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Farmers & Gardeners in Eastern U.S. Launch SOS/Save our Seeds Project

Producing our own Regional Organic Seed Supply

(The article below was excerpted and adapted by Mark Schonbeck, from his
article that will be posted on the New Farm web site
( in early 2005, and from project updates by Save Our
Seeds Coordinator Cricket Rakita. For more information, email

"Seed is the missing link in sustainable agriculture. There is a sense that
seed is something you buy out of a catalog, like food from the grocery
store. We need to do this work ourselves, to move beyond seed saving as
hobby, to seed selection as integrated part of the sustainable agricultural
-- John Navazio, Plant breeder, February 2004, Louisa, VA

Are you concerned about corporate control of our seed supply and the loss of
traditional vegetable and other crop varieties?

Would you like to help secure a regional seed supply for crop varieties that
will perform well under sustainable management in our climates and soils?

Would you like to explore organic crop seed production as a farm enterprise?

Are you certified organic and need help identifying sources of organic seed
as required by the USDA standards?

SAVE OUR SEEDS (SOS) has established a NETWORK of growers and seed savers in
VIRGINIA, the CAROLINAS and GEORGIA to address these needs. In the fall of
2003, the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA) and nine partner
organizations received a SARE grant to launch the SOS project.

SOS Project goals are to begin laying the groundwork for meeting certified
organic growers' needs for organic seed, to maintain heirloom and
locally-adapted varieties, to give farmers greater control over crop
germplasm, and eventually to breed and select varieties for our crops and

During its first season, SOS conducted a farmer survey to identify priority
crops for organic seeds, held intensive hands-on seed production workshops,
published the first four in a series of seed production guides, developed
and trained a network of over 30 seed growers, and produced small quantities
of organic vegetable seed to be marketed in 2005 through Southern Exposure
Seed Exchange (SESE), a small seed company specializing in heirloom and
locally-produced seed in Mineral, VA.

Initial survey results identified tomatoes, beans of all kinds (snap, dry,
edamame, cowpea), and cover crops as highest priorities. Tomato varieties
successfully harvested include 'Mortgage Lifter,' 'Verna Orange,' 'Tropic,'
and a new 'Large Mennonite Beefsteak.' Beans include the older bush
varieties 'Contender' and 'Provider' for which organic seed has not been
previously available, 'Black Seeded Kentucky Wonder' and 'Potomac' pole
beans, and a green-podded, red-seeded asparagus bean. Potomac is an 1880s
heirloom from the Potomac River region that emerges well from cool soil.
Two growers are also producing 'Wrens Abruzzi' rye, a cover crop variety
that shows superior biomass production and weed suppression.

During the 2005 season, project coordinators plan to continue and expand the
process, adding three more priority crops identified through an ongoing
grower survey; growing a wider range of cover crops including
sorghum-sudangrass, browntop millet, velvetbean and arrowleaf clover; and
producing larger quantities of marketable quality organic seed for several
bean and tomato varieties.

SOS workshops are top notch. In addition to sharing their own expertise,
the project leaders bring in other talent, such as crop breeder John
Navazio, who manages the Organic Seed Alliance in Washington State
(, Tom Stearns, founder of High Mowing
Seeds, an all-organic seed company in Vermont (,
and Maryland grower Brett Grohsgal, who has selected cold-hardy brassica
greens that yield market quality harvest throughout the winter at his
Maryland farm, as well as disease-resistant tomatoes and peppers.

Workshops cover all aspects of the process, including whole farm planning,
cultural practices for different crops, minimum populations and isolation
distances to maintain varietal integrity, roguing and selection, harvesting
and cleaning the seed, seed storage, germination and vigor testing, and
disease prevention and management.

Interested? Here are some ways to get involved.

Attend a Workshop:

The next one will be held on Thursday, February 24th, 2005 in Louisa, VA,
from 8:30 am through 5:00 pm. Introduction to Seed Saving, with renowned
seed saver Jeff McCormack, will cover the functional requirements of crop
families, variety selection, plant selection, roguing, nutrient and
ecosystem management, population genetics, and isolation distance for
raising high quality seed for the Southeast. There will also be discussion
of integrating seed saving and market growing. Breakfast and Lunch are

Other workshops will be scheduled during the coming season. Check the SOS
web site, http:///

Participate in the ongoing Survey:

We invite all farmers and gardeners in our region to let us know their
priorities - crops for which you have had a hard time finding organic seed.
You can fill out the survey on line at:

Become an Organic Seed Producer for the 2005 Season:

We seek growers who are keenly interested in organic seed production to help
us produce organic, locally adapted vegetable and cover crop seeds in the
2005 season. Experience in certified organic farming and/or growing seed is
strongly preferred. Explore a potential new enterprise for your farm, while
helping to secure a reliable supply of locally adapted, public seed
varieties for our region. Contact Ira Wallace or Cricket Rakita. See
sidebar for contact information.

