Monthly Archives: June 2013

Cornell Alum, Faculty and Staff: Sustainable Agriculture & Regional Seed

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.

spinach, just going to seed!

spinach, just going to seed!

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 and Petra introduce their collaborative lettuce seed crop!

Nathaniel and Petra introduce their collaborative lettuce seed crop!

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

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

Matthew and freshly harvested tatsoi seed!

Matthew and freshly harvested tatsoi seed!

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.

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Radish Ramble

French Breakfast Radish…not going to seed

Well, this isn’t a story of triumph or abundance…yet.  It is more the story of learning, wondering and head scratching, with a lot of “to be continued.”  We had planned on the “french breakfast” radish below going to seed this late spring/early summer.  But it has other ideas.  In fact, about 25%  of this crop has other ideas.  They have started to rot at the root base and then completely rot out from the inside out.  The first signs were in the wilted leaves.  Once we started to pull them up for closer inspection it was obvious there was no recovering from this.

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                                                         At the moment we have not made any convincing conclusion to know exactly why this is happening, only that it is.  It could be disease, it could be a variety issue, it could be a pest or extended we soil issue.

We are growing out two varieties of radish (“french breakfast” and “sora”).  Both were seeded at the same time, selected and replanted at the same time.  The only difference other than variety is that the “french breakfast” is growing on our farm in Naples and the “sora” on land that we lease in Branchport.  The “sora” by the way is thriving.

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Here are some of wilting and yellowing leaves that is a clear sign the root has already begun to rot.

While waiting anything can happen

It is equally fascinating and sometimes daunting how we can have a perfectly edible, delicious, and hearty plant at its typical harvest stage for eating, but then have to let it grow thought that stage into seed development.  By the time many of our crops are making seed they may have been exposed to numerous additional weather, pest,  and disease pressures.  Leaving us wondering if we will get the quality of seed we had planned for.   If produce farming is the art of living with and trusting in the unknown while you work your tail off, than seed farming asks the same of you, plus a whole lot more over a longer period of time.

In the first week of April, the radish started out with great germination and strong vigor.  Here are the seedlings below before they were thinned.

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Making selections 

In late April We had a great harvest and selected the best radishes based on size, shape and vigor.  In the picture below with the six radishes on a washboard you can seed the difference between radishes we selected for seed production and the radishes we put in our salad.  The radishes on top are much less uniform and do not have the even cylindrical shape we want in this variety.   The row of three on the bottom were saved and replanted for seed.

If we were just growing radish for market we would have been very pleased with our crop.  But the seed story does not end there.

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Planting the roots, not the seed

After we selected the best radishes we cut the top leaves except for the inner most 2-3 leaves.  We then placed them in the fridge for about a week (labeled in plastic ziplock bags).  This process of vernalization helps spring radishes go to seed more uniformly (usually).  When we planted the radishes out around the 8th of May we again made a final selection.  Any that looked like they had scars, cuts, bruises, felt pithy, or leaves discolored were not planted and went into the salad bowl and neighbors dinner plates.  We planted the remaining stock on 10″-12″ spacing.

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And now five weeks later since replanting the roots they have filled out with leaves between 5″-8″ and roots 6″ long and about 1.5″ wide.  Although many still look healthy as time passes we are noticing more wilting and then root rot.  We have pulled any of the roots that even look like they might be turning.

So here is what we are trying to figure out

Why is the “sora” thriving and the “french breakfast” rotting in the field?  Is it a disease, pest, soil, moisture, varietal or some other factor that the “french breakfast” was a great radish for eating, but may not make seed this year.  We have a call into Cris Smart our friend and invaluable disease detective.  She is a plant Pathologist with Cornell, when we hear back from her I will update the blog.

Radish “should” be one of the easier seed crops

Fruition-Seeds-radish-growing-instructionsFruition-Seeds-radish-seed-saving-instructions

Radish planting and seed saving tips

Above is the planting and seed saving card we put in each seed pack.  Our friend Glen Curtis was visiting the farm the other day and shared with us the accidental radish seed in his garden.   He plants radish mainly for the leaves, not the root.  He loves pesto and radish leaves are a great way to make a spring pesto before parsley, basil and even sometimes arugula are ready to harvest for pesto.  Because he has been leaving the roots and only taking the leaves some of them have matured long enough to start flowering and getting ready to go to seed.   Way to go Glen!   You can have your pesto and seed it to!

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Why Regional Seed Matters

There is so much in a seed.

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Petra is thrilled to be surrounded by gold medal tomatoes, tome verde tomatillos and black beauty eggplant: all are adapting well to the Finger Lakes!

