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Monday, February 23, 2009

Where are the seedsmen/ women?

Seed Growing

At one time not long ago seeds men (or women as the case may be) occupied an important link in the food chain of nearly all-rural communities. Farmers either grew their own seed or trusted in small family run businesses, which stewarded old varieties or worked on developing new ones. With few notable exceptions this continued to be the primary mechanism through which farmers bought seed. Two exceptions are worth mentioning for historical sake. The first being the W. Atlee Burpee seed company that initially took advantage of free postage until the turn of the century to develop a loyal customer base of over one million catalogs shipped in 1915. At that time it was the largest seed company in the world with 300 employees. In Pennsylvania, George Washington Park printed his first seed list (with a hand printing press) in 1878 at the age of 15 and grossed $6.50. He persevered and capitalized on free postage at the time to deliver the Floral Gazette magazine and seed list. This became Park Seeds, a burgeoning seed company with 800,000 catalogs going out in 1918. These two seed companies predominantly catered to gardeners. Not to be swayed by lavish catalog descriptions, farmers still relied on local seeds men.

Where are our seeds men now?
Growing the seed we need is somewhere I encourage young farmers to direct their attention. Meditating on what has helped our farm to become successful, secure and rewarding is developing a diversity of niche markets. This has enabled us to grow on an artesian scale and receive just compensation. Diversity also helps our farm organism to evolve in multiple directions, thereby fostering ecological resiliency, multiple income streams, and opportunities for stacked functions (seed crop wastes becomes poultry food, animal bedding and compost).
Growing biodynamic / organic seed is one of the most promising niches which currently exists in organic agriculture. Consider that a recent Washington Department of Agriculture study revealed that less than 2 percent of the seed used on organic farms was grown organically. The other 98 percent is a vast opportunity area. Although the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) rule states that organic growers must use organic seeds, an enormous loophole exists that if a growers tries three sources and none of them have the variety they want, or if the price or quality are unacceptable that they can simply use conventionally grown seed. Hence many organic (and presumably a significant number of biodynamic growers as well) sidestep the organic seed search requirement and source their seeds wherever they choose as long as it isn’t fungicide treated. At some point in the future, organic certifiers will more strongly require that organic growers make a more concerted effort to use organic seed. Therein lies opportunity.

Where will all this certified organic seed come from?
That is where you come in. Our world, people, plants and animals beseech us to close our resource loops. Producing bioregionally adapted seed is a critical step towards reducing pest and disease problems in our crops, on par with the need to generate fertility on-farm. However seeds are easier to move around than compost is, so, I propose a compromise to the overwhelming task of every farm needing to grow all it’s own seed. Let us further a return to supporting bioregional seeds men and women. Most agricultural communities have farmers who have been tinkering around with their own varieties for decades. Oftentimes these farmer/landrace varieties have been selected (bred) to perform well despite disease, insect, and climate stresses. This processes of developing “farmer” varieties is how plant breeder, Raoul Robinson suggests that we achieve horizontal, or elastic resistance in plants in his landmark book, Return to Resistance.

Some communities are fortunate to already have small, family run seed businesses. High Mowing (VT), Turtle Tree (NY), Uprising (WA), Peace Seeds (OR) and Wild Garden Seeds (OR) are just a few examples. Farmers would do these and similar businesses are great service by buying seed from them, growing seed for them, or honestly communicating their likes and dislikes of current varieties and specific growing challenges so that we can work to develop the seed we need. Generally, we create a better local seed system if we can strengthen these feedback loops. Seed companies can work with local growers to help conduct variety trials or share samples of breeding work in progress. Farmers can help direct where future organic plant breeding goes by communicating their needs. Also farmers can do participatory plant breeding as advocated by the Organic Seed Alliance in Washington State, working with plant breeders, university specialists and seed companies.

Now we’re talking’
Participatory Plant Breeding is one of the most exciting elements to emerge from the ongoing discussion about bioregional seed systems. Young farmers looking for a life in biodynamic farming are strongly encourage to delve into this fascinating field. Consider liberating yourself from a life of harvesting and washing vegetables and trucking them to some city that you may or may not actually enjoy spending time in and picture yourself an active participant in the process, which is plant domestication.

Domestication is an ongoing process, which requires us to be fully engaged in for it to yield successful results. The real reason why some heirloom vegetables don’t perform as well in your market garden as the modern hybrids is that active breeding and selection work on these varieties stopped over 50 years ago. Nearly all plant breeding resources at most agriculturally oriented universities are being focused on transgenics. Well, lets pick up the slack and get to work on helping to create the heirlooms of the future and restoring the gems of the past.

On our farm we weave plant breeding into every time we grow a plant for seed. Sometimes it is as simple as rouging, and pulling out all the early bolting plants in a population and feeding them to the sheep. Other times its crossing different strains or varieties to create something new. Although seed production is a passion of mine I feel that it is critical that it doesn’t occur in a bubble, isolated from the real world of market gardening. I really appreciate the opportunity to take produce that we have grown from seed that we have grown to market or our cooperative CSA program and get the direct reactions and impressions from people who are eating these plants. We have found many creative ways to dovetail commercial scale seed growing with our SCA program and supplying a local farmers market. A few examples of this are:
• Lettuce for seed, we grow 3 rows on a bed and then harvest the middle row for market or CSA because the seed plants get so much larger they use up the space. If we wind up not needing them for market, they can stay and grow into seed plants.
• Doing onion bulb selection most of our culls are completely suitable for fresh market use.
• Calendula flowers dried for herbal use and seed production in the same area.
• Rouged plants fed to livestock
• Seed byproducts as value added items (tomatoes, pepper and melon flesh dried in the greenhouse for winter storage)

In my experience of hosting young would-be farmers on our farm as interns for the past decade, many of them are seeking a meaningful way to achieve right livelihood while being emotionally, spiritually and mentally engaged enough to want to keep at it. Strictly speaking from my own experience, seed growing fulfills these human needs in these awkward times when many of us are uncertain of what we should be doing with our time. . Working with seed also draws us as farmers into the important role of being spokespeople for freedom from corporate control of our seed supply and helps qualify us to articulate the necessity of restricting the uncontrolled spread of transgenic (GMO) seeds and pollen. Seed growing never ceases to pose unusual challenges to the grower with many new factors that one doesn’t encounter with market gardening. Seed growing will enlighten you to new disease issues, biennial peculiarities, an increased reliance on pollinators, migratory birds feasting on your crop, seed harvesting and processing wisdom, encouraging your crop to ferment in order to release its seed and many other wild and wooly tales from the brink of domestication

Seeds as an Expression of the Farm Individuality

Seeds as the Expression of the Farm Individuality
October 2007

Within the Biodynamic movement we focus much of our concern upon the fertility of the soil. This is a logical extension of the understanding that through enhancing the biological process we can facilitate the growth of healthy plants, which are capable of nourishing people and animals. I find it curious that seed quality is not given equal attention. The plant exists in relation to a variety of forces which all stream through the doorway of the seed, which is in itself a miniature version of a plant. Soil, water, air and warmth all influence the germination of seed and thus the first chapter of the life of a plant. It would stand to reason that seed quality represents a crucial opportunity to positively influence the successful growth of life enhancing food.
I would like to pose the question as to why we as a movement, a body of practitioners have failed to adequately address the question of seed quality? It is doubly curious in light of the threat that genetically engineered seeds pose to food safety and thus, humanity. GMO’s and so-called “terminator technology” have thrust the issue of seed into the mainstream and both the organic and biodynamic movements have failed to see it as an opportunity to both educate the public and ourselves about the importance of regional seed production, landrace/farmer varieties and traditional horizontal resistance plant breeding. The challenges that face us in the modern agricultural landscape compel us to rise to occasion and uplift the seed for the miracle that it is. It is not a tool to be wielded, as some biotechnologists would have us believe. Rather the seed gifts us the opportunity to become a participant in the ongoing process of plant domestication.
As any seed saver will tell you, the domestication of plants was not an end point, instead it is an unfolding relationship that is anything but static. The seed is a window into the potentiality of the plant. Just as an animal on a farm is in relation to the grass which it feeds upon, its exhaled breath rich in carbon dioxide linked to the photosynthetic process and its manure feeding the soil organism which in turn feeds the grass which feeds the animal. Likewise, any time we save a seed we stand at a unique position of carrying forth its genetics into the next generation. Many domesticated plants can no longer self-sow their seeds readily (although there are many that do, which will be addressed in a future issue), they require our help to prevent them from being eaten by animals or decomposed by fungi and bacteria. Consider a bean plant, it has been bred for millennia to produce a quick abundant crop of edible, starchy seeds which can remain viable for many years (as many as 4,000 years old in the case of the New Mexico Cave bean variety discovered in a clay vessel in a cave in New Mexico). This is assuming that these beans were gathered by human hands at maturity, dried appropriately, stored in dry conditions and kept safe from being eaten by rodents and insects until the conditions to plant them again arrived. If these same seeds were simply left on the plant to be dispersed naturally, the great majority of them, if not all would succumb to being eaten by animals or rotting on the ground over the winter. Hence our domesticated vegetables exist only in relation to the farmers who perpetuate their existence.
Where do our seeds come from? This should be a simple question at its root. However it is becoming terribly convoluted in our modern, industrial agricultural paradigm. For the bulk of the history of agriculture, seeds were grown on the land on which they were to be used. If the farmer themselves did not grow the seed they most certainly knew who grew it. Our agrarian culture was one of seed saving by definition. The act of saving seeds is what distinguished humanity of the early Holocene period from the hunter gathers that preceded us.
As villages and cities arose and humanity began to specialize and industrialize most farmers continued to grow their own seeds, but some would produce surplus in order to trade these seeds for other good or services. So during the last few hundred years it became possible to obtain seeds without growing them yourself. This is a unique transition in agricultural history. The relationship between seed and humanity shifted with this development. For most of agricultures’ long history seed saving and farmer selection for desirable traits for the climate, soils, pests, nutritional and agronomic preferences for a particular farm were inextricably linked. This is how our landraces, farmer varieties and heirlooms arose. If a farmer was growing, say, wheat or peas and the practice was to sow them in the fall in a temperate climate for a summer harvest, and the winter was unusually cold destroying a portion of the crop, the seeds which did survive would be those which had a genetic predisposition towards cold hardiness. Thus as the farmer harvests the crop, they knowingly or not are engaged in the plant breeding process of selection for their unique site and climate. Once these seeds are planted in a new site a new relationship begins, the fine-tuning of plant to locale.
Seeds are the ultimate feedback loop; more robust plants produce more seed and ensure their prominence in futre generations. Conversely, diseased or pest affected plants produce less seed and wane in their composition of the plant population in the next generation, or die altogether. During this pre-modern period, which I view as the birth of the seedsman as a specialist, distinct from the farmer as a generalist, seed that was traded or sold was still generally planted within the same, or similar bioregion. As the distances over which seeds were traded increased their ability to perform became compromised as they began to be grown under conditions that differed from those they were bred and selected for. Naturally if farmers found some success with a new species or variety (consider new world crops imported into the old world) they could begin the process of selecting them for their growing conditions. Some species are naturally more flexible as to where they can be grown, but there are definitely limits, such as cacao can only be successfully grown within 18 degrees north or south of the equator.
Within the last 100 years we have seen an increasing specialization in seed growing with less and less farmers growing some if any of their own seed. The advent of land grant universities further specialized the craft of seed growing into a science, thereby taking responsibility of stewarding the seed from the farmer and entrusting it to the scientist. Seed growing was concentrated in the areas of the world considered ideal for the production of certain seed crops and regional seed companies became responsible for supplying seed to increasingly larger regions. With regards to vegetable seeds I would venture a guess that more than 90% of farmers don’t save any of their own seed, 5% grow some of their own seed and less than 1% grow most of their own seed. The situation is different for farmers of the cereal grains as the complexity of ensuring genetic isolation for cereals differs from vegetables. Also, cereal grain production requires a much larger quantity of seed, so an economic incentive exists.
Within the last 50 years hybrid varieties were developed for numerous vegetable species. Seed companies were quick to highlight the increased vigor, yield and uniformity possible through the use of hybrid (F1) varieties. The phenomenon of heterosis exhibited in hybrid varieties is also possible in open pollinated varieties when bred as a population with attention to those characteristics. However, as hybrid varieties began to be preferred for certain crops, traditional plant breeding of open pollinated varieties waned or stopped altogether on any appreciable scale. The reason for this is that to produce a hybrid variety, two similar inbred lines are cross pollinated to produce a new variety, which will not produce as well if its seeds are saved, encouraging the farmer to come back to that seed company for more seed the next season. The inbred lines used for the production of hybrids are kept secret, with numbers instead of names. The proprietary nature of hybrid seed production enabled further specialization of seed production in the hands of agronomic scientists and away from farmer generalist knowledge. This also enabled seed companies to charge higher prices for hybrid seed, because as breeding work of comparable open pollinated varieties diminished, the hybrids were demonstrated to be superior varieties. Nonetheless, seed companies are not to be blamed for greedy intentions, they are merely symptomatic of the reductionist paradigm at work within modern agriculture. Transgenic seeds and GMO’s simply represent the furthering of this economically driven worldview. This is the figurative dragon, which must compel us towards right action.
But wait! There is hope. Biodynamic farmers have always been keenly aware of the importance of seeds. However, our modern agricultural community has yet to foster economic conditions that encourage small farmers to grow their own seed and work towards breeding varieties adapted for their unique farm ecosystems. There exists tremendous opportunity to revitalize neglected open pollinated strains (see the work of the Organic Seed Alliance). Plant breeder Raoul Robinson holds up a torch of inspiration in his masterpiece, Return to Resistance, which scientifically illuminates the folly of modern vertical resistance plant breeding wherein every year or two the new and improved “downy mildew resistant spinach” is released only to have the disease organism morph from race 6 to race 7, thereby rendering the new variety obsolete. Robinson demonstrates through 40 years of experience in numerous countries with diverse crops that farmer bred, landrace varieties bred as populations for horizontal resistance to disease, pests, and climate stress are more successful over the long run (Horizontal resistance will be revisited in a future issue).
The whole systems approach inherent within biodynamics compels us to grow our own seeds and improve the varieties that we use for our conditions. The seed is an expression of the life force of the farm organism and is adjusting itself subtly to the evolution of the farm organism with each succeeding generation. It is also distinctly possible that seed grown on a biodynamic farm will be uniquely adapted to perform under biodynamic management. Rudolf Steiner spoke of how the parent plant endowed the seed with a tendency towards form and function, but that there was ample space for new forces to stream into the seed from the cosmos. In this regard the forming seed, nourished with biodynamic compost, horn manure and the horn silica is capable of carrying cosmic and spiritual forces into the succeeding generations. Plants grown from biodynamic seeds are a vehicle through which to allow the expression of the farm individuality. I encourage us all to renew our partnership with nature and the process of plant domestication through our involvement in stewarding the seed.

Don Tipping,
October 2007

Whole Systems Seed Farming

Whole Systems Seed Growing:
Diversified Approach to Successful Seed growing

By Don Tipping / Seven Seeds Farm
3220 East Fork rd., Williams, OR 97544

A promising niche market exists within the field of growing organic vegetable seed, which can benefit small producers looking to diversify an existing fresh market or CSA operation. Seven Seeds Farm is in its 13th season of growing seed commercially, fresh fruits and vegetables for direct marketing and a cooperative CSA. Livestock and grass pasture are also an important part of our system and rotation. Diversification has improved our overall farm efficiency and contributed to the productivity, profitability and overall quality of life.

The historical notion of a farmer saving some of their crop for seed for the next season is inextricably woven into the fabric of agriculture itself. Unfortunately the fabric of traditional agriculture has unwoven to the point wherein most farmers grown little to none of their own seed. Not only can on-farm seed production save money by minimizing seed procurement costs, but it can also develop superior regionally adapted varieties and a niche market of a value added specialty crop. Models are needed of how farmers can reestablish the tradition of on-farm seed production. I hope to demonstrate a viable model through looking into the details of our efforts at diversified mixed farming.

Seven Seeds Farm grows seed for on-farm use and on a contract basis with 5 seed companies (Seeds of Change, Turtle Tree Seed, Fedco, Renee’s Garden & Abundant Life). We also produce fruits and vegetables for local farmer’s markets and a cooperatively run Community Supported Agriculture Program (CSA). Chickens, ducks, geese and sheep graze throughout the farm in a management intensive rotational grazing fashion. The productive land of the farm consists of 8 acres total, 2 ½ acres in vegetables, 2 acres in tree fruits and raspberries, 3 acres of pastures and ½ acre of ponds, which are stocked with edible species of fish.

Seed growing was a natural development for our farm in that we live in a sparsely populated area with limited markets for fresh produce and a number of existing farms capturing much of this market. Also our land is surrounded by forest on all sides, 3 of which are BLM public forestlands, affording us genetic isolation from other vegetable pollen sources and any potential GMO contaminants. Furthermore, we enjoy the lifestyle of not needing to spend time in town marketing our produce, rather we simply work on the growing and processing aspects and then mail seeds to the companies we contract with or deliver CSA vegetables and fruits to a local pack-out point.

A key aspect to increasing our farms productivity has been planning for overlapping yields, or multiple yields from the same crop. Because we are working with limited acreage (30 of our 40 acres is forested) we have had to creatively design systems, which can provide diverse, multiple yields from a given area. Our CSA program is a cooperative of farms, which grew food for 85 members this past year. We were responsible for a portion of this production. This enabled us to focus on producing surplus from our contracted seed crops or harvesting the rogues and culls from selective breeding work. For instance, this year we grew and did breeding selection on radish, lettuce and onions. We grew more than we would need for the eventual seed production in order to have plenty of leeway to select heavily for a number of traits. The vegetables we rouged in these crops were distributed to our CSA shareholders and sold at a local farmers market. Another example is that we grew Calendula for medicine for a number of years on a contract basis (from 50 – 300 pounds of dried blossoms). We would try to arrange a seed crop for this too, harvesting the largest first blooms for medicine and then letting it mature to seed and getting a seed crop from the same ground. These examples are also coupled with the fact that we often graze down our cover crops, which preceded these crops with our flock of sheep using portable electric netting. So, using the Calendula example the yields from this crop included:
* Medicinal dried flowers
* Flower seeds
* Wool, manure, mowing services, and meat from the sheep
* Pollinator/beneficial insect habitat
* Educational resource/model
* Beauty and inspiration

In the future, we hope to utilize our growers cooperative to develop value added businesses, which make use of plant material by-products of vegetable seed processing. Seed crops such as tomatoes, peppers, winter squash and melons could yield both seed and ingredients for salsa, sauce, juices, baby food and more. The key is attaining an efficient scale of production and access to a certified processing kitchen. We have already performed a preliminary business plan to assess the viability of such a plan, but it is beyond the scope of what our farm alone can do. However, with many organic growers in a cooperative the above system could be feasible, particularly if local demand could be generated for these products.

The concept of overlapping yields underscores the importance of thorough planning in a whole system approach. We carefully assess how a given variety fits into our system. How many yields and benefits does it bring? Will our animals eat any of the waste products? (Chickens and ducks love the waste from tomato and pepper processing and I believe that the waste from chilie processing has an anti-parasite action on our poultry, thereby eliminating our losses due to parasites.) How much effort and labor does it require? What is the economic yield for a given area? We use bed footage as a unit of measure for assessing the economic viability of the crops we chose to grow. Because our cropland is limited we simply can’t grow corn, beans or grains on any scale and remain profitable in our farming. So we set a financial threshold for our row cropped land which acts as a primary screen or filter to help determine which crops we will grow. This threshold is affected by variables such as ease of seed crop processing/harvest, do we like eating it (melons score points here), varitetal yield differences (e.g. Brandywines tomatoes are lousy seed producers, while cherry tomatoes yield very high) and will it assist our crop rotation in a positive way.

