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Friday, April 3, 2009

Germination & the Forces of Spring

Germination – The Awakening of the Seed

April 1st, 2009

The lengthening the day brings about profound changes in the natural world. Many natural processes either initiate or accelerate. In the northern hemisphere at our latitude (43 degrees) the time around February 1st, variably known as Candle mass, or Imbolc, or groundhogs’ day depending on your cultural persuasion heralds an awakening of the nature spirits which animate the growing world. The spiritual forces, which animate the plant world, have lain largely dormant since the yellowing of the leaves and leaf fall in autumn. Now we witness the remarkable rebirth known as spring or Easter. We are fortunate to perceive the swelling and flowering of buds, the unfurling of leaves, the sprouting of seeds and the untold billions of births which take place as the sun waxes higher in the sky with each day. We too are affected by this turn in the rhythm of the year. It is important for us to align our own soul’s hope, courage and sense of purpose with that which is occurring in the rest of the created world, Because, we too have a deep soul need to emerge from the darkness of winter and make positive contributions to the web of life.

As farmers and gardeners we are extremely fortunate to be able to plant seeds and share in this cycle. We hold the magic of the germination process in our heart and mind as we plant seeds and tend the germinating embryo, encouraging growth and reproduction. I feel that we must also shoulder the responsibility of communicating how important this process is for all of humankind and the world at large. When we consider how extensive humanities’ reach has become to manipulate the surface of the Earth, we must accept that we are the stewards of this beautiful planet. What an opportunity. Do we want to live in a peaceful relationship with the other 100 million other species we share the planet with, or continue with top down destructive domination? Those who tend the fields and forests of the Earth have a unique, yet imposing responsibility to not only do this critical work, but also to articulate how tenuous the health of the natural systems which sustain us are at this time. Just as the Lorax spoke for the trees in Dr. Seuss seminal classic, the Lorax, growers of food must speak up for the seed at this pivotal time in human history when genetic engineering is making rapid inroads into the cornerstones of the biology of the planet.

Is simply planting seeds, growing seeds and distributing them enough? Can we rely on non-profits, seed companies, NGO’s, the UN, or the USDA to adequately represent and respect the spiritual forces of growth and reproduction upon which all life depends? This is a challenging question with potentially disturbing consequences. Fear aside, who is better qualified to articulate concerns over genetically engineered seeds and other threats to seed freedom than those whose livelihood and life forces are already aligned with seeds and the plant world? As the fervor over the local foods movement builds more steam, I encourage all farmers and gardeners to engage in constructive dialogue with our fellow world community members. I am tremendously inspired by the rapid changes in attitude occurring among the general populace with regards to valuing agriculture and connections with farmers. Just as the plight of salmon here in the Pacific Northwest has fostered people to adopt the paradigm of thinking about watersheds, we need to usher in an understanding of “food sheds”, “pollen sheds” and bioregional responsibility for maintaining the integrity of these systems.

The concept of pollen sheds has hit my backyard recently, as I had to nervously await the results of a purity test to determine if a crop of Swiss chard seed I was trying to sell was free from contamination from genetically modified “Round-Up ready” sugar beet pollen. Fortunately the test showed up negative and I was able to sell the seed, but I had to pay a few hundred dollars and submit a 1-pound sample for the test. Did Monsanto cover these costs, or would they reimburse me if my certified organic seed were rendered unsellable as a result of the technology? No, they did not, nor would I hold my breath awaiting a cordial response from them. Unfortunately, organic and biodynamic agriculture will be presented with these challenging quandaries with increasing frequency. There is a big push to develop SW Oregon’s Rogue River valley where I live as a prime area for canola seed production for Biofuels. This follows a failed attempt in Oregon’s Willamette valley to do likewise. Nearly all Biofuels canola is planted to Monsanto’s, Round-up Ready varieties. If this goes through, all of the Brassica rapa varieties (Tatsoi, Mitzuna, turnips, Pac Chois and other Chinese cabbages) for which we and other seed growers produce seed for will be threatened with GMO contamination, necessitating more costly purity testing and restricting the viability of our farm systems. Do we cower back from this threat and retreat to GMO free watersheds? Or do we stop growing crops, which have potential of crossing? Do we say, “nothing can be done”, and let someone else fill David’s shoes (or sandals) to challenge Goliath? I would like to stand up for the seed and I am confident that I am not alone. But let us use the language and tactics of positivity in creating sustainable seed systems in order to appeal to the more enlightened element of the human psyche.