Each seed tells the story of its entire life history, millions of years in the making.  A few seeds, in a single generation, may travel the globe.  Most will stay within their watershed and most likely, their microclimate.  In this way, seeds become profoundly adapted to place.  The selection pressures of the environment (drought, low-nutrient stress) are key in the evolution of every seed.

Agricultural seed tells an additional story, one of human relationship.  Historically they remained fairly static, slowly adapting to place and becoming spread wide first on our backs, then by camel, then by boat.  Fast forward to 2013: most seed companies offer seed from all over the world.

A Bit of History

If ‘regional seed’ is seed becoming adapted to a bioregion, then all seed before World War I was regional.  Farmers in both industrialized and developing nations saved their own seed.  Integral to livelihood, maintaining good seedstock was equally important as keeping a good bull for livestock.  Over time, each variety was selected to meet the environmental conditions and farmer’s needs on the farm.

After World War I, hybrid corn set the stage and began the transition (slowly at first, forty years later dominating the market), replacing farm-grown seed with not only seed developed elsewhere, seed would not grow true if the seed was saved, as well.In effect, seed has become just another commodity (like fertilizer and pesticide) that all farms purchase annually.

If not here, then where?

We share a blind faith that seed is produced by the companies selling them; this is most often not the case.

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Matthew sits with our yellow mustard seed crop. In a few months we’ll have more than enough for both our condiment fondness and you! To his left, a row of watermelon just sprouting under remay…..!

Most seed is grown where the climate favors commercial dry seed production, such as the Pacific Northwest and Israel.  Much of this seed is adapted to modern agricultural techniques (mechanization, increased external inputs), allowing for wide adaptation and the high yields resulting from high inputs.  Further, breeding for resistance to pests and disease is rarely prioritized, relying heavily on chemical applications, resulting in varieties adapted to these sprays.

Is regional seed a thing of the past?

Following the rebirth of regional organic vegetable production, awareness of regional seed production is gaining momentum.  Regional seed is the natural root of local food.  The Pacific Northwest has a thriving network of small-scale seed growers and here in the Northeast we have our own burgeoning community of committed seed growers.  Perhaps evidence of a shift in public awareness, many of these growers are experiencing significant sales growth each season.

Does regional seed matter?

Each region has specific resources, growing challenges and market opportunities; regional seed is uniquely able to adapt all of these needs and conditions.

On farms, at universities and in gardens throughout the Northeast, communities are asking:  where does our seed come from and can regional seed meet my needs?

Our seed is coming from all over the world.  Few seed companies sell seed grown in the Northeast and even then it is only a small percent of their offering.  This means you may be buying good seed but not seed selected to excel in your specific climate and soils.

Regional Seed in the Northeast

Fruition Seeds provides seed grown organically in and for the Northeast.  Raised in New York and Connecticut, co-founders Petra Page-Mann and Matthew Goldfarb 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 excellent organic growers throughout the Northeast.

Petra selects rutabegas to be replanted for seed!

Petra selects rutabega to be replanted for seed.  

“Without a company to serve the market, how do we have access to such genetics?” asks Dr. Michael Mazourek with Plant Breeding and Genetics at Cornell University.  “Seed customized to our growing conditions gives us freedom from ‘making do’ with what serves major national markets.  A region’s ability to have vibrant, productive seed is critical.”

“Each farm is unique, especially each organic farm,” observes Michael Glos, also with Cornell Plant Breeding and Genetics.  Conventional seed, produced with quick-release fertilizer and pesticide, may perform with little variation between farms.  Organic systems, however, have a spectrum of variables for seed to respond to, increasing the significance of regional seed.

“Regional seed is important,” continues Michael who, ten years ago, saved kale seed on his farm.  Having only grown that seed since, “nothing can replace seed selected on the conditions of your specific farm.”

Rutabega, now five feet tall and setting seed adapted to the Finger Lakes in 2013!

Rutabega, now five feet tall and setting seed adapted to the Finger Lakes in 2013!

Will Bonsall, Director of the Scatterseed project, has been saving seed in Maine for decades and has witnessed the impact of regional and on-farm selection in many crops.  His work with grain is an excellent example.  “Wheat bred for the prairie soils of the grain belt, rather than the forest soils of the Northeast, are notably different.  Additional breeding for yield has neglected the flavor, nutrition and bread-making qualities of wheat.”  Adapting grains to his soils has taught him much and he continues to learn more each season.

Regional seed, like local food, is too important to our lives to be fringe for long.  The seed we have now is good but truly excellent, well-adapted and regional seed is our privilege to cultivate.  With the collaboration of seed companies, universities and individuals alike, the foundation is strong for a regional seed supply in the Northeast.