Because our operation is labor intensive we must organize our crop diversity such that we don’t have too many crops all ready for harvest at the same time, which would overwhelm our small labor crew. We manage our operation with a 3-person crew and chose not to have to arrange for spot labor too often. We have found that over wintering and biennial crops help us in our planning and evening out our seasonal workload. For one, biennials represent guaranteed income for the next year, which we can budget on. Also, fall planted crops such as garlic; kale, collards, root crops and other biennials mature and ripen earlier than spring planted crops, so they are harvested when our workload is lighter in July and August. We have settled on a cropping plan which has about 1/3 of our ground planted in garlic, over-wintering onions, and biennials each year. This is also advantageous because these crops are out of the field early in the summer and planted to cover crops such as buckwheat or cowpeas, thereby reducing our summer weeding chores. Our crop rotation has developed this nice syncopated rhythm to it that we have more general categories to work with and more dynamic processes occurring on the farm at any one point. For instance, garlic that is planted to buckwheat post harvest for the summer encourages beneficial insect habitat and nectar flow for honeybees in addition to biomass for soil organic matter replenishment.

Animals continue to benefit our farm in a multitude of ways and stimulate our creativity to utilize them in new situations. We have 26 ducks, 35 chickens, half dozen geese and 13 sheep, 8 of who are pregnant, likely with twins. Our ducks and geese free range through our perennial plantings (orchards and cane fruit) and are highly effective for slug and insect control. Low fences that are about 3 feet high keep them out of gardens and row crops, which they would love to sample. The Ducks and geese also help control aquatic weeds in our pond aquacultures. They are happy to perform this service voluntarily and reward us and our neighborhood with delicious and nutritious eggs and an occasional roast duck. We cannot keep up with the demand for our eggs at $4/dozen, all sold from our home in a self serve produce stand. We view our geese as God’s answer to the weed whacker, they mow the grass in the tight spots, which the mower can’t get, or is inconvenient to temporarily fence the sheep into. They provide our family with delicious meat and tremendous entertainment and fertility. We are looking into increasing our flock to meat local demand for organic goose. Natural vegetarians, they relish culled tomatoes, apples, peppers and seed crop residue. Our chickens free range in a one-acre orchard/pasture and make the most of our seed cleaning room wastes and fruit and vegetable compost, scratching up a storm to get the small and light seed.

We graze our small flock of sheep all over our farm using portable solar electric netting with which I can set up a quarter acre area in about 15 minutes. This netting enables us to graze them in the margins between our crops, which are already being irrigated by hand line sprinklers. Prior to having sheep I used fuel and time to mow these areas. Now they are producing fertility, wool, meat and replacement stock with no fossil fuel inputs. We also can graze our cover crops down with our flock within the netting, helping them to contribute their gifts to our future soil fertility. Also by managing more of our farm in pasture it diversifies our crop rotation further and provides land on which to grow clover/grass hay for mulch in late spring when our forage exceeds their consumption. We basically use part of our first cutting of hay to mulch our row crops with guaranteed weed free organic nutritive mulch. So far our animal systems have basically produced enough to cover their own feed and management costs, however, they produce food for our family and employees and fertility and other services, which are hard to account financially for. We are developing local direct sale markets for our wool and lamb as we grow our flock size.

I wanted to also give some consideration to the concept of production scale in relation to energy descent, economics and quality of life. As a small farm we are successful on account of an array of niche markets – specialty organic seeds, CSA, eggs, tree fruits, hand spinning wool, permaculture education and others. As the organic seed industry grows to meet the needs of organic vegetable producers there is a strong push to mechanize, grow in size and produce seed at a lower price. This is the capitalist model. There are many sound arguments for mechanization of seed harvesting and processing. Our farmer cooperative is pursuing acquiring some small-scale equipment for harvesting and cleaning seed, including an Allis Chalmers All Crop, a vine harvester and clipper cleaner. I am sure that this will cut our labor costs and possibly even increase our quality. However, the seduction of increasing the scale of our operation overlooks the concept that the small farms which thrive on niche markets can never compete with the larger models if they are expected to produce at prices closer to that paid for conventionally grown seed. Economies of scale could eliminate the profitability of small producers. We have done a feasibility study with our agricultural cooperative and have noted the viability of having shared equipment for a number of small seed farmers. Nonetheless, I am skeptical of the continued viability of growing an acre or two of seed in a future of considerably lower prices paid for organic seeds.

The clarity of the future of small-scale organic seed growing is clouded by the geological certainty of the peak in global oil production, known as Peak Oil in popular circles. The ensuing energy descent and economic contraction, which will occur over the coming decades, should encourage us within the organic seed industry to recognize the value in small producers who can produce high quality seed for their region. I believe that we don’t simply need the existing seed growers and companies to grow larger to meet growing demand; rather we need many more of them. The increased costs for transporting seeds and materials for farming should preclude following the seed industry model of highly specialized seed growing regions. Many of us growing organically have always been mavericks in the field of agriculture; perhaps we can develop new models of what is a successful organic seed marketing approach. I envision a return to the model of regional seeds men and seeds women custom growing seed for their bioregion and growers who work with them directly. I believe that this model will weather the coming challenges to our economy from climate change and oil depletion far better than the modern centralized model.

I would like to put forward the concept that agriculture should operate on a wider definition of economics than the commodities mindset. Without redefining agricultural economics we risk losing our diverse, small family farms, which have been a global repository of locally adapted, heirloom varieties and unique, sustainable cultural practices for millennia. My definition of economics spans from money to ecology to community and family. Rudolf Steiner called money, “the most spiritualized form of matter on the planet.” He was referring to the fact that money we receive for a product or a job quite literally represents our personal life force. This is particularly relevant for farmers and seed growers in particular. I feel that everyone who eats has a moral responsibility to participate in supporting small scale agriculture for it has what has fed, healed and clothed humanity for millennia. Abandonment of the ideals of our agrarian roots in a world which is increasingly overshadowed by climate change, oil depletion and unfavorable economic conditions may very well preclude the economic existence of farms such as ours. Ironically, it may very well turn out that small scale, diverse micro farms may very well be what feeds Americans much more so than large scale corporate agribusiness in the face of Peak Oil. Fortunately humanity has proven itself long on creativity in the face of challenges and clearly many models will arise to reflect regional needs and customs. Now represents a period of opportunity to take advantage of the abundant resources available to us to develop successful models of sustainable seed growing.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Trials and Tribulations of being an Organic Farmer

The Trials and Tribulations of being an Organic Farmer

September 2008

Somehow I figured that the longer I did something, the more proficient I would become at doing it. Experience begets mastery. Right? Well, maybe at the piano, or ping pong, but not farming. It almost seems as if the longer I do this absurd, yet critical vocation/lifestyle, the more ways I realize that I can get horns waggled by mother nature. Take our cucumber crop this year for instance. Last year we trialed a new variety of Middle Eastern cucumber (also known as the biet alpha group of cucumber varieties) called Divr from Seeds of Change seeds. Trialing is the process of growing a small amount of different varieties side by side in order to evaluate them more thoroughly under your own field’s growing conditions. We were impressed with its smooth skin free from bitter taste and sweet crunchy flesh. So this year we figures that we try growing a couple rows of it to share with the CSA members, excited to share what we thought was a superior variety.
Fast forward to June 2008. Summer weather didn’t grace our piece of paradise on the north slope of Sugarloaf mountain (elev. 6870 feet) here in Williams until after s
The summer solstice. The slow start of warm weather this summer proved to challenge the early season vigor of all the hot weather crops. Not to be tricked by late starts of the Siskiyous, we had covered our cuc’s with remay (spun polyester fabric, kinda like quilt facing) at planting time to insulate them against cold nights and more importantly protect them from the arch nemesis of all cucerbitacea family plants – the dreaded cucumber beetle. So our cucumbers happily grew (slowly I might add) under the remay until warmer temperatures coaxed into liberating them to feel the suns rays directly. We were assured that they had grown enough foliage to combat and pestilence.
The sharp claws of reality sink deep into vegetable flesh. As the fruits began to develop and we walked the rows to asses when to begin picking we noticed that not only did we have a preference for the fruits of the middle eaten cucumber but so did both the spotted and striped cucumber beetles. Not only did they like it, they relished it with a parasitic fervor. The small fruits were crisscrossed with the feeding tracks of the beetles so much so as to resemble the way an engraver beetle chews on a pine log. We were growing another couple rows of tradition Market more green cucumbers and pale yellow lemon cucumbers next to out choice specialty ones and they were largely spared the plague.
Not to be outdone. We figured that the damage was simply an early season fluke, so we took drastic measures and harvested the entire first flush (about 200 pounds) of cucumbers and fed them to out ducks and chickens. Confident that it would enable the plants to redirect their energy into growing new fruits with less damage. But noooo….
Striiike two!
Once again the fruits we horribly scarred and eaten with wounds oozing gelatinous cucumber sap. We counted our losses and tried to get some yield from the patch and sorted out the worst of the worst and wound up feeding another couple wheelbarrow loads of cucs to our enthusiastic ducks, chickens and turkeys. This continued for a few weeks until we were unable to meet our CSA’s quality standards and now the crop sits unharvested, a writhing cesspool of cucumber beetles munching in an orgy of pestilence. To add injury to defeat, their feeding transmits both cucumber mosaic virus and powdery mildew fungus to the leaves of the plants, so the neighboring ones don’t look too good either. A silver lining to this tragedy is that our interns and we made some mean pickles and tasty relish from some of the culls that we will savor in the winter months to come.
As a farmer I want to be able to relay this story to those who marvel at beautiful fruits and vegetables in a CSA box or the market stand, completely innocent of the carnage that lies in waste in the dark recesses of the down and dirty world of domestication and cultivation. For every perfect fruit in a CSA box there is often one or two ugly ones sitting in the row in the field, harvested and rejected. If the rejects are lucky, they get rounded up and fed to livestock on the farm, but all too often they aren’t worth the effort and they get tilled back into the soil to nourish the soil and conjure luck in the quest for cosmetically beautiful food. In a perfect world consumers would be as concerned about the beauty within the fruit (the care put into growing soil and preserving biodiversity on the land) as the physical beauty on the outside of the fruit. Besides, perhaps the bugs are actually showing us which fruits are the most nutritious of the lot. Hmmmm…

Don Tipping
Waning in the wee hours at Seven Seeds Farm on Sugarloaf Mountain 2008

Announcing Siskiyou Seeds!

Hi all,

Siskiyou Seed - biodynamic seed Available for planting!

Grown at Seven Seeds Farm

2009 Seed List

Order by email (copy this as a word document and then mark the varieties you’d like and return to the email below), or mail to us at 3220 East Fork, Williams, OR 97544, and no phone orders please.

