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Monday, February 23, 2009

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.

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