Posted: Thursday, September 30, 2010 9:00 AM
Steve Brown/Capital Press
Phil Dinsmore, who farms at Midori Farms, describes the difficulty in drying spinach seed when the weather is so cool and wet. ÒYou really need some infrastructure for a commercial scale of production.Ó
By STEVE BROWN
PORT TOWNSEND, Wash. -- In an agricultural world dominated by biotech and patented seeds, many small farmers turn to the oldest trick in the book: They're saving their seeds.
When hunters and gatherers settled down and started seed-saving 10,000 or 12,000 years ago, they chose to preserve the seeds of their most desirable crops, those that were the best, the biggest and the tastiest.
One group leading the charge of teaching those old ways is the nonprofit Organic Seed Alliance, whose program director Micaela Colley recently led a score of young farmers through the time-tested steps of selecting and saving seed.
"Collecting and replanting seeds is how ag started," she said. "Each time you select which seeds to save, you're steering the population in the direction you want it to go, preferably toward variety improvement rather than variety decline. If a pepper doesn't taste good to you, don't save the seeds off that plant."
Small growers who save their seeds preserve future heirlooms, they have more independence, they save money and they learn a valuable tradition.
Also, she said, saving seeds helps meet the requirements of organic certification.
"Size matters," Colley said. "Larger, healthier seeds save longer and have a more vigorous start. There's more endosperm for that first meal."
Raising plants with the intention of saving seeds requires a few different tactics. Annual plants need to be started early enough in the season for seed to mature. Biennials require exposure to sufficient cold, and they're often planted in late summer.
"Oftentimes, to keep them from getting too cold, you dig them up and put them in cold storage," she said. "Removing them from the ground also helps you select for what looks best -- for example, less hair on the carrots."
To assure raising true-to-type self-pollinating plants, such as peas, lettuce and tomatoes, seeds need be gathered from only a few plants. But for cross-breeders like corn, squash and beets, seed should be collected from a greater number of plants.
Allowing a plant to go to seed leads to a much larger plant, Colley said. More space needs to be allowed, along with sufficient airflow, water, fertilizer and attention to weed and pest management.
Colley, along with farmers Hanako Myers and Phil Dinsmore, demonstrated techniques of harvesting and saving the seed, with practices little changed over the ages.
When seeds start falling from the seed head, it's time to collect and clean them, separating seed from chaff by winnowing, either with a fan or using a breeze. For wet seeds, such as tomatoes or squash, allowing them to ferment helps separate the seed from the vegetable material. All seeds, once they're cleaned, need to be dried immediately to prevent germination.
Specific recommendations are available on the Organic Seed Alliance website.
Most seed crops are best suited to particular climates:
* Cool season dry (temperatures rarely exceed 80 degrees F -- Northwestern Washington): spinach, cabbage, cauliflower, cilantro, beets, parsnips, arugula
* Warm season dry (temperatures rarely exceed 90 degrees F -- Southwestern Washington, Oregon's Willamette Valley): broccoli, chard, celery, peas, parsley, kale, lettuce, favas
* Hot season dry (temperatures often above 90 degrees F -- Columbia Basin, Southern Idaho, Central and Eastern Oregon, interior valleys of California): garden beans, dry beans, limas, carrots, onions, sweet corn, edamame
* Hot season wet (moderate to high humidity -- no ideal regions in Northwest or California): cucumbers, squash, melons, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant