Scientists, farmers, and chefs are developing new varieties of produce from heirloom seeds. It will make life better for organic farmers—and yummier for everyone else.
by Kristin Ohlson
December 9, 2014
Sarah Kleeger pointed to a goldfinch perched on a waist-high millet plant and scowled, tightening her grip as the black cat in her arms twitched with interest. “That bird is just looking at us.”
“I’d like to shoot all the birds,” said Andrew Still, her husband and business partner.
“We don’t shoot birds,” Kleeger clarified for me.
“Yes, but I’d like to shoot them,” Andrew said. “We just lost half our crop of Castelfranco chicory seeds to the birds.”
Kleeger, 35, and Still, 34, can be forgiven their avian antipathy. They don’t sell the Castelfranco chicory or Red Bull brussels sprouts or Aprovecho fava beans or the hundreds of other vegetables they grow in their fields. Their plants don’t look like produce—they are all tall and shaggy, even the three-foot lettuces rattling with seeds. Kleeger and Still sell the seeds from these plants to other farmers through Adaptive Seeds, the small company they founded on their five-acre organic farm in Sweet Home, Ore., in 2009. The birds, not unreasonably, consider Adaptive Seeds’ products their food.
Later, Still squatted and plucked two dwarf Danish melons, pale yellow with green stripes and not much bigger than billiard balls. The couple brought the seeds for these melons from Europe, along with seeds of 800 other varieties of food crops, with the hope that in addition to their good taste and texture the fruit might show robust performance in organic fields in the Pacific Northwest, which, like Denmark, is typically not melon territory. So far the Danish melon experiment is going great. “I’m looking for my ideal melon,” Still said. “Medium-small that’s green and juicy and sweet, with early traits. Northwest adapted, so that it matures in August and not late September.”
That would give farmers more choice of what to plant, potentially raising their incomes, and the ability to pass that choice on to consumers. Gesticulating with one of the diminutive Danish fruit, Still said, “Our goal is to create a healthier, more resilient and sustainable food system. We need to correct the problems of the industrial food system, and seeds are one way to do that.”
Adaptive Seeds has a John Deere combine that’s not quite old enough to appear in a parade of vintage farm equipment at a 4-H fair, a shed overflowing with garlic, a winnowing room where Still dumps seeds from one bucket to another in front of a window fan that blows away the chaff, and an office where they handle seed orders from down the road and around the globe. Kleeger and Still’s living room is full of corn, hanging to dry from racks near the ceiling, for next year’s catalog.
The couple began working on an organic farm right after college but were dismayed to find, over dozens of seasons raising and selling vegetables, that farmers planted the same handful of varieties year after year. That seemed limiting. They decided to seek out varieties of vegetables not available in the United States and spent their savings on the trip to Europe, collecting seeds from varieties that seemed promising. Today they are leaders in a movement that could alter local food systems and economies, as well as strengthen the hand of organic and small farmers.
In January, I joined 430 self-described “seedheads” at the seventh Organic Seed Growers Conference in Corvallis, Ore., hosted by the Organic Seed Alliance, a national organization based in Port Townsend, Wash., that encourages and teaches farmers to select and save seed, and organizes collaborations among plant breeders, seed companies, chefs, millers, brewers, and others both up- and downstream from organic farms.
The conference thrummed with the buzz of farmers growing seed; plant breeders from universities; representatives of seed libraries, seed cooperatives, and seed companies of varying sizes; and seed enthusiasts from foundations, public policy groups, and student organizations. It confused me at first. Wasn’t organic seed just seed plucked from plants grown without chemicals, and if so, what was the big deal? Even though I skew heavily organic in my shopping and eating, it had never occurred to me to object to an organically raised tomato or cabbage grown from the seed of a nonorganically grown plant. I assumed organic cultivation rendered its origins moot.
Over the course of two days of talking to seedheads from across North America, I discovered that there’s more to organic food than what’s aboveground. Organic farmers want organic seed for the same reason they want to grow their crops organically: They prefer seeds not produced with chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and other tools of industrial agriculture. Federal guidelines set in 2000 require the use of organic seed in organic production, but farmers are allowed to use conventional seed if it is not available commercially. Many certified growers still avail themselves of that loophole—there just aren’t enough good sources of these seeds.
This is one problem Kleeger and Still are addressing. The bigger issue is that there aren’t enough varieties of wheat, lettuce, corn, or anything else, really, bred specifically for organic production.
“The basic adage in plant breeding is that you breed in the environment of intended use,” explained Micaela Colley, OSA’s executive director. Conventional seeds cultivated organically are going against that adage, which places organic farmers at a disadvantage. In other words, crop varieties for conventional agriculture are bred to flourish in fields with intense chemical inputs—not just the vast rows of GMO corn and soybeans, our nation’s biggest crops, but also the smaller fields where tomatoes and spinach and other produce are grown. According to a recent survey by Consumer Reports, 84 percent of Americans say they buy organic at least some of the time. But when varieties aren’t bred for organic cultivation—in which roots need to be vigorous enough to scavenge for nutrients and stalks and stems must soldier on without sprays to protect them from insects, disease, and weeds—they’re likely to produce less. Plants grown organically from conventional seed don’t perform as well as they should be able to, or as well as conventionally grown alternatives. The lack of organic seed and of plant varieties developed for organic production may be one of the reasons that organic fields only occupy 6 percent of American vegetable acreage.
