Executive director Cara Loriz says that by teaching farmers and gardeners how to save seed, they’re also saving our cultural heritage.
THIS SUMMER, Cara Loriz can be found in the fertile fields south of Port Townsend among organic carrot, spinach, pepper and corn plants, with bees and butterflies buzzing in colorful dahlias, poppies and zinnias. As executive director of the nonprofit Organic Seed Alliance, Loriz oversees this bountiful research farm at Finnriver Farm & Cidery, where new vegetable varieties are tested and bred.
Organic Seed Alliance, the leading seed institution in the nation, is committed to meeting farmers’ seed needs through research, education and advocacy.
Before the industrialization of agriculture, Loriz explains, farmers were more self-sufficient, selecting and saving their best seeds for the following year. While industrialization brought efficiencies in food production, two downsides were a decrease in the diversity of foods and a loss of adaptation to regional climates. Uniformity was king. Today, most seed is supplied by a handful of large corporations, Loriz says, and most of that seed might not do well in organic gardens and farms.
OSA works to increase access to organic and savable seed. “It is part of our common cultural heritage,” Loriz says. To put seed back in the hands of farmers, OSA teaches farmers and gardeners across the country how to select and save seed. A free guide can be downloaded on the OSA website.
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“As we like to say, ‘Seed is food, and seed is hope,’ ” Loriz says. “We help farmers develop the skills and knowledge to control their own seed supply and build back the diversity of our food supply.” A Community Field Day will be held Oct. 1, free and open to the public.
Loriz points out that selection is not engineering. “Farmers have been selecting the best since the dawn of time. It is a traditional practice. You’re not changing anything genetically.”
In addition to climate, factors that farmers and OSA staff consider when selecting vegetable seed include drought- and pest-resistance, taste, size, color, bolting time, germination rate and yield.
A plant breeding project can take decades. Sam McCullough, field manager at Nash’s Organic Produce on the Olympic Peninsula, explains why: “In my lifetime, if I can get 40 generations of cabbage — which is a biennial — at best, I might get five or 10 years that are excellent.”
Nash’s has been breeding vegetable seeds for more than 25 years, optimized for organic conditions. The farm produces almost all of its grain, legume and corn seed, as well as a lot of vegetable seed for its own use and on contract. “Each year, we are growing more and more of our regionally adapted seed,” McCullough says.
Breeding also results in new products at markets and restaurants. Purple-sprouted broccoli is a current example. Farmers were eager for a novel vegetable in late winter and early spring, when little else is harvestable from fields. Purple-sprouting broccoli was selected by OSA and the Washington State Department of Agriculture and, eight years later, it’s showing up at PCC stores.
“It’s an old vegetable that’s been adapted to this region and this climate,” Loriz says. “Plus, it’s a beautiful color and tastes delicious.” OSA’s goal is to ensure wide commercial availability, and staff members are working with chefs and retailers to spread the word and build demand.
“We hope people will see purple-sprouting broccoli as a sure sign of spring and will be excited to see it,” Loriz says.
For farmers interested in planting it, now is the time. Contact OSA to find out how to get organic seed.
Who knows? Maybe purple will be the new green. And, if OSA is successful, farmers will once again be the keepers of the seeds of the future.