca

2 Re: Understanding the seed business on Sun Jan 05, 2014 12:07 pm

Country Thyme Farm

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This is certainly a major issue OBF. Unfortunately this issue only gets compounded for those of us who produce at any scale greater than the home gardener.

When we started our farm I had dreams of producing all of our own seed to keep everything truly sustainable and local, and now know that this is not at all feasible for us. Anna and I and our business partners are all stretched far too thin to even have the spare brain power to manage our own seed production, let alone the labour power. We are happy to be able to keep the genetics of all of our livestock, grain and pulses truly local and in our own hands when we choose, but herbs and vegetables are not feasible right now and I really wish that the small "cottage" seed suppliers were interested and/or able to provide bulk seed to farmers.

We make every effort possible to buy our seeds truly local from growers like you when its feasible but when we need 5kg of beet seed or 20kg of pea seed etc. each season (and we're a tiny farm) we are forced to make the decision that seed companies like William Dam and West Coast at least keep our efforts within the Canadian economy.

And of course legislation makes everything more difficult. Vegetables are relatively free of government involvement right now and we can sell those to whoever we like, but if we ever wanted to provide hatching eggs to a farmer or sell our 'Red Fife' wheat for seed in any quantity that even resembled being farmable we'd have CFIA breathing down our necks in a second flat. We face the same issues just providing food, with regulations designed for factories being applied to family farms. Yes the pollen we need for our food security is being put under lock and key, and so is the food we need to fill our bellies!

It's not far off either. Legislators are really itching to get their fingers into the vegetable industry, probably just to make us put a nutritional label on a carrot but it will certainly make life even more difficult for those growing vegetable seed, especially the heirloom and open-pollinated crowd if it happens.

We really do need at least one farm in every province to step up and start organizing local seed production for both farmers and gardeners.

http://countrythyme.ca

3 Re: Understanding the seed business on Mon Jan 06, 2014 8:14 am

Omega Blue Farms

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I hear you on alot of fronts Country Time. The grain laws are absurb, has the dismantling of the Wheat Board offered any improvements? I would love to find a source for bulk old school naked oat seeds, if there is such a beast.

As for sources for bulk beet, pea, etc seeds, I also hear you. William Dam has been a trusted supplier. However, as for leading us down the garden path, so to speak, they are no different than the rest. Not because they wish to, but because they too are at the mercy of their suppliers. I have seen a pattern whereby gardeners (and farmers) are being forced to choose between OPs and Organic. Often, the organic varieties also tend to be hybrids. Yes, it's all about divide and conquer.

I'll be perfectly honest. As I wait for the True Canadian seed producers to mature to the point of being able to efficiently produce bulk seeds, I will support an American producer before supporting a Canadian reseller. I think it's important to support those seed producers who have developed business models that support food security, regardless of their location. Two that offer decent bulk pricing are:

Wild Garden Seeds - for wide selection of greens, good guy that fought Monsanto in the courts to protect beet seed from GMO sugar beets
[You must be registered and logged in to see this link.]

and
Sustainable Seed Company - they really seem to be offering the ideal business model. They are heritage, organic, produce their own seeds, and sell bulk quantities.
[You must be registered and logged in to see this link.]

http://www.OmegaBlueFarms.ca

4 Re: Understanding the seed business on Mon Jan 06, 2014 9:02 am

CynthiaM

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Geeze, gotta get back to this thread tomorrow morning, this is very interesting and you have done something to really get my head spinning this day, and that is a good thing, by the way, have an awesome day, CynthiaM.

5 Re: Understanding the seed business on Tue Jan 07, 2014 1:09 am

Magdelan

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I love that you people are on to this, it's so important. Once again I'm glad I joined this forum. Just a back yard gardener myself on a scale that serves my immediate family but a lot to learn from all this. thanks.

6 Re: Understanding the seed business on Tue Jan 07, 2014 6:20 am

CynthiaM

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Omega, some things cause deep interest in me, and I have read over and over your story about the goliath broccoli, and am trying to get a deep sense of what occurred. I am going to try to recap how I understand that you are saying, and please stand me corrected if it needs be. I am totally listening and interested.....