We’d prefer for orders to be picked up at the farm until we get a local seed rack going. However we can ship to you (include $5 for under $50 orders, or $10 for over $50)

This is our first season selling direct to growers. We hope to expand our offerings and quantities available significantly. Feel free to contact us about custom growing potential. All seed is Stellar certified organic and grown using biodynamic practices (LKF) denotes Lupine Knoll Farm grown by Jesse & Jonathan Spero. All seeds backed by 100% replacement guarantee. Thank you for your interest in supporting local seed growing. Peace, Don Tipping.

Seeds available in packets only, All Packets are $3/ each, or 10% off if you get 10 or more packets
Some varieties are available in bulk, these are marked with an “*” inquire about pricing. 104 varieties.

*Siskiyou Sweet Onion – reselection of Walla Walla – 12-32 ounce - sweet
Rosa diMilano Onion – nice uniform barrel shaped storage onion. Very pretty
Red Wethersfield Onion – good red globe shaped storage red. Heirloom standard
Valencia Onion – a large sweet Spanish type. Delicious and stores well
Newburg – vigorous, uniform yellow storage onion
Poncho Leeks- Over winters well, big and stout – mild flavor
*Turga Parsnip – nice & refined big roots. Sweet and nutty flavor
Moss green Curled Parsley – frilly and fun. Great garnish and good in pesto
Scarlet Nantes Carrot – Super sweet, blunt tip. Best fresh eating, stores well too
Nurtibud Broccoli: very uniform and vigorous, can make large heads and sideshoots
Tatsoi : aka spoon mustard. Very mild. Cute and tasty in salad
Sputnik Arugla; from a pickle spice jar in Italy from John Navazio. Diverse roquette
Perennial Collards: makes seed and regrows, can grow from cuttings too!
Lacinato Kale – bumpy dinosaur greens, sweetens up with the cold
*Red Russian Kale – selected for uniformity and nice purple color
*White Russian Kale – later bolting, but like red Russian
9-Star Perennial Broccoli – makes florets both spring and fall for a few years
Purple Tatsoi F2 – in progress breeding project for salad mix
Mitzuna – selected for late bolting and non-hairy-ness, for multiple cuttings
Plum Purple Radish – beautiful round roots – 4 years of heavy selection
French Breakfast Radish – the nicest strain available – heavily selected
Maruba Santoh Pac Choi – Kim Chee anyone? Open head with crunchy petioles
Green Glaze Collards – unique glossy leaf sheen, nice eating, especially fried!
Early Wonder Tall Top Beet- Old standard round red table beet. Sweet and red. Nice greens
*Prismatic Rainbow Chard – gold, red, green, orange, and lots of in-betweens, good in salad small
Ford hook Giant Chard – huge vigorous plants, heavily savoyed green leaves, white stems
Bull’s Blood Beets – deep red leaves, stems and roots, good for salad mix
Purple Orach – like huge lambsquaters, good in salad, very pretty iridescent. Heat tolerant
Beet Berry – spinach flavored mini-strawberry seed capsules, seductively weird
Spadona chickory – large deep green flat leaves for cooking
Nina Frisee’ Endive – fluffy and frilly, great in salad. A tongue tickler
Sandrina Butter Lettuce – nice quick growing green butter
Vertmar Lettuce– big sturdy sweet green romaine with some bolt resistance
*Concept Lettuce – great green head lettuce, disease resistant, good market strain
Redina Lettuce – good red loose head, vigorous and beautiful
Italienischer Lettuce – huge, vigorous, heavy green oakleaf
*Forellenschluss Lettuce – green, buttery romaine with red freckles, nice for mix
Merlot Lettuce– the deepest, darkest red in the field, slow growing
Bronze Arrow – green oakleaf with red highlights, heavy heads, and a farm fav.
*Crispmint Lettuce – cool savoyed upright romaine – another farm fav.
New Red Fire Lettuce – classic 3 season red head lettuce, not for mix
Marin – smooth, heavy green head lettuce, real nice
Optima Lettuce – a big, creamy smooth butter lettuce with disease tolerance
Ermosa Lettuce– pretty medium sized butter lettuce, some heat tolerance
Devil’s Ears Lettuce – spiky, big red & green pointed leaves like a star – unusual
Red Iceburg Lettuce – crunchy and sweet in summer heat, can’t be beat
Slogun – big heat tolerant Batavian type, very slow bolting
Delicata Squash – from Frank Morton’s Zeppelin reselection, sweet and great
Buttercup Squash – green outside, deep orange inside, great tasting & smooth
Waltham Butternut Squash – small seed cavity, earlier to ripen, cure inside
*Sharlyn Muskmelon – delicious white/orange flesh – good yield of sturdy fruits
*Haogen Isreali Perfume Melon – green fruits are tropically tasty – a farm fav
Lemon Cucumber-
Crimson Sweet Watermelon – classic green striped, super sweet red-fleshed watermelon!
True cranberry Bean – deep red pole bean for drying – like jewels
*Magic Bean – like scarlet runner, but more colorful, up to 18 ft tall
Black Jet Soy Bean – early maturing – good for tempeh
Human Bean – our favorite dry bean, early and prolific
Jade Snap Bean – the best tasting green bean, very productive bush habit
Haricot Vert Green Bean – slender French style snap bean
Montcalm Kidney Bean – big maroon dry bean, early yielding
*Black Turtle Bean – early, good yield, easy thresh, fast cooking
*Zapallo Dry Bean – also called tiger’s eye, early, big and very pretty – a farm fav.
*Rainbow Dry Corn – a grex/multi line of many native flour corns, beautiful food
Cassiopeia Popcorn – 95 dearly maturing, diverse rainbow of color combinations
*Anasazi Swt Corn -85 days OP Ancient variety, many colors, thick cobs, variable (LKF)
*Art Verell’s Sweet corn – 75 days OP Heirloom su corn from SW Oregon. Short
Stalks, white kernels
*Luther Hill Swt Corn – 80 days OP Classic white su heirloom variety. Was a
Standard CV in the 1950’s (LKF)
*Double Red Sweet Corn -developed by Dr. Alan Kapuler) 85 days OP
Deep red kernels, cobs & stalks. High in antioxidants. (LKF)
*Sparkler F1 Swt Corn- 85days Anasazi x modern se. Productive, big ears,
Variable in color. Bred by J. Spero /LKF
*Festivity Sweet Corn –(Painted Hills improved) 80 days, multi-colored, multi- stalked,
Cold tolerant, 2 – 4 ears per plant. LKF
Foxtail Millet – for dried flowers, or food easy to grow
Black eagle Kamut – ancient wheat relative, huge kernels, tall vigorous plants. Pretty black awns
Kamamuji Barley – hulless and very productive, farm fav. Masunobu Fukoaka’s choice.
Caro Rich tomato – crack resistant big, orange fruits, good for market
Roma Paste Tomato – determinate vines produce heavy set of fruits, no trellising
Thessaloniki Tomato– nice early medium red slicer from Greece
Amana Orange Tomato – big yellow/orange fruits like a Brandywine, late
German Streaked– huge red, yellow and orange marbled fruits – best tasting
Chianti Rose Tomato – an improved Brandywine – large pink fruits
Gold Currant Tomato – the sweetest non-hybrid cherry tomato, very productive
Yankee Bell Pepper – big, sweet, tasty red bells – earliest bell pepper for Oregon
Aci Sivri Cayenne Pepper – long twisty red fruits mature early – hot
Sweet Chocolate Pepper –red/brown fruits, great fresh or roasted - productive!
Early JalapeƱo Pepper – nice productive fruits can actually turn red by mid Sept.
Anaheim Pepper – big, mildly spicy fruits –great for Chile’ rellanos and roasting
Bolivian rainbow Pepper – very spicy tiny fruits in a variety of colors, ripen red
Sweet Williams: intoxicating cinnamon aroma. Biennial, flowers first year, tends to naturalize here
Purple Cleome: Spider plant – fairly outrageous big stinky plant with spines and beautiful flowers.
Bee Friend – Phacelia – insectary cover crop, beautiful purple fiddle heads
Pacific Beauty Calendula – a diverse mix of colors and shapes, medicinal
Sunrise Cosmos – riotous cloud of orange flowers to 4 feet tall
Cockscomb Amaranth – fuchsia pink novelty everlasting flower
Tithonia – Mexican Sunflower – butterfly attractant, incredible hue of orange
Seashell Cosmos – pink, white and fuchsia tubular petals on robust 4-5 ft plants
Purple Dahlia Zinnia – fuchsia to purple, many blooms on plants to 5 feet
Tashkent Marigold – compact plants to 2 feet – with maroon orange flowers. Fedco’s favorite!
African Marigold – big, tall (to 4 ft) yellow and orange pom poms,
Tiger Teddy Sunflower – unusual mix of teddy bear and tiger’s colors & petals
Criolla Cilantro – delicious fresh, tasty as coriander too. Great living mulch with corn. Salsa!
Gennovese Basil – vigorous grower, mild flavor, Pesto anyone? Our favorite
Clary Sage – aromatic, edible “chia” seeds. Aka “armpit” plant by Sena Cech!
Motherwort – medicinal, naturalizes easily, bumblee bee heaven
Omega Flax – very productive and easy to grow – grow your own fatty acids!
Cadoon – like artichokes, but you eat the blanched leaf stalks. A perennial that naturalizes
Bread seed Poppy: low in opiates, delicious in baking. Tall lavender blooms yield abundant seed

Seven Seeds farm story 2/19/09

Well I currently farm in Williams,Oregon with my wife and our 2 sons (2& 6). This is our 13th season farming here. We grow certified organic vegetables, fruits, berries, seeds, sheep for wool & lamb and poultry. We manage 40 acres of which 3 acres are in row crops, 3 acres in berries and orchards, 6 acres in pasture/hay, and 28 acres in managed woodlot forest. Our fruits and vegetables are sold through a local farmers market and a coopoerative CSA with 150 members. Of our row crop land, about 2/3rds is used to grow seeds for commercial contract to Seeds of Change, Johnny's, Fedco, Turtle Tree Seed, High Mowing Seeds, Uprising Seeds and Renee's. Seed growing and plant breeding have dovetailed into our vegetable farming nicely because we are able to gather multiple harvests from the same crop in many instances. For example, when growing lettuce for seed we will plant 3 rows on a 4 foot bed, harvest the middle row and any that need to be culled for various reasons and sell them through our CSA; then the remaining 2 rows will mature to seed, growing to about 4 feet high and occupying the space left from the first harvest. We sell many onions through the CSA that were culls from a plant breeding selection project. Being culls for genetic reasons, their "issues" generally have something to do with shape, size, color or another trait which doesn't impinge upon their table quality.

