Wednesday, July 16, 2014

On-Going Seed Projects in San Mateo County

Steve Peters, head of Seed rEvolution Now, is a research agronomist, organic farmer, and organic seed expert. Upon returning to California after an absence of over 35 years, he has been working to form connections with farmers to weave a seed network for Northern California, centered on the San Francisco Bay Area. Working with collaborators within a 100 mile radius of San Francisco, he always tries to be flexible and responsive to individual situations and needs. Here are just a few of his current projects close to home.

Considering that isolation is a key factor in avoiding contamination by unwanted pollen for certain crops, Tunitas Creek Ranch is a perfect place to do seed work. It lies hidden, well off a little-used road, and up a deep narrow valley. It's just the right distance in from the coast to be spared most of the fog. This lovely property has been carefully gardened for many years by our friend Aaron Dinwoodie.

Aaron is the son of a California farmer. He understands the value of seed adapted to his unusual site, and for quite a few seasons he has been saving seed from open pollinated crops that do well here. 

Here, for example is celeriac in bloom, promising abundant, fertile seed. It is  possible to save seeds from many types of crops in a fairly small amount of space. The key is in knowing and working with the reproductive strategy of each kind of plant.

Here is one of Aaron's beautiful vegetable gardens, where he does small-scale seed work as well as grows food. Seed saving can be done on a variety of scales, from backyard gardens to large fields requiring mechanized equipment.

In an on-going collaboration, Aaron and Steve are working together now on several trialing projects, including one for Steve's multi-headed broccoli selection, one for the tasty and nutritious Andean tuber, ulluco, and one for the remarkable Japanese angelica, ashitaba. This is just one of the many ways that Seed rEvolution Now is working to expand biodiversity, cooperation, and food sovereignty in the Bay Region.

These nice, fat, dense Nappa cabbages in Aaron's garden are a hybrid variety, which means they cannot be saved for seed. I show them as an example of the standard to which Steve is hoping to raise open-pollinated Nappa cabbage: to have dense, erect heads consistently throughout the population. There are very few OP Nappa-type Chinese cabbages available in the seed catalogs at this time. We are working to change that situation.

Down the coast a few miles lies lovely Fifth Crow Farm, where Steve has been working on several projects over the past two years, in a maritime climate that brassicas love.

This was made possible thanks to the generosity and vision of the three farmers who operate this productive organic farm: Teresa, Mike and John. Without their support, this work would not be accomplished.

They provided flats and potting soil, watered the seedlings, and donated row space and water in their fertile field. In return, Steve is working on seeds which should be of benefit to their operation, and has taught a seed saving course on the farm. This is the kind of collaboration we enjoy! Thanks, guys!

A year ago in the spring, Steve started over 700 seedlings each of two promising open-pollinated varieties: 'Early Green' broccoli and 'Nozaki Early' Nappa cabbage. Last year he grew these in a part of the farm which was infected with clubroot fungus. Any plants which showed susceptibility to the disease were removed. Thus, only those which displayed some resistance to the disease, as well as expressed good form, a dense, compact head, and were slow to bolt, were left to set seed. Seed was saved from each chosen plant individually. This spring each plant's progeny were set out in carefully labeled blocks, to further select for the best of the best.

Orange flags designate each "family" or progeny line. The goal is to reduce the population to only a few families, which will then cross pollinate to mingle and concentrate the best  genetics.

On arrival, Steve walks purposefully down the long row. doing a quick survey of how each "family" is expressing its unique genetic traits. At this point, he intends to remove any families which are below his exacting standards.

Plants are scoped out visually, and felt manually to judge the solidity of the head.

This head is beginning to go to seed, so it was pulled. Kimchee!

The culling is merciless. When trying to improve a variety, it is important to remove inferior plants before they can flower and pollinate the flowers of those you want to save. However, the culls can be eaten, sold, fed to livestock, or composted. No waste.

Broccoli goes through the same process. Needless to say, we've been eating a lot of Nappa cabbage and broccoli lately!

 A week later, the Chinese cabbage which was retained has almost all begun to bloom.

All, save this especially dense head. Apparently its leaves were so tight that the flowers were unable to emerge. It threatened to rot before it could flower. Steve really liked its quality, and decided to take drastic measures. He cut off the top of the head to open it up. We have seen that cauliflower does much better when two-thirds of the "curds" are removed before it bolts, giving the remaining flowering branches more room to emerge. Steve's hoping the same principle will apply here.
OK, now time to show your stuff!

 The broccoli Steve chose, Early Green, is a multi-headed type, with a 3-4" center head, filled by abundant side shoots. He has found that it makes no significant difference to the seed yield whether or not he harvests the center head, so we are happily eating those.

 Five heads bundled together. The nice thing is that the stems are quite tender and tasty, and the side shoot production goes on for a long time, making this an ideal crop for a backyard gardener or market grower seeking prolonged harvest and greater overall yield than single crown-cut hybrids provide. This winter we will be offering this seed for sale.

On another part of the farm, a row of beets is blooming. The Fifth Crow farmers were worried because their favorite beet variety had disappeared from the catalogs. This happens more and more often, as seed is maintained by corporations interested in maximizing their profit. Only the most popular, profitable varieties interest them. Fortunately, the farmers still had a few beets in their cold storage room. Steve was able to coach them on replanting the best roots this spring for an early fall seed harvest. If all goes well, there won't be any shortage of beet seed, now! In future years it will be wise to continue to select superior roots to improve the strain and adapt it to local conditions.

If you are a farmer, gardener, or community organizer who has interest in saving and selecting seed for organic cultivation, you can contact Steve Peters at Seed rEvolution Now. You may wish to become involved in our seed collaborative for the San Francisco Bay Region, or you may need Steve's help in learning how to get started. You can email Steve at:

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