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Seed Saving to Ensure Local Food Security
L. Acuña Sandoval
Seed saving became even more important to me recently as a farmer when I came close to losing a particular corn variety in my seed stock. ‘Hopi Pink’ is an excellent flour corn that is extremely rare. I haf collected it at a seed exchange a few years back. I grew this variety only in an isolated part of my field in 2010 along with rare winter squash (‘Lakota’) and sunflowers (‘Tarahumara’). I harvested three bushels after sowing about a quarter pound of seed, then just put it aside and forgot about it. I started looking for the seed for planting in 2012 within my disorganized seed collection, and to my horror, realized that it had been eaten by something. I finally gave up looking through my boxes and started perusing online catalogs and rare seed banks for it. I became curious if I could find any other rare corns. It was difficult to locate them anywhere. Seeds of Change, the original seed source, does not carry this specific heirloom corn anymore, and one of the only sources that did have them was selling it for as much as $18 for 25 seeds! I thought, “What could any seed grower possibly do with 25 seeds?” Corn has to be planted in a four-row minimum for wind pollination, and to keep the genetic diversity intact I would need quite a bit. I even looked at the National Plant Germplasm System that the USDA maintains1, and still I had no luck. What I finally realized from this eye-opening example and others was that some seed banks are dwindling, and it is getting harder to find the same seed year after year.
Collecting and maintaining seed banks that are acclimated to a specific area such as northern New Mexico is more important now than ever. Sustainability of a farm system depends on growing seed that has been raised on-farm and is able to adapt to disease pressure, drought, and is cold-hardy for our short growing season. What better way to accomplish this than to raise seed on the farm? Saving your own seeds and planting them year after year will, overall, increase local food sources availability, increase the robustness of the seed bank, and it is cost-effective. Saving seed is not easy at times (fermenting tomato seed can be a lot of work). I am constantly learning how to be more efficient at it. Organic Seed Alliance (OCA) has an online seed-saving guide2 and tutorials, and offers numerous other sources that I have found to be very useful for understanding how to save seeds. Cuatro Puertas3 is a local New Mexico community development corporation that has projects that assist local farmers and local rural economic development. It also maintains a seed bank and preservation project, the Arid Seed Cache4, that teaches seed saving and preserves local heirloom and arid seeds from New Mexico and other areas.
Another great source for seed saving is Seed to Seed1, which details how to collect seed based on individual plant families and seed-saving techniques. One of the most important aspects I have been studying is how specific plant families accomplish pollination. If the plant family is self-pollinating only such beans in the Fabaceae family, then isolation distance is not an issue. Peppers and tomatoes, which are both in the family Solanaceae, require a minimum isolation distance of 800 feet and 400 feet respectively2, to collect seed that has not been cross-pollinated. Next season I am tackling the Cucurbit family (squash, cucumbers), which can cross easily within varieties and is categorized as a family that outbreeds. To control pollination I am attempting several methods. One way to negate insect pollination is just growing the type for seed collection within a different group such as one variety from Cucurbita, for example,C. Pepo grown only in the field with C. Maxima. Otherwise, the correct ‘open-pollinated’ isolation distance for two summer squash types is 1-2 miles! The most common way to control pollination within this plant family is covering/taping some of the female and male blossoms right before they open, pollinating the female with the male blossom, and then taping the female bloom until fruit set3. You have to repeat several sets of this technique to maintain the existing population genetics and mark the fruit to collect clearly. Covering the entire target seed crop with insect barrier cloth can also help control unintentional pollination.
Crop specific charts are invaluable to learn isolation distances needed for collecting pure strains4. Another consideration is the minimum number of plants to grow to maintain the genetic diversity of the species. If you only grow one or two plants, this will end up being a small genetic pool for important characteristics such as adaptability, disease resistance, uniform size and color, and maturity time. Also, if the plant interbreeds with just a few plants, this may cause ‘genetic depression,5’ which greatly weakens the plant, fruit and seed quality. Roguing is also important, which is removing the less desirable plants and fruit from the collection process. It is also important to determine the desired plant characteristics (phenotype) and ability to withstand disease and drought conditions. I never collect seed from a plant that has any overt sign of disease, especially viruses.