For years we have gotten requests from local growers to sell them seed direct, which we had declined to do because we lacked the infrastructure to sell direct. We decided to fill this important local seed supply niche after the untimely passing of Al Vanet (SOW Organic Seeds) who was one of the early pioneers that led to the founding of Seeds of Change. 2009 represents the first year for Siskiyou Seeds, a smll packet and rack sales seed company focused on bioregional seed security, hence, no web site. Our goal is to sell the varieties which have proven themselves as performers through a dozen years of Siskiyou mountain farming and homesteading. This endeavor enables us to further diversify our workload an income streams through the year, so we don't have such a crunch period at one point in the fall. It will also help us to focus more directly on doing the necessary work of selection and breeding for organic systems.

2009 also represents the first year for a new growers cooperative looking to sell seed direct to growers on a national scale, the Family farmers Seed Cooperative. A group of 10 prominane and successful seed growers are spearheading this effort to increase the availability of QUALITY organic seed that is bred for organic systems.

Another aspect of seed growing which mates well with our fresh maket farming is that seed crops take longer to mature, so the effort is concentrated into planting early season, maintainace mid-season and harvest in later season. This spares us from the treadmill of constant marketing, harvesting and selling that is truck farming. However, we have honed our production for our cooperative CSA ( to focus on the early season crops to carve out more time in September and October when the seed crops demand our attantion. An important aspect of seed growing that makes our farm economy work is that we can prearrange contracts early in the Winter and go into the growing season with income figures to budget with, similar to the way a CSA ensures the grower up-front cash. However, with seed crops, the farmer doesn't get paid until the seed is harvested, cleaned, and germination tested, which means tha ofeten we don't receive payment until January or February. So, for us, having some fresh market income is cruicial to keeping cashflow happening year round. We have learned to work around the late payment for seed crops by budgeting it as our start up money for the year.

Currently, only about 2% of the seeds used on organic farms is grown organically. Clearly a huge opportunity exists to meet this hole in our organic farming community. I view seed growing as an exciting challege to learn more about the plants we work with. It also helps to support the ecology of our farm as it retains more carbon on the farm as we only export a small percentage of the plants' biomass. Also, many of the by-proucts of seed crops can be used to feed livestock on the farm. Most importantly for me, growing seeds has provided an engaging challenge and enabled us to support a cruicial link in community food security in a meaningful way.

Don Tipping
Seven Seeds Farm

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

No Till Farming Rotation

Reduced Tillage at Seven Seeds Farm

Tilling the soil eliminated the earth’s natural protective biological cover of vegetation to create a weed free environment in which farmers can grow crops. It releases abundant nutrients to those seasons’ crops by allowing organic matter in the form of humus to become mineralized by sunlight and water forces. Repeated tilling exhausts the soils natural fertility, thereby forcing the farmer to apply fertilizer, usually composted animal manures and cover crop green manures on an organic farm. Nonetheless, these practices do not have a long track record of sustainability. Contemplate how long tractors have been in wide usage (maybe 50-60 years). Traditional farmers had to preserve much more land as pasture to feed draft animals for power. Usually this amounted to 2/3rds of a given mixed farm. Tractors changed this whole systems approach by freeing up that land for the growing of crops, which could be sold, and eliminating animals from the fertility loop on many farms. Consider one cow can produce enough manure to fertilize one acre of high production vegetables. However, it requires 4 acres of grass to pasture and produce hay for that one cow (now you can see where the 2/3 -> ¾ pasture based whole system farm model). Assuming farmers are not yet willing to forfeit their tractors for draft horses (which actually carry a larger ecological footprint if the farmer has to buy in hay than using biodiesel in a tractor. Remember a horse is like a tractor “idling” all day,) how can we develop a more sustainable model of vegetable farming?
I have experimented with no till small scale farming for a few years. I am actually doing a reduced tillage system as I learn what works for me. I have 7 years of very active soil improvement (cover cropping, rock dusts and lots of biodynamic compost) into our clay loam soil. I doubt that the project I describe next would be successful on a rougher soil. We grow seeds for Seeds of Change in blocks that are about 1/8 an acre (30' x 100') and I am developing a no till rotation scheme with this plot size. A few years ago I had a block of tomatoes I had grown for seed. Normally I pull the trellising and disc it all under in the fall and sow rye, peas and vetch over the winter, which is mowed or grazed down in May and then disced and tilled and compost spread (at 15yds/acre) to make beds.
My experiment began by doing my normal soil prep/cover crop regime as described above on one half of a block and on the other I simply left the tomato beds sit over the winter (they had been mulched with straw when the tomatoes were planted) and then I pulled the vines in the spring (very easy to do by then) and I transplanted lettuce plants for seed (3 rows on a 4 foot wide bed) into both the tilled (cover cropped and compost applied) and untilled/mulched (no cover crop or compost) beds side by side 4 beds of each. It was a little trickier transplanting into the untilled beds, but a right angle trowel made the job doable. Amazingly the transplants in the untilled beds took off right away growing vigorously while the ones in my fluffy spaded beds sat there for about 2 weeks until they began growing again.

My hunch is that the undisturbed soil flora/fauna/fungal populations were intact in the untilled beds and took a while to recolonize the tilled beds. What really surprised me was that after this initial growth the untilled ones produced larger heads and more seed even though they didn't benefit from the compost and nitrogen rich cover crops that the other beds received.

What I want to try next is including a cereal grain in the rotation, so that my straw is grown in place. A conceivable 5-year rotation might look like:

1) Fall sown Rye/Oats/wheat possibly with a legume like dry peas,
* This would be ready for harvest in June/July, graze chicken/ducks/turkeys to clean up left over grains, then
2) Plant summer crop from transplants into straw
3) Garlic in the fall
4) Broadcast buckwheat before forking our garlic, so that it is planted when you pull garlic, grow buckwheat to seed, harvest some and clean up the rest with poultry.
5) Plant a winter crop of fava beans (seeded in early October) to be harvested in May/June then back to another summer crop
6) Plant summer crop in June (tomatoes, or vine crop)
7) Plant grains in the fall

Over the course of five years you could get:
* 3-grain crops
* Poultry clean up opportunity in between each
* Fava Bean crop
* Garlic Crop
* 2 summer crops

A total of 7 vegetable crops and also animal products within 5 years. Now if I could only pull it off within a commercially viable farm. I have done aspects of this rotation but never in a seamless cycle.