Help for Certified Organic Growers:

The current USDA Organic Standards, requiring the certified grower to use
organically grown seed "if commercially available," places the onus of proof
on the organic grower. Certified growers need help in tracking down organic
seed sources of the varieties they want to grow, and in documenting due
diligence in attempting to do so before planting non-organic seed. SOS has
responded to this need with a new Certified Organic Seed Sourcing Service
initiated in January 2005.

To utilize this service send a list of all of the crops and cultivars
(varieties) that you will be planting, to the Save Our Seed Project, along
with the quantities of seed needed. In turn, we will promptly send you a
list of all of the certified organic sources for every variety. For any
variety for which no organic seed sources exist, we will send full
documentation of this fact that you can submit to your certification agent.

Here at the Save Our Seed Project, we have been working hard to document all
crop varieties for which organic seed is currently available. Our list
includes seeds, tubers (e.g. potatoes, garlic), and rootstocks. Not yet
available in 2005 are mixtures (e.g. summer mesclun), trees, and seedlings.

This service is available free of charge for the 2005 season. Growers can
submit their lists by fax, mail, email to, or
online at If the service is
successful this year, we hope to expand it next year. Courtney Guido, Seed
Sourcing Service Coordinator, Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, 49
Circle D Dr., Colbert, GA 30628. Tel. (706) 788-0017, fax 706-788-0071.

A Brief Introduction to the Art of Seed Saving:

Producing good crop seeds is even more challenging and knowledge-intensive
than growing market-quality, organic vegetables. Thus in addition to the
intensive, one- to three-day workshops, SOS provides individual technical
support to participating growers throughout the process of producing
marketable organic seed.

Each crop has its own cultural requirements, minimum populations, isolation
distance needed between varieties, and specific conditions for seed
maturation, harvest and processing. One main distinction is between crops
that are mostly self-pollinated, and those that are mostly cross-pollinated
by wind or insects. The latter require larger isolation distances, and can
suffer from "inbreeding depression" if seeds are collected from too small a
population (see sidebar). For example, if a gardener collects seed from
only 50 bulbs of a favorite onion variety, seed and crop quality will
deteriorate within a few generations.

Most varieties require careful roguing (removing weak and off-type plants)
and selection to maintain or improve them. The trick is to select
sufficiently to maintain varietal integrity and adaptation to local
conditions, yet not so narrowly as to lose vital genetic diversity. Another
guideline is to take good care of the seed crop as you would any other crop
- but don't "baby" it. Moderate exposure to the stresses that normally
occur in your location - weather extremes, pests, diseases, etc. - will help
select crop strains that are well adapted to your region and more resistant
to these stresses.

The following crops are primarily Self Pollinators. They require small
populations (25-100 individuals) to maintain genetic base, and moderate
isolation distances (75-600 ft) to maintain varietal integrity. Peas, beans
(common, lima, fava and soy), tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, okra, lettuce,
endive, oats, wheat, barley.

The following crops are primarily Cross Pollinators. They require large
populations (200+ individuals) to maintain genetic base, and large isolation
distances (1/4 mile to 1 mile) to maintain varietal integrity. Cabbage,
broccoli, mustard, radish and other members of the brassica family; spinach,
beets and chard; onions and other alliums; squash, cucumber, melons and
other cucurbits; carrots, celery and other members of carrot family;
asparagus, corn, rye, clovers.

Closely-related vegetables will cross with one another and must be isolated
for seed production. These include:

--Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi and some kales.
--Chinese cabbage, bok choy, oriental greens, Russian kale and some
--Zucchini, yellow summer, acorn, delicata and spaghetti squash, and some
--Buttercup, hubbard, red kouri squash and most giant pumpkins.
--Beets and chard.

Certain crops are biennial crops, requiring two seasons to form seed. These
include carrot, beet, parsnip, chard, onions, leeks, cabbage and some other
brassicas. Parsnips can be mulched and left in the ground over winter,
whereas most of the rest require careful storage in a good root cellar over
the winter between vegetative and seed production years.