I propose and am actively working on creating regional seed producing hubs, which network with one another like spokes of a wheel. In order to maintain the viability of small scale integrated biodynamic & organic farms we must work together to share experience, resources, tools and training. Through the newly incorporated Family Farmers Seed Cooperative (an outgrowth of the Organic Seed Alliance), we are developing bioregional hubs in SW Oregon, Colorado (near Boulder/Longmont), NW Washington (near Port Townsend and the Skagit valley), North Dakota, Idaho, and also in Oregon’s Willamette valley. Within these hubs, seed growers can share seed harvesting and cleaning equipment; pool resources for performing in-house germination tests, print labels for packaging and participate in plant breeding/improvement seminars and field days. At this point in time we need many more growers of organic seed, many of whom will probably already be farming fresh market vegetables among other things. How do we train and equip these new seed growers to supply the huge gap between organic seed supply and demand? These bioregional seed hubs will be a big step in the right direction. If we can include established growers of fresh market produce in the process we can ascertain their needs for variety improvement and work towards breeding and selecting to address their concerns and they can give us realistic feedback as to how to achieve these goals.

I am particularly excited about a new model for seed production. I recently was able to develop a relationship with an established medium scale organic farm in the Rogue Valley. Steve and Suzie Fry have been growing certified organic flowers, vegetables and vegetable starts for 20 years and now farm nearly 80 acres. They are acutely aware of the strengths and shortcomings of many of the available varieties of seed currently available. They also buy and use a lot of seed on 80 acres. Yet, the rigors of their system overrule the idea of starting a seed production aspect to their operation themselves. That’s where the relationship with an experienced seed grower can create multiple beneficial outcomes. For instance, they had 18,000 row feet of parsley, which had over wintered and we were able to walk the rows and discuss what traits are desirable for producing healthy plants in quantity. That many plants would be a lot of seed, but we can save 1,500 plants that demonstrated the best vigor, resistance to yellowing and crown rot and let them mature to seed. Meanwhile they can still fill boxes for wholesale produce sale. They are skilled at the vegetative growing aspect, and I can come in with my crew for the seed selection, harvest, and cleaning aspects, for which my operation is already configured. They get improved seed, have a big insectary hedgerow as all that parsley flowers (normally it would be tilled under), we sell some seed and pay some bills and together move closer towards a sustainable seed system. In cooperation we write a good story.

I would like to see more of these types of relationships sprout and flourish. I am partnering with Fry Family Farms to grow a large crop of Swiss chard in an area where the potential for crossing with GMO sugar beet exists. So, not only are we producing improved seed, but also creating a compelling argument for restricting the planting of GMO crops within established seed growing region. This is not merely an environmental issue, it also has elements of economics, and social/cultural ramifications. Our hope is to align ourselves with the concepts laid out in Rudolf Steiner’s threefold social order in order to appeal to our larger community to develop reasonable agreements that respect our personal freedoms. May your seeds sprout vigorously and inspire you with renewed creativity at thriving amidst challenging times!

Don Tipping and his family farm in SW Oregon’s Siskiyou mountains at Seven Seeds Farm. They grow vegetables, herbs, sheep, poultry, seed and cooperate with other farmers to manage a CSA. Their seed is sold by Turtle Tree Seed, Johnny’s, Fedco, Renee’s, High Mowing Seed, Wood Prairie Farm, Seeds of Change and Uprising Seeds. This is their first year selling seed directly through their own local seed company, Siskiyou Seed . I welcome input about any of these ideas, email at, or see blog with more articles at


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