Farm as an Organism

Farm As An Organism
February 15th, 2007

Ideally a farm should function as an organism, recycling wastes to meet the needs of other elements of the system and deriving its needs from other elements within this loop. Photosynthesis and oxygen/carbon dioxide gas exchange is the ultimate blueprint for this pattern. Treating the land, as an organism is clearly the goal to all holistic approaches to farming or land management, whether it’s permaculture, biodynamics, holistic resource management, biointensive, forest gardening or natural farming. The realm of physics offers some guidelines. Everything encounters the Law of Conservation of Energy; which states “that energy can not be created (made from nothing), or destroyed (made to disappear to no-where) and that energy can be changed from one form to another (such as electrical energy in to heat energy).” ( The classification of waste is non-existent in an ecological system. The distinction between where something is a waste product and a food source becomes blurred. Contrast the food chain worldview to the food web approach. The food chain represents the industrial, assembly-line outlook, whereas the food web view recognizes that all elements of a system are interconnected.
The trouble with designing closed-loop systems which self manage is that the law of conservation of energy within a given system doesn’t take into account the surplus ancient energy made available through the use of fossil fuels. Further, the economics of living in our “everything at your fingertips” consumer culture makes it difficult to create closed loop systems. Why grow grain or fodder crops for your animals when it is so easy and inexpensive to buy suitable feed at the local farm supply store. The industrialization of organics has even made organic factory-farmed feeds easily accessible. Because those of us living in industrialized nations live under a veritable cloak of waste (fossil fuels transmuted into surplus carbon) it tends to cloud our judgment as holistic designers. The monetary economy functions as a zone or element of our permaculture landscape. This facilitates an easy rationalization towards buying that reasonably priced certified organic poultry feed to ease management of our multi-species forest gardens.
The proliferation of Biofuels has brought the concept of Food=Waste to the forefront of the political and public sphere. With more corn and soy being grown to create ethanol and biodiesel we are casting our vote for the preferred pseudo-livestock of our postmodern permaculture landscape – the automobile. Food that could feed people and animals is being rendered into fuel by industrial processes, which cannot escape the law of conservation of energy. The streamlining effect that the food chain worldview has upon ecological systems aims to shorten the loops that solar energy goes through to meet human needs. In this vein the Biofuels argument is seen as a sound approach to deal with waste (in this case gross overproduction of corn and soy by agribusiness) and turn it into a resource, fuel, food for our cars and trucks. Measured in terms of total energy yield per acre, the land that now produces so much corn and soy is a pathetic waste of what was once an incredible prairie poly culture dominated by grasses, forbs, Bison and wildfire. Yet within our emerging ecotopian culture we have become blinded to the laws of physics. We embrace biodiesel (which uses more energy to make than it provides when burned), the compact fluorescent light bulb (which although they conserve energy, contain mercury), and other tech-no-logical band-aids in our valiant effort to ameliorate our impact upon a biosphere that is struggling with the modern human lifestyle
Clearly the pattern of natural systems is that of recycling and capturing energy. The complexity of interconnections in functioning ecosystems is the result of an endless process of new species moving into niches that may only exist for a geologically brief time. Human beings may well be such a species capitalizing upon a niche. Regardless we have a role to play. Founder of biodynamic agriculture, Rudolf Steiner once claimed that the role of humanity is to change the Earth. This concept is hard to accept, yet equally hard to refute. Rather than adapting to a niche, we have learned to adapt our environment to the agrarian and pastoral niche within which we have grown comfortable. Humanity seems confounded by a quandary here: the pattern of nature implies a hunter-gatherer nomadic relationship to the landscape rather than our sedentary agrarian relationship. Nevertheless, exceptions abound! Perhaps we may rejoice that humanity is not alone in our agrarian pursuits. Maybe we should laud our cleverness to join the ranks of fungal farming termites in South Africa, honeydew farming ants, or nectar gathering honeybees.
I believe that we can view the permaculture relationship to the land as a long trajectory process of ecological restoration. We aren’t going back to the past of foraging and hunting just yet. The farming systems and settlement patterns that we thoughtfully set into motion now are governed by the same rules as the rest of Gaia. Careful observation results in a feedback loop of what is successful and capitalizing on pulses of abundance, be it a bee tree, pigeon guano in an old barn, salvaged metal roofing, or a windfall peach crop dried and canned for storage. As we slowly wean ourselves from the petroleum umbilical cord that keeps many brilliant designs at bay, we are becoming more aware of numerous opportunity areas. Less external resources will force us to look to within our own system for its needs. As we start small and harvest our mistakes we will model farms and villages after ecosystems, which capture resources as they cascade through the food web like a net.
Farming for a living in the 21st century, I have found that needing to remain economically viable stimulates my creativity towards intelligent, holistic design. It helps if you have a permaculture streak running in your veins. For example, we grew about 1/6 of an acre of Calendula flowers to be dried and sold for medicinal use for a few years. The high labor costs of picking the flowers twice a week and the wholesale price we were being paid was beginning to edge this crop out of our production scheme. This was until we pursued a seed contract for the seeds, which we could still reliably mature after meeting our flower harvest quota. We also noticed over time that Calendula provided a trap crop for cucumber beetles, which helped our cucurbit vine crops. The goal of needing to remain profitable to stay in business farming precipitated an opportunity to stack functions.
We have also used this strategy successfully when integrating plant breeding, seed production and market gardening. In order to improve the genetics of many vegetable species that we grow on commercial contract for seed companies, we must cull or “rogue” plants with undesirable characteristics and deleterious genetic traits. Sometimes this can account for as much as 10% of a planting of lettuce or up to 90% when do selection for radish stock seed. So we have developed our market outlets (CSA, Growers’ markets) to accommodate selling our rogues, which are perfect for food, but are considered “off-types” in a seed planting. Seed growing in general has fostered a different outlook on vegetable farming in that the vegetable itself is merely a vehicle to grow the seed. So, the fruits of tomatoes, melons, squash and peppers are waste by-products of our seed production goals. Of course we don’t let this opportunity go unutilized, melon and squash halves are bagged for distribution to CSA members and countless wheelbarrow loads of fruits minus seeds feed our menagerie of livestock. Our motto is increasingly that each crop must have multiple yields and these should serve a diversity of elements. This view has been the result of observing resources pass unutilized through our farm system: calendula seeds, tall grass, rainwater from a roof, pest outbreaks, algae in ponds and countless others. This has enabled us to stay on the land farming a diverse small acreage without needing off farm jobs, as many farmers must do. Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm sums up the value of these observations nicely, “I am just the orchestra conductor making sure that everybody’s in the right place at the right time.”
Farming in the same spot for the past decade we have come to recognize that nature tends to produce periodic abundance in pulses rather than a steady stream. Oregon White Oak (quercus garyii) trees produced a bumper crop a few years back and we noticed resident wild turkeys and deer voraciously eating them. Our sheep also scoured oak grove edges overhanging their pastures for acorns that they would audibly crunch enthusiastically. This prompted us to begin to include turkeys in our pasture and woodland edge management and seasonally graze our sheep in oak woodlands. When crushed, our chickens and ducks relish acorn meal and with a bit of processing we relish them too (both the acorns and the birds). While deer, bear and others consume large amounts of acorns in season, we can capture surplus, or waste yields for a farm feed that is ideally harvested by the animals themselves. Although Oregon white oaks tend to produce acorns every year, varying in abundance, California Black Oak (quercus kellogii), yield every 2-5 years, were the preferred species of native peoples here due to their higher oil content (10-12% for Q.garayii, vs. 25-30% for Q.kellogii). This information has also influence our woodland management to favor Black Oaks and thin coniferous trees for structural poles, firewood, bark, fencing and lumber around them.
Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menzesii) presents itself as a classic opportunity to turn a liability into an asset as it regenerates readily in its own shade and tends to form wildfire prone thickets in the absence of periodic fire or disturbance. We build with peeled Douglas fir poles in place of dimensional lumber whenever possible. Soil tests indicated that although our land was historically a mixed coniferous and hardwood forest we had alkaline soil (pH =7.5 –> 8). Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm fame integrates forestry with farming using wood chips from logging and milling wastes as animal bedding and compost carbon source. Inspired by the example of Joel Salatin, we were encouraged to use forestry by-products (wastes) to meet our carbon needs on our farm. Starting with dead and windfall trees we integrate wood chips and saw dust from lumber milled on site as animal bedding under the theory that we can capture the excess nitrogen in sheep urine and poultry manure in a slow composting process with wood wastes and possibly help steer our pH to a more neutral reading. This also helps to limit our need for off farm straw for animal bedding and helps us reticulate carbon from the forest into our fields. Woodland and basketry coppice wastes wind up in brush fences, paddock cross fencing and a native alternative too many uses previously met by exotic bamboo. In many of these instances we are using forestry wastes to feed fungal communities and steer a bacterially dominated pasture based farm system to a mycrorhizal fungi dominated woodland savannah system.
An important observation about the unfolding of our farm system is that, although we set out with a design based on observation and assessment from the beginning, many of our most successful endeavors have been the result of a long-term relationship to the site. As we become clearer about our needs and the needs of the plants and animals around us, both domestic and wild, the clarity of our observations increases dramatically and design ideas spring forth as the obvious next step in the sequence of closing resource loops. I am certain that indigenous peoples adapted to changes in their landscape and their needs in a similar fashion. This is the long-term trajectory of which I mentioned earlier. These early versions of modern permaculture/whole systems farms will resemble modern agriculture less and less as they go through the process of becoming indigenous landscapes and communities. Until we see ourselves as fully enmeshed in our bioregions food web we will still perceive resources through the eyes of the food chain industrialist, as waste or idle and unused. The yields of the truly sustainable farm of the future will be an adaptation of the energy flowing through the system. Call it resources, waste or food, it all represents solar energy fixed as carbon, air, water and warmth. In our bioregion, the Siskiyou mountain farm of the future may be based much more upon supporting native pine/oak savannahs and their associated herbivores. However, it may involve planting of superior strains of genetically selected natives and inclusion of proven exotic species in a complex web of species garnering calories as sunlight, water, nutrients and carbon trickle through a series of sieves that resemble tree canopies, ponds, marshes, soil, animals and plants.

Don Tipping, and his family steward Seven Seeds Farm in the Siskiyou Mountains of Williams, Oregon. This is their 11th year growing seed, eggs, fruits, vegetables, sheep, mixed poultry and spreading the gospel of ecotopian culture. They help manage a cooperative CSA and seed growers network ( and train future permaculture farmers through classes and apprenticeships.

Energy Descent

Navigating Energy Descent

Peak Oil implores us to consider the tremendous opportunity to rediscover and remake sustainable culture. Looking decades into the future I imagine a truly bioregional relationship between society and the landscape. A world where one doesn’t chose to try and live more sustainable, rather it is the cultural norm and guided by natural resource limits. Both urban and rural communities diversify away from the Wal-Martization that homogenized culture prior to energy descent. A thorough assessment and revaluation of liabilities uncovers many potential assets that were unclear in a society awash in excess. I envision creative utilization of resources considered problems in an energy surplus economy. For instance in the fire prone arid West, ecological fuels reduction thinning could yield small diameter poles and brush for engineered pole trusses, insulative wattle for walls and charcoal feedstock for steam power generation. Previous to developing these cottage industries of quasi –migratory woodland gatherers and crafts people, the large centralized landscape managers hustled for grant monies to slash and burn hazardous fuels, often the byproduct of industrial forestry.
Regional specialization is an outgrowth of pattern embellishment wherein a culture looks its environment for resources and models. Without global economics and interstate trucking, a deeper level of stewardship becomes necessary to avoid exhausting the ecosystem benefits which this forest culture depends upon, like water, air, erosion control, wildlife habitat. Manufacturing becomes more localized, producing the tools and materials necessary for life regionally, drawing upon vast sort yards where the excess of the 20th century is recycled. Any surplus for trade with neighboring regions would reflect regional specialization, a direct outgrowth of the assets of a given bioregion. Every region possesses a diversity of resources, such that in time the clothing, housing, diet, means of transport and customs would come to reflect the bioregion, with each valley becoming more and more distinct from one another as time passes. The image of the interstate connected city strip with its predictable assortment of multination chain stores, gas stations, strip malls and the like will vanish as theses buildings are co-opted for more practical purposes in the post-carbon reality.
Other key features of a post collapse society might include:
• Local currency and barter systems
• A reliance upon animal power
• Food production at every level of settlement density
• Wood for heat, steam power and manufacturing
• Biological filters for gray and black water
• Redistribution of human settlement near areas capable of supplying clean water and land for food; and away from areas of severe drought, cold and frequent natural disasters
• Vernacular architecture – no more stick frame houses in unforested regions, more cob, sod, log and stone construction
• Village social structures for social services
• Frequent farmers’/crafters’ markets for trade within a region
• City and county level governance predominating

I believe that the future holds many hopeful outcomes and it is well worth beginning the visioning process for what our lives and our children’s lives will look like in the future. Ursula LeGuinn discusses the concept of the history of the future in her classic, Always Coming Home, asserting that we often only hold pieces of clues to life in the distant past, from which we formulate a story. Likewise, we hold pieces of clues of what life will be like in the future and in many ways, permaculture design spiraled out four dimensionally in space time can assess the future design environment. Albeit that we may have to exercise more creativity to deal with an abundance of unknowns. The scenario I outlined above is a fairly optimistic portrayal of life many years from now which assumes a reasonably stable climate which can facilitates agriculture. The intervening period will likely be tumultuous, challenging our societal systems and rendering some obsolete. Collapse of the current industrial civilization is already underway. Peak Oil is only one symptom of a system in its final throes. Although they are all interrelated in a multitude of ways Peak Oil shares the billing of the “death knell of industrial civilization” with climate change, economic collapse, infectious diseases, food scarcity, war and a host of other formidable challenges. I believe that Peak Oil rings particularly loud for North Americans because of our unparalleled dependence upon petroleum.

