resources on seed saving
Seed to Seed: Seed Saving Techniques
for the Vegetable Gardener, 2nd
edn, by Suzanne Ashworth
A complete seed-saving guide describing specific
techniques for 160 vegetables, including botanical
classifications, flower structure and pollination,
population size, isolation distances, and techniques
for caging, hand-pollination, harvesting, drying,
cleaning and storage. Invaluable for both beginning
and experienced seed savers.
Restoring Our Seed www.growseed.org
The web site of the conference presenters,
with information on other seed conferences, articles
on growing seeds, contact information for seed
breeders, experts and educators, and, eventually,
a web-based manual on seed production. Restoring
Our Seed is a Northeast SARE-funded program.
High Mowing Seeds
Founded by Tom Stearns in 1996, Vermont-based
High Mowing Seeds now sells over 150,000 packets
of 100 percent organic seed each year. A seed-saving
pamphlet and other resources are downloadable
from their website.
Public Seed Initiative
A collaborative project of Cornell University's
Departments of Plant Breeding and Horticulture,
the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New
York, the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s
Plant Genetic Resources Unit, and the Farmer’s
Cooperative Genome Project--Oregon Tilth.
An information clearinghouse for the global seed
ATTRA page: Suppliers of Seed for Certified
Another terrific resource from the angels at ATTRA,
including an extensive list of certified organic
seed suppliers, organized regionally.
Eastern Native Seed Conservancy
Based in Great Barrington, Mass., non-profit ENSC
offers native crop varieties for sale and exchange.
Their links page has an enormous collection of
resources for seed savers.
Seed Savers Exchange
A non-profit member organization devoted to preserving
heirloom varieties of vegetables and fruits. For
a membership fee of $35.00, SSE members receive
a yearbook that offers access to 11,000 rare varieties.
Non-members can purchase Seed Savers seeds directly
through their catalog.
| Tom Stearns
of High Mowing Seeds demonstratest the relatively
simple process of cleaning seeds.
Posted January 26, 2004: Just as the organic
movement brought about a ground swell of change in agriculture,
with its impact sending out ripples in all directions, so
too is the seed savers' movement slowly spreading, preserving
old varieties of seeds and wresting back control from the
large corporations who have dominated the seed market. “We
were missing one piece from the organic farming movement,”
said Fedco Seed founder CR Lawn at the Restoring Our Seed
Conference. “We almost forgot about the seed. We are
taking back our birthright,” he declared.
Over 100 people gathered for the two-day conference on seed
saving held in Brattleboro, Vt., on November 15-16. The heads
of several seed companies were in attendance, as were growers
of seed at various levels of scale--from under an acre to over
20 acres. Workshop topics ranged from the biology of seed production
and breeding for disease resistance to seed cleaning techniques.
Overall the mood was positive and enthusiastic, with information
freely shared among the participants.
experts: Top, Frank Morton, a plant breeder
in Oregon, emphasizes the ecological impacts and
benefits of small-scale seed production. Bottom,
Plant reproductive expert, Dr. John Navazio shared
years of experiences with conference goers.
The need to save seed on a local and regional level was made
clear. Organically produced seed is in short supply and urgently
needed by organic growers. Regionally adapted varieties are
not being developed by the large seed companies. They have
no interest in developing a tomato that will grow well in
Vermont or Maine, but a small regional seed company such as
High Mowing Seeds does indeed. “The critical linchpin
of agriculture is the seed we use,” said seed breeder
Dr. John Navazio.
Don't be a seed-slave
There are a number of ideas to keep in mind if one is interested
in growing seed on a commercial basis. For one thing, you
should pick crops that you like. “It has to be fun.
Otherwise you’ll be seed-slaving,” declared Navazio.
If you pick a crop to grow that you don’t feel some
sort of bond to, you won’t enjoy it, so choose wisely.
Secondly, you need to understand the plant you have chosen
and determine if you should even try to grow it for seed in
your area. Just because it will grow there and even set fruit
doesn’t mean it should be grown in your region for seed,
cautioned Navazio. He cited the example of some tomato varieties,
such as Legend and Oregon Spring, which will set fruit in
colder, wet areas, but not produce seed. So be forewarned
and do your research first. In fact, warned Navazio, if a
seed company asks you to grow a specific variety, make sure
it’s not the problem child nobody else wants to grow.
Some crops are dogs, he emphasized. So, be careful.
It is critical to learn the biology of seed reproduction.
A grower must be fully aware of issues such as selfers and
crossers, isolation distances, minimum numbers to grow to
avoid inbreeding depression and related subjects. This information
is all available in books on seed saving and applicable web
Seed growers' training program
Tom Stearns of High Mowing Seeds has initiated a seed growers'
training program in Vermont. He distributes a manual full
of detailed descriptions of how to grow seed and five packets
of seed to prospective growers. He then provides technical
assistance and on-farm visits, where feasible, to the “growers
in training”. He gives the growers a target seed yield
and stresses that they treat their venture as a commercial
crop even though it’s on a small scale to start with.
When the seed is ready, they send it back to Stearns, who
cleans it and tests the germination rate, providing feedback
on the product to the growers. This approach is used for growers
at all levels of experience. Even if you've grown and marketed
vegetables for 20 years, growing for seed is distinct area
of expertise, with its own learning curve.
