You might expect all the seeds that go into creating an organic farm to be organic themselves. But when the Organic Seed Alliance asked organic farmers how much organic seed they were using, only one out of five reported using 100 percent organic seed. The most common reason the farmers cited for using conventional seed was that they couldn’t get the type of seeds they needed if they used only organics.
The rise of organic farming has coincided with the burst of fantastic heirloom tomatoes and seemingly infinite varieties of kale in farmers’ markets and even grocery stores. The same farmers dedicated to organic production were interested in raising heirloom vegetables and saving seeds to use from year to year, instead of sending away to seed catalogs anew each season. But as organic farming has grown, farmers interested in growing even basic vegetables have not been able to find enough of the right seeds. As the OSA recounted in its 2011 State of Organic Seed report, the availability and quality of organic seeds has not kept up with the pace at which organic farming has been growing.
This weekend, the OSA hosted the 6th Annual Organic Seed Growers Conference, a forum for plant breeders, farmers, seed companies, and researchers to work together in an effort to improve organic seed—and, by extension, the food that grows from it.
The conference featured panels on organic wheat breeding, the threat of contamination by genetically engineered crops, and a seed exchange for attendees to trade their creations. At a session on Friday morning, OSA senior scientist John Navazio laid out the basics of breeding for farmers who wanted to start creating new plant varieties on their farms. The best crop for a farmer to experiment with, Navazio said, is the one that gets her excited about her work. “You really have to love it,” he explained. “Working with that crop, eating that crop, look at the crop in the morning before you do anything else. Those are the crops we've found farmers are most successful at breeding.”
Part of the reason it’s important for farmers, breeders, and researchers to pay attention to organic seed is that organically grown plants have different needs than conventionally grown ones. Having ruled out chemicals, organic farmers have fewer options for dealing with diseases or pests or weeds, so it helps if the plants they grow are better at resisting those threats.
More work on organic seeds also means more opportunities to develop tastier or more commercially successful varieties of staple crops. A vegetable the average consumer thinks of as “zucchini” actually comes in varieties with names like Raven, Black Beauty, and Dark Star, and breeders and farmers can tinker with them to emphasize certain traits. One of Navazio’s success stories featured a farmer who started with an errant streak of red in a crop of green kale. Over time, he developed a commercial variety of red kale with better flavor and more tender leaves. Another anecdote featured a zucchini that survived the frost that killed all the other zucchini plants in Baja, Mexico. For most of February, Navazio said, the survivor “was the only zucchini in Whole Foods,” as far afield as Toronto.