The transition to a post-petroleum society will take decades and will be anything but smooth. However, planning for a managed decent rather than simply taking a wait and see attitude would be prudent. There are a number of focal points to a managed energy descent, including food, medicine, transportation, localization, economics, water, shelter, transport, population transfer, security and governance, I feel that food and water are where the rubber meets the road, so I will deal with these two concerns in detail.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Are Commercial Hybrid Seeds really Necessary?

Hi ,

As a farmer and plant breeder I feel compelled to call attention to the myriad of reasons to plant heirloom and locally adapted seeds. Through selecting the best performing plants in a population, farmer bred heirlooms have had to evolve with nutures panopoly of pests, disease and climate stress. Consequently, they develop horizontal resistance to disease (stress, etc) which remains largely effective despite mutations in the pathogen (eg. downy mildew race 1,2, 3 ,4, 5 etc). Horizontal resistance is the result of population breeding, wherein a suite of diverse genetics is maitained that can infer secondary benfits to growers planting these seeds. For instance if I focus on breeding for cold tolerance in a broccoli I may also be selcting inadvertantly for aphid resistance of increased phytonutrient content. Commercial hybrids are bred for vertical disese resistance to s specific race of a pathogen. Once the pathogen evolves, that resistance is rendered ineffective. Further, a handful of multinational corporations control over 90% of the vegetable seed market and their marketing focus is F1 hybrids thereby discouraging gardeners and farmers to save their own seeds. Consider that Monsanto recently bought the world's largest vegetable seed company (Seminis) making them one of the largest seed companies in the world. Think about that when you buy your hybrid "Early Girl" tomaotes - money in Monsanto's pocket. While the hybridization process infers heterosis which increases vigor in some instances, the benfits can only truly be seen in a small group of families (namely corn, broccoli). Classical or traditional plant breeding can acheive or surpass the results of propritary hybrid breeding programs.

Also - Seven Seeds Farm is commerating its 13th season farming in Williams with the birth of Siskiyou Seed - which picks up where Al Vanet and Shryl Lee's SOW Organic Seeds left off. We will have locally grown certified organic seed racks at the General Store, Chet's Nursery, the Ashland Co-op and in Ruch within the next few weeks. Our offerings are the culmination of what has proven sucessful in many years of homestead gardening here in Williams. Our favorite chestnut varieities will be represented in the vegetable, fruit, flower culinary herb seeds we will be selling.
feel free to email us for a seed list if you would like to place an order before I finish assembling the seed racks.
Seven Seeds farm - Don Tipping

Confessions of a Rural Farmer & Meditations on Energy Descent

Confessions of a Rural Farmer & Meditations on Energy Descent

I recently had the pleasure of attending a 2-day Advanced Permaculture Principles course with David Holmgren in Portland, Oregon at the Portland Permaculture Institute. Being as farmer from a rural area, I typically didn't give much thought to urban permaculture, or cities in general except perhaps as a market for my farm's produce, or a place to buy spare parts. To be entirely honest, if you were a fly on the wall amidst a conversation of Siskiyou area permies and farmers you may hear phrases such as, " that's the last place I'd want to be", or "I hope that they can grow/ preserve/ stash enough food" when discussing the implications of peak oil. A very common doomsday scenario topic around my locale is the hypothetical hordes of starving masses pouring into the countryside from the cities in search of food and water when they realize what has hit the fan.
My view was profoundly changed by my experience in Portland and I was pleased to realize that I had much to learn from my urbanite counterparts. For what urban areas lack in acreage of fields and forests they make up for with tonnages of human creativity and community collaboration. Through interacting with the other course participants who were predominately from the Portland area and experiencing the site of the hosts, Joe and Pam Leitch, I came to appreciate the many interwoven dynamic relationships, which make urban Permaculture so exciting. To name a few:

• Under utilized resources are abundant and readily available free or cheap (wood chips, information, building materials, recycled vegetable oil yard waste)
• A rich and diverse cultural landscape (ethnic, artistic and historical)
• Networking is constant and multi-dimensional (numerous events and groups working for positive change)
• Things can happen quickly because distances between people are short by rural standards
• Leaders of social and cultural change movements frequent urban areas (Holmgren for instance)
• Small changes can have large results
• An inherently smaller ecological footprint than the average ruralite due to resource/infrastructure sharing

Among the participants in the course there were numerous parallel and overlapping focal points - natural building, permaculture, city repair, progressive education, garden agriculture, cohousing/ecovillages, appropriate technology, etc. In my area it is rare to get all the farmers and/or permies together to exchange ideas or work together on a common project as we are generally consumed by our own mountains of personal projects. While there may be many people involved or initiating good projects, coordinating these efforts in a collaborative and cohesive fashion is logistically problematic. One factor, which undermines many rural renewal efforts, is that it is generally up to an individual or a family to maintain and steward extensive farms, forests and projects. This is indicative of 80-acre minimum zoning laws, which restrict multiple dwellings, community and cohousing. Despite many of the virtues and assets of country living there are some considerable challenges, many of which Toby Hemmingway highlighted in his insightful article in the PCA #54.

Cities also serve to facilitate some features of our cultures modern interpretation of sustainability, which may be less appropriate in a rural setting. An obvious example is mass transit, public buses and light rail. Another instance is making biodiesel with recycled/waste vegetable oil which is easily obtainable from many sources in cities represents a genuine step to reduce one's ecological footprint. Having personally made biodiesel for a few years, driving over 50 miles each way to obtain the oil and methanol, I began to weigh out simply restructuring my life to drive less and spend my time doing more worthwhile (& healthful) things. I then looked into getting Biodiesel delivered from town. Then I began to look into the energy return on energy invested, (or EROEI – a way to measure embedded energy) for biodiesel produced from conventionally grown oilseed crops (GMO soy) the biodiesel generates only 60% of the energy put into growing, producing and transporting the fuel in the first place. New oil biodiesel is basically a shell game displacing the burden and effects of one's ecological footprint onto another ecosystem akin to a not in my backyard paradox. Our current fossil fuel subsidy hides many of the embedded energy costs of many of our tech-no-logical fixes. Co- housing is a reach towards village life, which naturally overlays onto urban land use patterns easily. However, zoning, and cultural attitudes in rural communities thwart efforts to develop co-housing and ecovillages.

The Portland Permaculture Institute, home of Pam and Joe Leitch was a veritable cultural oasis/ lifeboat and proving grounds of permaculture principles in action and community locus able to incubate ideas into reality. This land was also a remarkable example of stewardship by the prior owners in that it was 1.6 acres of land in a neighborhood of otherwise high-density housing. Mature figs, black walnuts, cherry, apple and other unique trees comprised a healthy scaffold for the new stewards to develop into an extensive food forest. The acquisition of this land appeared to have contributed to galvanizing the local permaculture and city repair movements by providing an excellent demonstration site. Numerous outbuildings and outdoor rooms fostered a learning environment, which engaged participants with the land, elemental forces and each other in a harmonious way. Their website highlights the site and their programs.

Whilst at the Holmgren PC Principles course I had the delight of staying at Try/on Life Community Farm a newly formed non-profit and established ecovillage on 7 acres of land within a 670 acre Tryon state park within the city limits of SW Portland. Recently threatened with the sale of the property by the owner, who intended to subdivide and develop the land for luxury homes, Try/on Life Community Farm has risen like the phoenix from the ashes and is on the path to raising the funds to purchase the land and place it in a conservation easement. TLC Farm aims to serve the Portland Community through:
"• Innovative approaches to sustainable urban growth
• Interdisciplinary hands-on educational program focused on food systems, permaculture, natural building, and other skills and theories of sustainability
• Publicly accessible demonstration projects, workshops and classes, land tours, and publications for school groups, organizations, and kids and adults of all ages
• Integration of social, ecological and economic sustainability
• Preservation of green space and restoration of native ecosystems
At the confluence of rural farm and native forest, in an urban center, TLC Farm is a place of cooperation and crossroads for a diversity of people."

Inspired by these two promising examples I contemplated permaculture in the city. I was challenged to envision a new model of garden agriculture, where long rows of crops, orchard blocks, and farm ponds are supplanted by a chaotic mosaic of garden plots, heritage fruit trees, roof-top greenhouses/nurseries, fruiting arbors, balcony burdock boxes, city park food forests, rain water catchments and recycled bathtub aquaculture. During an inspired course tea-break rap session a few of us devised a scheme for an urban cooperative community supported agriculture program (CSA) in which a network of backyard (and front yard) gardeners would coordinate their plantings to ensure sufficient surplus to distribute to their neighbors. They could possibly focus on a few specific crops for trade within the cooperative, enabling specialization and productive capacity. Others might forage for fruits and nuts amidst naturalized trees in a city, redistributing the surplus to Co-op CSA members much like the typical model, except deliveries would be made on foot or by bicycle. Neighborhood, or regional seed growing/saving cooperatives might develop along similar lines to ensure a fresh supply of regionally adapted varieties. Limited urban arable land precludes full-blown market gardens (except in reclaimed park lawns). However, adding up the square footage of an entire neighborhoods worth of yard space might equal some considerable acreage. A cooperative city-farm model might grow out of such a plan in which a cooperative of gardeners and small livestock grazers develop a reticulated nutrient cycling/ rotation plan in which a rabbit grower might use portable electric netting to mow lawns, exchanging fertility, meat and pelts for forage, vegetables and more. I imagine this city farm as a pattern remotely akin to a farm with a lot of really big outbuildings, many roads and a few pocket fields and many farmers.

I was particularly empowered to see the extent to which Portland as an archetypical progressive, urban city, albeit an atypical city, had fostered the development of many overlapping social movements. These spanned from ecovillages, to the City Repair Project, social justice movements, progressive education and a general savvy and awareness of appropriate human relationships and the course necessary to achieve them. When I dwell upon the dire situation, which the biosphere is in, and our ability to improve upon it, my thoughts go from technical tool/solutions and always return back to our social relationships. We have all descended from village living peoples at some point in our ancestry and we have forgotten how to live in right relationship with one another and the other species of this planet. The hope is that we can re-member (or become a member again) of a village like social fabric. I believe that this is key to re-establishing harmonious relationships with other species and the elemental forces. Anything less than this would be a linear approach focused on alleviating the symptoms rather than a systems approach of addressing the root causes. As Thomas Jefferson said, " for every hundred men hacking at the branches of evil, only one is hacking at the root." From my impressions it seems as if Portland is progressing more than many rural communities on re-weaving the social fabric. I feel that this is one of the most profound lessons, which rural dwelling people in particular can benefit from exchanging information and experience with urban dwellers.

