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Turns out, the Future of Food Lies in These Old Seeds

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's All About Organics page, Organic Transitions page and our Environment and Climate Resource Center page.

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.  

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