In my collection and seed-saving efforts in the last seven years, I have seen some amazing transformations in some varieties’ seed banks. ‘Hopi Red’ amaranth seed that I have collected and grown for a few seasons improved in both vigor (many seed heads) and stature (3 feet to 12 feet). Brandywine tomato ‘Ben Quisenberry,’ named for the plant breeder that maintained and improved this heirloom for many years, is another variety that is a success and standard on the farm. The local pepper landrace ‘Cañoncito’ that has been grown in one field for more than 150 years had less than 5% wilt in 20111 in several farm trials, and year after year it is decreasing. And we are finally collecting onions that have been out-selected within a few seasons, that both bulb and overwinter and aren’t sensitive to our day length.2
National conferences such as the Organic Seed Growers Conference 3 and local seed exchanges can be a great source for learning seed saving and to share seeds. One important source is Seed Savers Exchange and their annual yearbook publication of seed sharing4. Last year’s seed exchange at Northern New Mexico College had a massive turnout. I was mobbed for the local seed I brought to share (much to my delight). This coming year promises more local seed exchanges in Cañoncito near Dixon and UNM-Taos. We will encourage others to both save the seed they collect and bring seeds to share with others.
The biggest reason to work at mastering seed saving and distribute seed locally was not so obvious at first. I may not have a second chance to collect a specific seed bank from another farmer; the seed I depend on may disappear or change. Also having a local seed system in place helps farming become sustainable locally and may withstand any changing weather conditions. I observed a drastic change in seed quality this year in a standard cucumber I grow. In trials with this cucumber four different manufacturer years were grown side by side. Two years looked somewhat similar, but the other two plantings were not uniform, or even the same fruit shape, and had more disease and nutrient issues. In the current post-transgenic plant environment, it is vital to be able to execute an offensive and save the seed I need to farm, including cover crops and make these tasks part of my harvesting work. The quality of the seed is also much better over time if grown in my own fields since seed banks can acclimate to field environments.
I finally organized my seed banks and am adding the 2011 collected seed. The ‘Hopi Pink’ flour corn did re-appear, much to my relief. I had placed one large box in the house away from the animals and birds and immediately took these off the cobs and placed them in ball jars. I will be distributing the seed in 2013 after I grow it out next year. I don’t want to be the only ‘seeds person’ holding this rare irreplaceable seed or any other again.
L. Acuña Sandoval is an organic farmer, researcher and a faculty member at UNM-Taos. She actively maintains a local northern New Mexico seed bank and a research farm in Dixon, NM.
1 – National Plant Germplasm USDA, http://www.ars-grin.gov/npgs
3 – http://c4puertas.org/, Sharon Henderson, Programs Manager
4 – Josha Cravens, Project Director of Arid Crop Seed Cache
5 – “Seed to Seed: seed saving and growing techniques for vegetable gardeners,” by Suzanne Ashworth, Kent Whealy – Seed Savers Exchange (2002) – Paperback –228 pages – ISBN 1882424581
6 – For commercial production. Home use is less distance. “A Seed Saving Guide for farmers and Gardeners” Organic Seed Alliance, downloadable pdf file: http://www.seedalliance.org/Publications
7 – “Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners,” by Suzanne Ashworth, Kent Whealy – Seed Savers Exchange (2002) pp. 99-104, ISBN 1882424581
8 – http://www.seedalliance.org/Publications/, “A Seed Saving Guide for Farmers and Gardeners” Organic Seed Alliance, pp. 25-27
9 – “Recent approaches to the genetic basis of inbreeding depression in plants,” David E. Carr, et al, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B (2003) 358, 1071-1084
10 – “Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (WSARE) grant 2011-2013, FW11-030, “Pepper (Capsicum annum) Cultivation, Conservation, and Soil Ecology in Low-Input and Certified Organic Agricultural Systems,” Principal Investigator: Loretta Sandoval.
11 – “Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades: The Complete Guide to Natural Gardening” Steve Soloman, 368 pages, Sasquatch Books; 5th edition (01/07/02), ISBN-10: 1570612404, pp. 327-328
13 – http://www.seedsavers.org/Content.aspx?src=membership.htm
About the author
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