If the seedheads are able to reduce this deficit of organic varieties, more organic produce at a lower price may result. At Washington State University’s Mount Vernon Research Center, wheat breeder Jones—famous in seed circles for having rebuffed Monsanto’s bid to have him develop GMO wheat—oversees projects that are developing new wheat, barley, and oat varieties for both traditional and organic farming in Washington’s Skagit Valley. “We’re developing new varieties for flavor and functionality that have four to ten times the yield,” Jones told me. “This will eventually bring down the cost.”
We’re developing new varieties of grains for flavor and functionality that have four to ten times the yield. This will eventually bring down the cost.
— Prof. Stephen S. Jones, Washington State University
Agriculture has been around for some 10,000 years, and until the 20th century, farmers saved seed that had produced desirable traits, such as sturdiness or large size, to plant again the following year. The practice changed food over the centuries as distinct varieties evolved in regions around the world, with modern plant breeders swapping pollen between two varieties with desirable traits, planting the offspring, and growing those that came out the best, generation after generation, until a new variety was stabilized.
We know some of these older varieties as “heirloom” seeds, a term that began to appear in seed catalogs like Johnny’s Selected Seeds in the 1970s. Commercial hybrids developed in the 20th century had advantages: high yields, produce that ripened at the same time, uniform size and shape. Some transported and stored better. That suited the production standards of agribusiness just fine. But a generation of organic farmers turned eagerly to heirlooms in the following years for a number of reasons—not least of which was the food tasted better.
Heirlooms were prized for their flavor and texture, but they often had major drawbacks for farmers trying to make an organic living. “The heirloom tomatoes tasted great, but they often cracked and didn’t ship well,” recalls Navazio, who became an organic farmer in the 1970s and later learned traditional plant breeding, earning a Ph.D. in plant breeding at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “You could hardly even take them to town to sell them,” he says. Today he works at Johnny’s Select Seeds in Maine. “There was no one breeding varieties for the farmer marketing high-quality organic produce on a local scale.”
Some non-heirloom hybrids worked decently in an organic system. But the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s 1980 decision to allow the patenting of life-forms, among other factors, led to consolidation in the seed industry. Big corporations started buying up small regional companies and increased their focus on splicing together traits to create patentable seeds (many of them with genes from altogether different species, ergo GMOs). Meanwhile, many of the hybrids that organic and other small farmers found most useful were soon forgotten.
“The big companies narrowed their offerings to focus on seeds that have the largest market, such as varieties that either do well in a lot of locations or ones that are used in centers of large-scale agricultural production like the Sacramento Valley,” OSA’s Colley says. “But the varieties that have a smaller market share often have unique qualities [beneficial to] regional growers—say, sweet corn that ripens quicker in northern latitudes, which is not a sweet-corn-growing area.” In 2000 alone, more than 2,000 hybrids disappeared from the marketplace when Seminis—at the time the world’s largest vegetable seed company—bought several smaller companies. Now it’s part of Monsanto, which has stopped producing these hybrids.
At the same time, one of the major avenues for developing new varieties was also shrinking. Land grant universities founded in the 1800s to help improve agriculture saw funding cuts and changes to federal policy, including the 1982 Bayh-Dole Act, which encouraged the transfer of publicly funded research to the private sector. The number of researchers dedicated to cultivar development in public universities has fallen 30 percent in the last 20 years, according to a recent survey conducted by Bill Tracy, chair of the Department of Agronomy at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
By the early 1980s, organic farmers were conferring about their need for improved varieties and well-produced seed. Frank Morton—now the plant breeder and seed seller behind Wild Garden Seed in Philomath, Ore.—recalls going to a meeting in 1984 at which a molecular biologist known as Mushroom stood up and announced, “If you grow organic crops, you need organic seeds. Those seeds don’t exist, and we have to create them.”
“It blew my mind,” said Morton.
Morton’s work inspires Kleeger and Still and others around the world. His varieties are grown in many countries and even in space: Outredgeous, one of his most popular lettuces—so named for leaves so red that the botany students who first saw it didn’t recognize it as lettuce—is being grown on the International Space Station. (It grows quickly, has a high concentration of antioxidants, and is highly bacteria-resistant—a concern for astronauts eating raw food.)
In July, I visited Morton at the 70-acre organic farm where he raises seeds between rows of organic crops grown for food. He offers a dazzling 81 varieties of lettuce in his catalog, created by selecting lettuces with certain traits, crossing them, and then carefully breeding them for years. As we walked the fields, he kept an eye out for plants with yellowed leaves or other signs of disease, for plants that were puny, for plants laced with insect bites. Even if these plants had other desirable characteristics, he would not bother saving their seed if they were not vigorous enough to flourish under organic cultivation.