Wet Seed crops, whose seeds are borne in fleshy fruits, may require a wet
fermentation process to separate seed and remove germination inhibitors, and
are generally easy to produce in moist climates. These include squash,
cucumber, pumpkin and other cucurbits; tomatoes, eggplant and peppers.

Crops with dry seed enclosed in a pod, must dry thoroughly on the plant.
They are challenging to produce in moist climates, as they may mold or
shatter if rainy weather occurs during seed maturation. These include peas
and beans; cabbage, mustard and other members of the brassica family; and

Crops with dry exposed seed are the most difficult to grow for seed in our
moist climates. Their seeds are exposed to the weather, must dry thoroughly
on plant, and may suffer mold or other disease if any rain occurs during
maturation. A hoophouse or other rain shelter is needed for successful
production in this region. These crops include lettuce, chard, spinach,
beets, onions, carrots and other members of the carrot family.

Cultural needs can differ radically from the same vegetable grown for fresh
produce. For instance, lettuce grown for salad stays in the ground for only
a few weeks, whereas it requires four months to produce mature seed. During
this time, the crop must be protected from fungal diseases, especially the
maturing seed heads. Spinach and chard both appreciate fairly cool, moist
weather for greens production, and temperatures above 85°F can stop seed
development, yet the maturing seed must stay dry. Beans also require fairly
dry conditions during seed maturation. These requirements make it difficult
to produce large quantities of high quality seed in our climate. In fact,
climate is the main reason that over 90% of all the beans marketed to US
growers are grown in Idaho, and that most lettuce, spinach and beet seeds
are also produced in the western states.

This raises the question of how we can select varieties of these crops for
southeastern US climates and soils. One strategy that SOS is exploring is
to breed and select the varieties here, grow small amounts of good quality
seed (e.g. 30 lb for a bean variety), then send these lots to Idaho for
large scale production (e.g 1000 lb). Seed would be grown out west for one
generation only, then brought back to our region for continued selection for
our soils, climates and production practices.

Proper post harvest cleaning, grading, air-drying and storage are critical
for all crop seeds. Bits of leaf tissue or damaged seed in a seed lot can
promote disease and shorten shelf life. Each crop species requires specific
equipment and methods for seed cleaning and processing. For long-term
storage, a good rule of thumb is that the temperature in Fahrenheit and the
relative humidity should add up to less than 100. In addition to training
growers in the precise skills of proper seed cleaning and storage, the SOS
project is working to obtain or devise suitable equipment for cleaning,
processing and storing different types of seed on a production scale.

The challenges in seed production are great, and so are the potential
rewards. Imagine a network of skilled organic seed growers, providing a
great diversity of open pollinated, regionally adapted public varieties of
vegetable, cover crop and other crop seeds for sustainable and organic
growers in the southeastern United States. That is where the Save Our Seed
project is headed.

Save Our Seed Project Personnel and Contact Information:

Cricket Rakita, SOS Project Coordinator, 706-788-0017,

Ira Wallace, SESE Manager, 540-894-0595,

Jeff McCormack, SESE Founder and long-time sustainable plant breeder & seed

Courtney Guido, Seed Sourcing Service Coordinator,

Tony Kleese, Executive Director of CFSA,

SOS web site:

SOS Project Partners:

Carolina Farm Stewardship Association,,
919-542-2402. Lead organization for the project.

Anson Mills, Inc., 803-467-4122,

Clemson University Fertilizer and Seed Certification Services, 864-646-2140,

Georgia Crop Improvement Association, 706-542-2351,

Georgia Organics, 770-993-5534,

NCSU Cooperative Extension Service, 828-684-3562,

North Carolina Crop Improvement Association, 919-515-2851,

North Carolina Foundation Seed Producers, 919-269-5592.

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE), 540-894-9480,

Southern Seed Legacy, 706-542-1430,

Seed Production Guides:

Available on the SOS web site,

Organic Seed Processing & Storage Guide (26 pp)

Organic Tomato Seed Production Guide (14 pp)

Organic Bean Seed Production Guide (13 pp)

Isolation Distance Guide (20 pp)

Pam Browning
Policy Coordinator
National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture
110 Maryland Avenue, NE, Suite 306
Washington, DC 20002
Phone and Fax: 202-544-5466