One item of discussion was the levels of scale that are feasible
for seed production. Stearns noted that seed companies are
interested in varying amounts of seed, depending on the size
of the seed company and the seed variety. Navazio observed
that a company such as Johnny’s Seeds, for instance,
might be able to find someone who can provide 3,000 lb. of
a carrot seed, and another to provide 20 lb., but need a grower
at a level in between those amounts. So, niches for growers
at all levels exist.
Don't grow on spec
That said, grow only what you’ve got a contract for.
Don’t grow on spec, urged Fedco's Lawn. Fedco doesn’t
want to buy excess seed and sit on it for five years. It ties
up money in inventory and costs money to store it, he pointed
out. Seed breeder Frank Morton stressed that anyone can flood
the market with any one variety in a single year. It takes
no skill to do that, he noted. It does take skill to figure
out how much you need to grow to fulfill your contract and
use the rest of your land to grow other seed that won’t
cross with it.
It will take some calculation to determine the economic viability
of growing a particular amount of a seed variety. For instance,
Stearns points out that growing 5 lb. of one high-priced variety
could pay the same amount as growing 50 lb. of a lower-priced
variety. But, you’d have to take into account many factors,
including your growing environment, seed yield for the varieties
in question, equipment needs, etc.
Most traditional seed companies are not used to buying dirty
seed that hasn’t been germination-tested from growers
whose fields they have not been inspecting. These services
are provided for larger growers. Perhaps, speculates Stearns,
if there was a middleman to do all of this--germ testing,
seed cleaning, field inspections, distribution, etc., maybe
in the form of a co-op--it would help smaller seed producers
sell seed to larger companies.
From harvest to clean seed
Another issue is that of seed harvesting and cleaning. Stearns
suspects that it is the threshing equipment and not the seed
cleaning equipment that farmers need to buy and share. Threshing
involves basically smashing the plant material to separate
the seed from the plant. Seed cleaning involves separating
the seed from the chaff. The final stage of seed cleaning
allows for seeds to be separated from weed seeds, immature
seed and other contaminants, bringing the percent germination
High Mowing Seeds does have some ability to provide seed
threshing equipment, for both wet and dry seeds, to their
growers. Your level of scale has a lot to do with what your
needs are equipment-wise. A small-scale grower might be able
to cut dry seeded crops, such as beans, in the field, bring
them into a dry space, and then mechanically separate the
seeds from the plant by thrashing them in some way. People
have bagged them and stomped on them, put them under a tarp
and run over them with a truck, and used other innovative
Larger-scale growers need to resort to using combines for
harvest. Wet seeded fruits such as tomatoes, cukes, melons
and squash present other issues. Small quantities can be handled
by hand, but larger amounts require the use of machinery.
Winter squash and pumpkins quickly become unmanageable at
even relatively low levels of scale, and machinery to handle
the job proves invaluable.
Stearns of High Mowing Seeds is also in the process of developing
both a seed-cleaning facility and a testing lab that can be
utilized by growers, enabling them to avoid investing in their
own equipment. Rowen White, assistant farm manager at Hampshire
College in Amherst, Mass., is developing a seed-cleaning center
to be housed at the college.
Seed cleaning is a major issue for growers. “I love
seed cleaning,” states Stearns, but you won’t
find many people who do. It is the single most frustrating
thing for new growers, he believes. Basically, though, he
thinks that if you have the right tools and techniques, you
too will grow to love it.
Matt Rulevich suggests thinking the entire seed-cleaning
process through before getting started, as you don’t
want to spend more time at it than you really need to. High
Mowing Seeds has prepared a number of seed-cleaning fact sheets
which provides instructions, lists of tools, estimated costs,
and other valuable information.
Unless a grower is producing seed at a huge scale, relatively
simple, low-cost items such as buckets, fans, and screens
can be used for seed cleaning. Stearns described one set-up
for cleaning dry seed that involved two box fans set up one
behind the other on a chair, with several buckets in front
of them on the ground. With two fans, the speed can be adjusted
as needed to provide variable levels of air movement. Seed
is poured from a square bucket in front of the fans, with
viable seed landing in a bucket and debris such as chaff and
immature seed being separated out due to differences in weight.
Be aware of the learning curve
In general, the speakers emphasized the learning curve that
faces those just beginning to grow seed. A much larger pool
of information now exists than was available even five years
ago in terms of seed growing on a smaller-scale basis. Still,
although there are a number of experienced, talented and dedicated
seed breeders and growers to provide this information, some
of it will, by necessity, be gained only by trial and error.
For instance, learning to assess the point at which crops
should be harvested so that as much seed as possible is mature,
but the crop isn’t shattering in the field or rotting,
takes hands-on experience.
Finally, pointed out Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seeds, there
were no workshops held on how to make money selling seed.
The money is the hard part of the business, he emphasized.
The seed business is currently dominated by the giants, but
he strongly believes that when one of them fails, the small
growers will be there to pick up the pieces. We just have
to avoid letting the domination by large companies happen
again, he said. We need lots of small growers.