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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