Fruition Seeds wakes every day grateful, humbled by the potential of each seed.  Join us in growing, saving, sharing and celebrating organic, regional seed in the Northeast!

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Sow What? Sow Fruition!

SOW WHAT?

Matthew and I were once content, small-scale organic growers unaware that often the seeds we planted supported values that did not align with our own.

3.25 x 4.75 Fruition Seeds - vegetablesBelieving that seeds are the foundation of our food, our clothing, and indeed of everything, we were astonished to discover that there is a global, systemic crisis in how our seeds are selected, bred, owned and distributed.

We have founded Fruition Seeds in response to our deepest desires both personal and political, practical and poetic.  Providing organic, regionally adapted seed grown in and for the Northeast, we are growing over two acres of seed crops this season as well as establishing a regional network of phenomenal seed growers to expand this vision.

                     THE SEED CRISIS

Marjorie Kelly writes, “Most of the great political struggles of the past 5,000 years can be reduced to a simple question: who will own land, water, and the other essentials of living – and to what end?”  Our genetic diversity is indeed one of these essentials.  Recent innovations such as genetic modification, F1 hybridization, expanding patent laws and centralized seed production serving international markets have contributed to the loss of 75% of our agricultural genetic diversity in the last hundred years (from a study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization).

We share a blind faith that seed is produced by the companies selling them; this is most often not the case.  In fact, three chemical companies control over half  the global seed supply: seed has become just another commodity.  As such, most seed is grown where the climate favors commercial production, such as the Pacific Northwest, California, and Israel.  Much of this seed is adapted to modern agricultural techniques (mechanization, fertilizer, pesticides), allowing for 3.25 x 4.75 Fruition Seeds - herbshigh yields resulting from high inputs.  Further, resistance to pests and disease relies heavily on chemical applications, resulting in varieties adapted to these sprays.  This seed, developed with conventional practices, is widely adapted to similar conditions around the world.

Such conventionally produced ‘widely adapted’ seed may grow in your soil, but may not as well as one ‘regionally adapted,’ developed with organic practices.  Companies with national and international markets excel in the former, but not the latter.  Through personal conversation with countless individuals in gardens, the seed industry and in academia I’ve become convinced that a committed, high-quality seed company is critical to providing awareness, access and the inspiration to catalyze an organic, regionally-adapted seed movement.

 A few seed companies sell seed grown in the Northeast, though it is only a small percent of their catalogue.  This means you may be buying good seed but not seed selected to excel in your specific climate and soils.  We are committed to providing organic, delicious and dependable seed that is adapted to the Northeast, that we might enhance biodiversity and pass on living seeds to our future.

OUR STORY (THE NUTSHELL)

 My highest priority is to cultivate, share and inspire abundance in all forms; for years it has been my dream to spend my days growing organic, regionally adapted seed in and for the place that I call home.

 I first became enamored with seed as a child in my father’s garden, witnessing the miracle of seed, sun and soil that sustained us all through the seasons.  For the last decade, my love of travel has led me far and wide to soak in the wisdom of small scale, ecological agriculture, saving seeds as I went.  Working for seed companies large and small across the continent, I’ve believe deeply in both the vitality of seed as well as the significant potential of our regional seed supply here in the Northeast.

3.25 x 4.75 Fruition Seeds - vegetables I am grateful to be back in my beautiful hometown with my beloved partner Matthew Goldfarb, growing organic seed in Naples, New York.  Matthew has been farming and gardening since 1994.   Prior to understanding the full impact of the seed crisis on national and global levels, he was asking questions on his own farm.  As his skills grew, so too did his awareness of the lack of regional seed, the limited (at best) transparency of who grows seed where as well as the rapid concentration of seed controlled by a few — and how his decisions impact the course of genetic history.  With degree in Rural Sociology and an MBA from Babson, many years of agricultural leadership and an unflagging commitment to phenomenal, home-made coconut ice cream, Matthew is undoubtedly the man for the job!

SOW FRUITION!

Will Bonsall,  Director of the Scatterseed Project in Maine, said it so well:  “We like to hire everything out, like fixing the deck or mowing the lawn.  But some things are too compelling and too important to leave to the professionals, like tucking in our children at night.  Everything related to food, and especially the seed, must be seen in this light.”

It is the privilege and pleasure of Fruition Seeds grow such seed and build a network of phenomenal organic seed growers in our region.  With our thirty years’ combined agricultural experience, knowledge of local production, local markets and operating on a small scale, we are committed to establishing a high-quality supply of organic seed for the Northeast.  Each day we wake with gratitude and awe that this is our work, our play, our joy, our sustenance and our (in no way small) contribution to the world.

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