One of the most essential (and least talked about) cornerstones of sustainable agriculture is seed. As demand for local food continues to expand as well climate, pest and disease pressures, the significance of the seed sowing this movement is increasingly important. Cornell is central to many of these conversations.
Each spring, seeds germinate in agricultural fields across the Northeast, growing as best they can and adapting to the innumerable pressures of each season. If allowed to mature seed, the best of that generation may return again to the soil, more resilient than the last. Through the generations, diverse adaptation becomes encoded in each seed’s genetics, expanding always the species’ capacity to adapt. The extraordinary resilience of our planet is the result of this genetic diversity.
Most crops in the Northeast are not grown for seed: each season we forfeit the potential resilience of our crops.
“With domesticated seed it is sometimes true that seed developed in one location will be broadly successful,” says Dr. Michael Mazourek of Cornell Plant Breeding and Genetics. “However, it is more often the case that a seed adapted to the environment in which it was grown will be more robust. This seed is an essential aspect of a sustainable system.”
Did you know?
Three chemical corporations own over 50% of the global seed supply and most seed sown globally is commercially produced in just a few relatively arid bioregions. Additionally, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Department we have lost 75% of our food crop diversity in the last century. The diverse, resilient genetics at the foundation of our ten millennial agricultural has never been more imperative to cultivate.
“Don’t Oppose Forces, Use Them”
“Eliot Coleman introduced me to the Buckminster Fuller quote, ‘Don’t oppose forces, use them,’ continues Mazourek, “and this seems a critical benchmark of sustainability.” In terms of seed, ‘using forces’ has broad relevance: climate, geography, politics, market and technology. In the Northeast, transforming our liabilities into regionally adapted, resilient seed is burgeoning. Collaborations between farmers, academics and passionate individuals have already made
significant progress, the momentum is building and Cornell is right at the forefront.
Regional Seed in the Finger Lakes
Nathaniel Thompson, CALS class of ’98, biodynamically manages 100 acres in Trumansburg, New York and has experienced the potential of regional genetics. “My interest is practical,” says Thompson, “seed is place-driven, a response to unique conditions.” Thompson has experimented extensively with on-farm seed production to minimize expenses, close loops and develop crops specifically for his farm and market. He has found that even a single season of selection has yielded crops with more uniformity and vigor, especially in his New York Early onions.
Thompson is collaborating Fruition Seeds this season to produce a half-acre of seed, including kale, arugula and lettuce. A market grower, Thompson plants and cultivates the seed crops while Fruition selects, harvests and cleans the seed.
Fruition Seeds provides certified organic seed grown in and for the Northeast. Raised in New York and Connecticut, co-founders Petra Page-Mann studied at CALS and Matthew Goldfarb worked for the Cornell Small Farms Program. They have worked in agriculture for over thirty collective years. With knowledge of local production, local markets and operating on a relatively small scale, they offer seed grown on their farm in the Finger Lakes of Upstate New York as well as seed from other certified organic growers throughout the Northeast. “Each season we have the opportunity to improve the quality and productivity in our seeds,” explains Petra. “It is a pleasure to have so many great collaborators from Cornell and around the region as we develop seed specifically for our farmers and gardeners in the Finger Lakes.”
Fruition Seeds grows and processes seed in Naples, leasing land owned by Mark Adams, class of ’68 and life-long farmer in the Finger Lakes. “Plants evolve, bacteria evolve and change is constant,” he observes, “to compete in the market
farms continue to cut quality.” This focus on short-term returns without thought of long-term resilience concerns Adams, who appreciates the complexity of our systemic food crisis. He is interested to see the work of Fruition continue to adapt to soil, climate and market conditions and is hopeful for the future of agriculture in the Northeast.
If you’re interested in growing Fruition’s seed, consider joining their Kickstarter campaign through July 15 at http://bit.ly/FruitionSeedsLaunch to revitalize regional seed in the Northeast. Their website fruitionseeds.com will be up by the end of June as well, with over sixty varieties of certified organic, regionally grown seeds perfect for summer/fall plantings.
Seed is essential to every living system. We are surrounded by plants brilliantly adapting to their environment, constantly encoding resilience in their genetic diversity. Sustainable agriculture depends on our crops having the same opportunity.
This was written for the Sustainability Newsletter of Cornell University June, 2013.