From my perspective as a farmer when I extrapolate the implications of peak oil and energy descent I see that the above city-farm model might fall short of meeting the caloric needs of all urban residents. As fossil fuels become less available and more expensive, the transport of food from rural areas into urban areas will become more complicated. Rural farmers have existed for as long as agriculture has and their marketplaces have nearly always included village centers and towns. The town center by nature and design represents the center for the exchange of goods and services. In the American landscape an unfortunate transformation has occurred through the development of the suburbs. The village pattern of city surrounded by a ring of intensive agriculture, then a ring of grazing lands, then forests can still be observed in many indigenous landscapes (see figure 1). Michael Ableman's book, From the Good Earth contains many beautiful pictorial depictions of this pattern. Suburban sprawl has consumed and paved what was once the productive agrarian landscapes of the past, all the while furthering the distance necessary to transport food from distant rural farm land. Farms will be forced to change what they produce and how they market it as fossil fuels drive the cost of transport up, or we will need to begin de-paving the suburbs to facilitate food growing closer to town. I know that over the past decade we have focused more of the production of the annual fields of our farm towards vegetable, herb and flower seed production for Seeds of Change, Fedco and Turtle Tree Seeds. We also conserve carbon on our farm by returning the majority of the biomass back into the composting process, only having to transport a comparatively light and concentrated product (seeds) rather than heavy and bulky cases of fruits and vegetables.

Our family has grown the majority of our own food for a number years and over time I have a learned of how much land and resources that it requires to grow enough vegetables, meat, eggs, dairy, grains, legumes, fruits, nuts, seeds and oils for one person, assuming active food storage through drying, freezing, canning and root cellaring. For instance, to grow enough potatoes for two people for a year requires about 800 square feet, a lot of space. Now take this sample and do it for carrots, flour corn, dry beans, winter squash and grains and so on. Although I see the beauty in, and I am personally pursuing a tree crop based agriculture emphasizing on forage crops, I see it exceedingly prudent to acknowledge that most Americans diets (permies included) are still predominately based upon annual crops and animals that eat annual crops. As Wes Jackson has pointed out, humans are essentially grass-eaters, pointing to our reliance on annual cereal crops for food and animal feed. Our models for a permaculture prairie savannah of oaks, chestnuts, hazels, ruminants and ground birds stretching across the Midwest are alluring and highly worth developing, however, their ability to actually feed the masses is a ways off, if it indeed does work. While Cuba may be the poster child for urban agricultural renewal with 60% of the vegetable consumed in Havana being produced in the city. Per capita caloric intake plunged after the collapse of the USSR, it has only returned to 80% of its former level.

I challenge us all to take the principle that "the design is only limited to the imagination of the designer" to a higher level. My goal in highlighting the above points is not to raise the specter of doom, but rather to illuminate the critical linkage between rural and urban areas and to encourage rural renewal parallel to urban renewal. Just as urban areas need to remake themselves to become more interconnected, rural areas need to redefine their identity after centuries of abusive "boom and bust" land practices. Many rural areas across the US are being rapidly depopulated through corporate consolidation of farmlands, failure of family farms, lack of economic opportunity and unsustainable farming practices. Jeremy Rifkin speculated recently that the entire state of Iowa was very close to becoming 14 mega-farms. The demands of a growth based economy plunder the cities and countryside equally with far reaching consequences.

The average age of the American farmer is 62 years old. Stop and think about this for a moment that means that there statistically as many 82-year-old farmers as there are 42 year old farmers and probably not very many 22-year-old farmers (nor 102 year old farmers for that matter!). Fortunately I meet many young people interested in organic agriculture, biodynamics and permaculture. I believe that my nightmare of the starving masses from the cities coming to loot our farm is a less likely scenario than hordes of eager permies coming to the countryside in droves to learn the lost arts of diverse, intensive natural farming to take back to their communities and start mini city-farms or suburban food forests. Ultimately the solution lies in that we are rediscovering our lost culture of garden agriculture, where food, fiber and medicine is produced as close to the site of consumption as possible and surplus for trade is not done solely for economic purposes, but also to interweave cultural traditions through the exchange of seeds, breeds, scions, spores and knowledge bioregionally.

Don Tipping is a biodynamic farmer, shepherd, and activist who lives with his family in SW Oregon's Siskiyou Mountains. His work with Participatory Plant Breeding can be viewed at He is also a founder of the Siskiyou Sustainable Cooperative of farmers in the Applegate Valley, which manages a large cooperative CSA and is developing a value added businesses inspired by Basque Spain's Mondragon cooperative. Contact him at or (541)846-9233

Try/on Life Community Farm, <> (503) 244-1776

Portland Permaculture Institute, (503) 293-8044

Toby Hemmingway,

Ableman, Michael; From the Good Earth

Groh, Trauger; Farms of Tomorrow

Holmgren, David; Permaculture, Patterns and Pathways Beyond Sustainability

Mollison, Bill; Permaculture, A Designer's Manual - Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas

Making History with Seed

December 2007

Making History in a Seedy Way

Pondering the 70th anniversary of the Biodynamic Association in North America I came to think of historic biodynamic farms and farmers of this continent. Having spanned multiple generations, biodynamics now touches many aspects of our agri-culture. My mind swirled around the concept of history and legacy, which are sometimes intangible when viewed through the lens of nature. The natural world spirals forward not pausing for reflection backwards. Although the work of a vegetable farmer may be highly celebrated at farmers’ markets, dinner tables and farm conferences, our legacy is difficult to trace. After winters rains issue forth a lush explosion of spring weeds, our incredibly ordered reality of our tidy rows of carefully planted vegetables, herbs and flowers is all but erased. A temporary paradise is what I often contemplate as I hurry from one end of our farm to the other noticing a riot of beauty as I strain to maintain focus to the task at hand. As farmers we dance with impermanence daily. Natural forces challenge our ability to create history. Sure we may have historic barns, heritage orchards and livestock breeds. Who ever heard of a historic vegetable planting? “Remember the onions of ’93?” Not likely.
Seeds on the other hand, ooze heritage and history with each succeeding generation that they are grown to fruit. The word heirloom implies history in a direct, tangible if somewhat sentimental way. Like all natural patterns plants grown from seeds don’t evolve in a circular fashion, producing identical carbon copies of themselves. Rather they progress spirally onward four-dimensionally (space and time), always receptive to climate, pest-pressures, selection, pollen, and other stresses. Each seed produced is a completely new miracle. The concept of uniformity as a breeding objective is nonsequitur to how nature functions. Nevertheless the cultivated laborotry enables growers to sculpt plant genetics into their desired form through controlled breeding. Herein lies our potential for doing something historically noteworthy. Cultivation marries human intellect with the etheric nature of the plant and thereby infuses plant varieties with nostalgia and history in our memory.
Utter the words, “Sugar Snap” to a gardener and witness the subtle smile and daydreaming gaze of longing develop. Consider the Plant Variety Protection Act, which is a patent on a vegetable or fruit variety. Sugar Snap was a patented variety as its breeders wanted to ensure a monopoly on its supply for the 20-year duration of the patent. When we discover a good combination of genetics we want to make it last, especially if it tastes good. However, growers began to see that Sugar Snap lacked in certain areas such as resistance to disease and heat. The supplier of Sugar Snap peas didn’t need to adapt and evolve because everyone loved its flavor and the patent prevented other breeders from creating new breeding lines from this strain. After the patent expired an improved strain called “Super Sugar Snap” sought to correct its predecessor’s disease susceptibility but lost some of the flavor and yield in the process. The point here is that plant breeding is inextricably linked to the changing dynamics of the natural world yet we still try and overlay our modern materialistic constraints on the sharing of these genetics often times at the expense of growing the best quality food.
In some ways plant breeding has come to be akin to writing a book or a play. We thrive on notoriety and want to be patronized for our ingenuity. We coax desirable agronomic traits from the plant realm and want to be acknowledged for this effort. Perhaps we should put the plant in front of the person/company. As farmers we do not create varieties, we can only go so far as introducing pollen sources and notice traits. Ideally we hope to breed “workhorse” varieties that will stand the test of time because of their flexible genetics, disease resistance, vigor, and adaptability and public domain accessibility.
Years of seed production on our farm have afforded a unique glimpse at how to weave the plant kingdoms’ interpretation of history with a desire to foster lasting ecological stewardship. On our farm we produce seed for commercial contract on about 2 acres. While we try to harvest it as it ripens, many forces thwart our efforts – birds eat seed, wind scatters it, rain dislodges it and we simply spill a lot. Over the years our soil seed bank has become populated with the very varieties that we have cultivated and they become weeds. Imagine that! Some species’ seed tend to persist in the soil longer than others. Brassica rapa mustards such as mitzuna and pac chois return each spring for about 3 or 4 years like old friends returning to visit. Swiss chard, beets, parsley, kale, carrots, tomatoes, melons, radish, lettuce and endive are notable others. Parsnips resow with a vengeance and become persistent weeds. As I tend this menagerie I see the vision issued forth by the venerable Masanobu Fukuoka in his system of Natural Farming (read his watershed work, One Straw Revolution) of a polyculture of self-seeding annuals. He instructed that these conditions could be accelerated through the use of seed balls, a mixture of clay, compost and a mixture of seeds. We frequently harvest from these wild vegetable populations for salad mix and poultry forage. I also try and let some of them flower and set seed so they can perpetuate they volunteer tendencies.
From a permaculture perspective, annual vegetable production is viewed as holding the landscape in a phase of arrested succession, meaning that the ecosystem is not evolving past the early pioneer phase of plant succession which would naturally progress to include perennial herbs, animals, brambles, shrubs and trees. Our challenge as farmers and gardeners is to meld this knowledge of encouraging our systems to evolve and become more biodiverse while preserving our culturally important vegetable crops. My hope is to see the biodynamic community create history through its embrace of new methodologies to advance the development of ecological agriculture.

Don Tipping
Winter Solstice 2007