Regionally Adapted Seed: Sow what?
Each seed tells the story of its entire life history, millions of years in the making. A few seeds, in a single generation, may travel the globe. But most will stay within their watershed and, most likely, their microclimate. In this way, seeds become profoundly adapted to place. The selection pressures of the environment (precipitation, temperatures, nutrients levels, and so on) are key in the evolution of every seed.
Agricultural seed tells an additional story, one of human relationship. Historically these seeds remained less dynamic, slowly adapting to place and spreading first on our backs, then by camel, then by boat. Fast forward to 2013: most seed companies offer seed from all over the world.
A bit of history
If ‘regional seed’ is seed becoming adapted to a bioregion, then all seed before World War I was regional. Farmers in both industrialized and developing nations saved their own seed. Integral to their livelihood, maintaining good seedstock was equally important as keeping a good bull for livestock. Over time, each variety was selected to meet the environmental conditions and farmer’s needs on the farm.
After World War I, hybrid corn set the stage and began the transition away from regional seed. Slowly at first but dominating the market within forty years, farm-grown seed was replaced by seed developed elsewhere and that would not grow true in future generations if saved. As a result, seed has become just another commodity (like fertilizer and pesticide) that all farms purchase annually.
Most of us share a blind faith that our seed is produced by the companies selling them. This is most often not the case.
Today, most seed is grown where the climate favors commercial dry seed production, such as the Pacific Northwest and Israel. Much of this seed is adapted to modern agricultural techniques (mechanization, increased external inputs), allowing for wide adaptation and the high yields resulting from significant inputs (fertilizer). Furthermore, breeding for resistance to pests and disease is rarely prioritized, relying heavily on chemical applications, resulting in varieties adapted to these sprays.
Does regional seed matter?
Each region has specific resources, growing challenges and market opportunities. Regional seed is uniquely able to excel within these needs and conditions.
Fruition Seeds provides seed grown organically and adapted for the Northeast.
“Without a company to serve the market, how do we have access to such genetics?” asks Dr. Michael Mazourek, assistant professor in the Plant Breeding and Genetics Department at Cornell University. “Seed customized to our growing conditions gives us freedom from ‘making do’ with what serves major national markets. A region’s ability to have vibrant, productive seed is critical.”
“Each farm is unique, especially each organic farm,” observes Michael Glos, also with Cornell’s Plant Breeding and Genetics. Ten years ago, Michael started saving kale seed on his own farm and has grown that seed ever since. “Regional seed is important, nothing can replace seed selected on the conditions of your specific farm.”
Conventional seed produced with quick-release fertilizer and pesticide may perform with little variation between farms. But organic systems have a spectrum of variables for seed to respond to, increasing the significance of regional seed to success.
Will Bonsall, Director of the Scatterseed project in Maine, has been saving seed for decades and has witnessed the impact of regional and on-farm selection in many crops.
“Wheat bred for the prairie soils of the grain belt, rather than the forest soils of the Northeast, are notably different,” he says. “Additional breeding for yield has neglected the flavor, nutrition and bread-making qualities of wheat.”
Regional seed, like local food, is too important to our lives to be fringe for long. The seed we have now is good. But truly excellent, well-adapted and regional seed is our privilege to cultivate. With the collaboration of seed companies, universities and individual growers, there is a strong foundation for a regional seed supply in the Northeast.
At Fruition Seeds, we wake grateful every day for the opportunity to make a difference; humbled by the potential of each seed in our care. Join us in growing, saving, sharing and celebrating organic, open pollinated, regionally adapted seed in the Northeast!