Morton is a model for the kind of painstaking work good agriculture requires, as well as for the openness the new generation of seedheads expects. He does not patent his varieties. If other companies want to sell seeds grown from them, he wants them to pay him a 10 percent royalty. It’s a handshake agreement, and it’s worked so far. Morton assumes other breeders will shape new varieties from his and adapt them to other regions’ growing conditions and other customers’ flavor preferences. Which is to say he expects people to use his seeds as people have used seed for centuries.
Selman is a research assistant in the Organic Vegetable Research program at Oregon State University and a researcher with one of the big OSA research efforts called the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative. Since NOVIC started in 2009, it has helped bring together plant breeders and researchers from Cornell University, Oregon State University, the University of Washington, Wisconsin-Madison, OSA, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to work with farmers to breed varieties that perform well in the shorter growing seasons of northerly regions, where many organic farmers must start seeds in greenhouses and transplant the shoots to their fields when the weather warms. NOVIC wanted to develop varieties that might eliminate that step and even help farmers grow crops rarely attempted in these environments—for example, sweet corn in Washington.
NOVIC set out to test varieties that could replace Gypsy. Selman soon discovered some likely candidates among the produce at the stand she manages for Gathering Together Farm, of Philomath, Ore., at the Portland farmers market. It turned out that Morton, in response to requests from his farmer friends at Gathering Together, had already bred five new sweet peppers that grew beautifully in the Pacific Northwest. Unbeknownst to the other farmers desperate for a successor to Gypsy, Gathering Together was growing them and sending them to market.
NOVIC’s trials confirmed that Morton’s peppers grew as well as, if not better than, Gypsy. But every Saturday morning at the farmers market, Selman had to face another constituency: Portland’s picky chefs, who were still pining for Gypsy. So in October 2011—about two years before Dan Barber convened international chefs and plant breeders at the Stone Barns Center for Agriculture in Tarrytown, N.Y., to discuss the role of seeds in selecting produce for flavor—she invited Portland chefs to Portland’s Tabla Mediterranean Bistro for a special tasting of 10 peppers. At the end of the evening, the chefs’ top three choices were all Morton varieties, including one called Stocky Red Roaster.
It quickly moved into the space in the chefs’ hearts formerly occupied by Gypsy, and now chefs come to the farmers market asking for it. Selman hopes that the chefs and ultimately consumers will become aware of the breeders behind all the varieties. “Restaurants already drop the names of farms on the menus,” she says. “I’d like to see something like ‘This month, you’re eating Stocky Red Roaster, a variety developed by Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed.’ ”
In late September, more than 100 farmers, chefs, and food aficionados cruised a party room in the back of Chris King Precision Components, a Portland bike factory. The event was sponsored by the Culinary Breeding Network, which was organized in the aftermath of the 2011 red-pepper tasting in Portland. The group includes plant breeders, seed growers, fresh market farmers, chefs, and produce buyers who are developing a vision and an agenda for vegetables in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a fusion of the agricultural and the culinary, of breeders, growers, and eaters, and it’s taking the concept of local food to an entirely new level.
Twelve plant breeders had turned over some of their favorite new varieties to 12 chefs to see what they could come up with. The assorted grazers sampled dishes such as hominy and shrimp soup, polenta, and caramel popcorn, prepared by Portland chef Greg Higgens from the Amish Butter corn developed by breeders Anthony and Carol Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm in Gaston, Ore. Breeders also brought along samples of varieties in development. Guests filled out questionnaires: Which of the mild habañeros offered up at one table had the best flavor, color, shape, size, and pungency? How did the cherry tomatoes at another table fare in terms of appearance, flavor, sugar-acid balance, aftertaste, and skin thickness?
Selman calls this “community-driven plant breeding.” She’s planning more such events, and hopes to hold “farm days” in which chefs walk the fields looking for varieties that please their eye. She wants chefs and breeders to meet with a flavor consultant, who will teach them to speak the same language in matters of the palate. As far as she knows, this kind of thing “is not going on anywhere else in the country.
Sarah Kleeger and Andrew Still were at the bike-factory party. They brought Adaptive Seeds onions and its seed catalog, with its many varieties new to Americans. Unlike Frank Morton’s Wild Garden Seed catalog, which I saw tucked under the arms of many a guest, Kleeger and Still’s catalog wasn’t crammed with varieties they’ve bred themselves. But they’re eager for the challenge of adding their own innovations to the Northwest’s agriculture and cuisine. “We’re lucky,” Kleeger told me. “We’ve got another thirty years to do this.”
The burgeoning network represented that night could provide new resources for farmers and may help the chefs it’s pulled into the mix expand the possibilities of local food and what it tastes like.
“The more people getting involved in seed projects, the better,” says Matthew Dillon, who cofounded OSA in 2004 and is now the director of Seed Matters, an arm of the Clif Bar Family Foundation, which advocates for the improvement and protection of organic seed. “For the last 50 years, there’s just been a handful of people and companies controlling our seed future and thus our food future. The more public-based seed projects that are going on, the harder it’s going to be for companies that want to control via patents to win. They can’t come and take it all.”
Kristin Ohlson has written for The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Salon, Smithsonian, Discover, Gourmet, and many others. Her book The Soil Will Save Us was published in March by Rodale.