|Purchase Nash's OP Organic Seed.|
Journals left by settlers who came west on the Oregon Trail indicate that seeds were among their most prized possessions. That has not changed for today’s organic farmers. Preserving seed is a skill every organic farmer must have, and Nash has been doing it for years. He routinely saves carrot, cabbage and spinach seeds, along with all of the grains. This gives the farm a reliable supply of varieties that we know produce good results in our environment. We occasionally save seeds from specialty plants, such as cilantro and dill.
Certain seed crops thrive in the unique Sequim climate. Brassicae seed, which includes cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and kales, among others, are planted during the summer, left to overwinter, and then allowed to bolt and set seed the following summer and fall. Because of the relative mildness of the Sequim winters, the plants don’t freeze out, and the milder summers allow the plants to flower where they could wither in the heat elsewhere. This climatic combination is critical for these types of seeds.
Organic farmers do not support the use of genetically-modified (GM) seed. This involves taking a gene from one species and implanting it into another species in a laboratory, where it would have never naturally occurred. Organic farmers have a host of concerns with this breeding technique.
This does not mean that organic farmers do not create new plant varieties. They just do it the same way farmers have been doing it for 10,000 years, crossing open-pollinated plants to develop new varieties, and winnowing out undesirable traits over a period of years. Over the past 20 years, Nash developed a new variety of curly purple kale that grows very well in our climate and stands a little taller than its parent stock for ease of harvesting. The farm also tries to grow and maintain varieties developed by other farmers.
Nash Huber started seed breeding on a very modest scale in the 1970s with Forest Shomer of Abundant Life Seed Company in Port Townsend. Forest was interested in “wild crafting,” or collecting wild seed for sale. Nash helped him fill an order for dandelion seed by putting together a special harvesting machine and started breeding an overwintering cauliflower and a heritage variety of cabbage called January King. Abundant Life was eventually sold to Organic Seed Alliance (OSA).
Organic Seed Alliance in Port Townsend works closely with Nash and his crew to develop new varieties and maintain existing varieties. They also train other local farmers to be seed growers. Seed is an important product on a diversified farm.
Nash supplements his own seeds with seeds from Territorial Seed Co. in Oregon, Osborne Seed Company in Mt. Vernon, WA, Johnny's Selected Seeds in Maine, and Fedco Seeds in Maine. All of these are good options for seed growers in northern climates. Alf Christianson, Territorial and Osborne have the added advantage of carrying seeds grown in the Northwest. Nash’s grows seed for several of the above companies and for the Family Farmers Seed Cooperative. Although we prefer organically grown seed, sometimes it is not available. We can plant conventionally grown seeds, raise them organically and then harvest the seeds. We use this organically grown seed for crops that comply with our organic certification.
The relationship with OSA has been very beneficial for Nash's Organic Produce. The farm has been greatly supported by staff members Micaela Colley and Dr. John Navazio. They have spent many hours sharing excellent advice and seed breeding knowledge with Nash and his team of young farmers—how to select for certain traits and to improve varieties using the classical plant breeding techniques farmers have used for generations. (Photo, from left: seed breeders Dr. John Navazio, Steve Peters and Matthew Dillon and rodent control supervisor Guido.)
Historically, a farmer goes to the corn crib or root cellar and selects the plants that not only have survived the winter, but have desirable characteristics to plant in the spring. A good grower selects the healthiest plants for the particular region because the conditions in which a plant grows actually alter the plant.
In our times, there’s a concerted effort by big seed companies to prevent seed saving and selecting by farmers. Over the past 30 years, the seed industry has consolidated to the point that very few companies control what seed is produced and available for sale. The 10,000 year tradition of farmers saving their own seed is now under threat from corporations. This is not only a threat to organic family farming, it is a tremendous threat to the diversity of seeds that has been developed and nurtured over thousands of years by farmers worldwide.
As favorite varieties were discontinued by seed companies, the crew at Nash’s Organic Produce decided to start growing its own seed. Having its own seed creates stability, increases product marketability, improves varieties that grow well in the Sequim climate, maintains seed affordability, and adds to the product line by selling seed to organic seed companies.
Open pollination (O.P.) means pollination by insects, birds, wind or other natural mechanisms. Seeds from O.P. plants will produce new generations of those plants, but because the pollination is uncontrolled, O.P. inevitably increases biodiversity.
Some plants, mainly crops, are self-pollinating and therefore breed true—the offspring will generally be the same as their parents, although mutations can occur. Pollination can also be controlled to some degree by greenhouses or field isolation.
Hybrid seeds are the first generation of two distinct parental lines of the same species. The seed from the cross-pollinated hybrid plants can then have attributes from both of the parent plants. However, the seeds from the offspring plants have unpredictable characteristics and are not as likely to produce desired traits as the original seeds from the first cross. They may be sterile or fail to breed true. There’s no predicting what the offspring will be like as it will always be differing combinations of the parent plants’ genes. So the use of hybrids is limited.
All heirloom seed is O.P. When breeders raise O.P. crops and keep other varieties’ pollen far enough away to prevent contamination, they have the ability to save O.P. seed. If the patch contains enough plants to be a viable population, the best two-thirds of the patch can be used for seed, and the variety will generally hold its quality through generations. If the very best half or fewer plants are saved, the variety will generally improve.
Nash’s saves seed primarily from O.P. plants because he believes that the future lies with O.P. varieties due to climate destabilization. O.P. seed are bred for varying climatic conditions but contain in their genes the ability to adapt. The hybrid varieties owned by corporations like Monsanto, DuPont or Syngenta will fail if the climate changes in the region where they are planted. O.P. will always be the more diverse and more adaptable.
Nash Huber crossed a kale and a Brussels sprout plant over 20 years ago. He kept selecting, but used insect pollination over many generations, weeding out unwanted plants, until it resulted in a new open pollinated plant with a distinct color, taste, winter hardiness, tall stature and disease resistance. Eventually, it will also breed true.