You got Green Goliath seeds from a friend that had them in storage, after you could not find them at the seedy Saturday.
You trialed two cultivars of broccoli along with the green goliath seeds from the farmer friend
The cross pollination, even though it was about 100 feet between these two cultivars produced fabulous seeds and the seeds planted the following year produced wonderful broccoli.
So that year’s broccoli trial was a hybrid formed of the two cultivars from the state and the green giant
But...the seeds gathered from this hybridization were a bust, you attributed it to poor insect control, i.e., aphids.
Last year you planted this hybrid you created, but the seeds again were a complete bust.
You delved deeply into the research about male sterilization and you believe that the cytoplasmic male sterility had been inserted into the genepool of the green Goliath that you obtained from the farmer friend who had the green Goliath seed held in storage.
You mention that with this cytomplasmic male sterility inserted into the genepool that the only way that this variety can produce seeds is if pollen comes from an outside source. Being a sterile plant, will never produce pollen (so advantageous actually for some things, like certain cultivars of beautiful sunflowers, male sterility certainly does have its place, I smile) and (I ask about this in the end of my part on what I THINK you have said, so I leave this part for now).
You believe that your farmer friend accidentally had the Goliath seeds (the look alike to Green Goliath), but the green goliath is basically dead and gone because of the male sterility and cannot be obtained.
The Goliath seeds also had the cytoplasmic male sterility gene inserted into the genepool as well.

Did I “get” all that you were trying to impart? I need to know...please correct me if I have construed wrongly. I need to know. This is fascinating and has totally shook me up about seed saving now. Food seed saving I refer to, not too worried about flower, as we mostly don’t eat them, smiling....

Now getting back to the point where you were talking about the green Goliath requiring an outside pollen to produce seeds. Would this not have occurred with the trial you did with the two cultivars from the state? But then too, perhaps that 100 feet apart was enough to prevent cross pollination. Although I highly doubt it. Ever seen the different colours of pollen on a bees hind tarsi? They are covered in pollen sometimes, and you know that bee has visited many a pollen source. I don’t for a minute think that 100 feet is too far for a honeybee to travel from broccoli plant to broccoli plant. And when broccoli is in flower, it is HIGHLY attractive to the species. I think that the green Goliath and the two cultivars of broccoli you trialed did cross-pollinate, so why would the green Goliath not produce seeds. Enlighten me on this please.

This has prompted me by the way, to wonder about many things about seed collection from any vegetable that I grow. Not that I do anyways, but I know I should. This has also caused me to think twice about where I am ordering my seeds. I have ordered through Dan at Saltspring for many years, off and on, in small and big amounts, I think I shall return, always had the most wonderful results from his and his company’s efforts. I know that they are tried and true (where I got my original garlic, so many, many years ago). That is an aside.

I think you have struck a chord here, one that needs to be struck. If we are to ever keep on helping to keep on, surely we should endeavour to save seeds from stock that will not be a dead end, such as you bore witness to.

I also think it is such a sad thing that you spent all those years doing trials, to come up with crap. The product itself is wonderful, as you said, but the fact that there are sterile issues bothers me immensely. I do not farm to such a huge extent that I feel a need to work so hard to collect seeds. There is an immense amount of work that has to be done, to grow, allow to go to seed (yes, so many, two years in that, the biennials), to gather, to properly process for storing and then the actual storage. My hat off to anyone that does this. Been there, done that, and I am oh so familiar with the process. Got a thread I am making about some bean seeds in short order, need comments on that one, but will be in a different thread.

You have caused great thinking within my soul about where my seeds come from, and reasons why we should really think about what we do. Lots of diversity with thought, as the same with the seeds. There are good things about these hybrids, open pollinated, I love both, but yes, if we choose to seed save, we need to understand more fully these things too. Thank you for this topic, Omega, I think it will go a long way with others understanding little things that go on behind the scenes we never expected to see. Please answer my biggest question, clearly, when you have a moment, so I can fully understand what you are imparting to your friends here. Have a beautiful day, CynthiaM.

7 Re: Understanding the seed business on Tue Jan 07, 2014 9:53 am

Omega Blue Farms

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I guess I added too many details and it cluttered the message. I edited my initial post, bolding where your understanding and my intended meaning split ways.


Quick Recap:

Farmer's Green Goliath (pollenated by OSU broccoli) produced lots of great seed that produced great plants. However, these plants were male sterile and need outside pollen to set seed. They and all their offspring will never be able to set seed without outside pollen.


http://www.OmegaBlueFarms.ca

8 Re: Understanding the seed business on Tue Jan 07, 2014 11:05 am

Sweetened

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I, personally, will stick to buying from Canadian seed suppliers, whether they grow their own or not. 2 or the 3 I order from do, and west coast seeds has a single variety of pumpkin I'm after, otherwise I would order nothing from them. Over the next couple years I will start saving my own seed and learning a bit more about it, I just need to be able to get my green houses up so I can be able to close off certain plants on certain days as to avoid cross pollination as much as possible.

The seed producer is supported by my purchase, even if they're American, while I support our Canadian economy. That matters to me.

http://steadfastfarm.wordpress.com/

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