Select the best seeds for your operation

Thirty rows (3,000 plants) of tomatoes at Tom King Farms. Stowell grows tomatoes with each rotation. The photo was taken midsummer.
Photos courtesy of Dennis Stowell at Tom King Farms unless otherwise noted.

Whether you raise produce for fresh market, food processing or another use, seed selection is an important part of your work. More than simply a choice between catalogs, your seed selection strategy can have a positive or negative effect on your business. Issues such as insects, diseases, microclimates, market demand, sales outlets, growing methods and your emotional connection to the produce should be considered as you decide which seeds to invest in for the coming year.

A variety of watermelons from Tom King Farms. The yellow one is Sunshine from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine; the orange one is OrangeGlo, which was a mutation of a watermelon called Texas Golden that Willhite seed company grew in Texas in the 1950s; and the red one is Crimson Sweet, which was developed in 1962 at Kansas State from three very old varieties of watermelon.

Pests and viruses

To prevent the spread of viruses and diseases, find the cleanest seed possible. Finding seed that resists pests and diseases will also boost chances for success. Although some varieties are bred, or genetically modified, to resist pests, many varieties have natural resistance. Grant Brians of Heirloom Organic Gardens in central California observes that pests have evolved along with the new varieties of lettuce. Certain heirlooms resist pests better than some new varieties.

In an effort to keep potato seed clean and free of viruses, Idaho enacted a certification law for potato seed growers. Idaho’s certifying agency ensures seed growers follow necessary practices by preserving identity of lots and conducting site inspections and lab inspections to asses the disease level. Keith Esplin of NEU Seed says Idaho’s certification program limits the number of times growers can save potato seeds. Since planting tubers from the same plants year after year allows viruses and diseases to increase, each generation has different allowable amounts of disease level. Potato seed growers take meristem cuttings to laboratories for cleaning and bring the cuttings to the greenhouse, where they produce the first generation, called nuclear seed. They plant these mini-tubers in the field and source them for seed up to four times. The certification agency publishes its findings in a booklet that includes every grower, the seed they have available and the disease level of the seed. This empowers commercial potato growers to find the healthiest seed.

Peas that did not germinate.
Photos courtesy of Standard Process in Wisconsin.

Microclimates

Part of the seed selection process is figuring out which varieties will grow well in one’s environment. If a California farmer purchases from a seed producer in Iowa, they need to be aware how the difference in climates can affect a seed’s performance. Some varieties thrive in multiple climates, but others grow best in certain microclimates. Research and extrapolation is essential for any grower to make the best choice for their farm.

Market demand

Doing advance market research is another tactic to help select produce that will sell. In some markets, classic American staples like sweet corn and Russet Burbank potatoes will always top the charts. However, in high-end markets, food trends abound.

Rick Pedersen of Pedersen Farms in Seneca Castle, N.Y., seeks buyers’ requests when he’s preparing to order seeds for the coming season. “If a buyer says they want a yellow cherry tomato, there are 15 varieties to choose from and they can pick the one they prefer.” This strategy reduces surprises on both ends of the bargaining table.

Consumer demand has helped Brians choose a wide selection of vegetables, greens and roots. “My goal is to try to give people the experience of the sort of flavor they would like to remember. Many people have never had really good vegetables.” Paying attention to what consumers want enables him to meet market demand.

Stowell after a whole day of weeding tomatoes with a hoe.

Responding to market demand inspired Dennis Stowell of Tom King Farms in Southern California to take a risk on a new heirloom variety. In 1992, a client wanted him to grow black tomatoes from Russia. Although he was skeptical initially, he got the seeds from Seed Savers Exchange and grew them. “When I tried it, I couldn’t believe the flavor!” Stowell started growing black tomatoes for farmers’ markets and gave out free samples. Customers returned to buy the unusual tomatoes.

James Hoff, a fourth-generation Idaho farmer with Hoff Brothers, Inc., grows wheat, alfalfa, sugar snap peas and potatoes. He also chooses varieties based on what the market wants, but is serving a very different market than Brians and Stowell. Selling to processors and national distributors, Hoff has experienced greatest success with Russet Burbank potatoes. However, he has experimented with Ranger Russet potatoes for dehydration, and Norkotah potatoes. “If there’s opportunity to grow a different variety that’s actually been proven, we’ll try it,” he says.

Sales outlets

The needs of a farmer supplying local clientele differ from those of a grower supplying consumers across the country. Since many hybrids are bred to resist disease, withstand long transit times and weeks on grocery store shelves, and hold up under processing and canning, these varieties have become staples among many growers. However, farmers reaching out to local or high-end markets have the option to choose varieties that can set them apart from their competition.

Brians sells most of his produce in California, with almost half selling through farmers’ markets in the San Francisco Bay area, but he also ships wholesale to New England. Because heirlooms generally do not withstand tough shipping conditions, Brians grows modern hybrids to appeal to the high-end restaurants and upscale grocers 3,000 miles away.

Cleaning seed and filling the grain drill at Standard Process.
Photo courtesy of Standard Process in Wisconsin.

Stowell’s produce travels less than 45 miles. He grows seasonally, and either picks in the morning to have his produce on the shelves of local grocers before nightfall, or picks late at night before a farmers’ market. Less than 24 hours later, customers have Stowell’s produce on their dining tables. Because of his commitment to providing the freshest produce possible, Stowell chooses unusual heirloom seeds from untapped regions in Europe and Central Asia in order to provide customers with the most unique, nutritious and flavorful produce available.

Standard Process, Inc. is a whole food supplement company that sells through licensed health care professionals. The company grows many of the ingredients used in its products; instead of getting lutein from a lab, they get it from the kale grown on their Wisconsin farm.

Growing methods

From GMO to hybrid to seeds treated with coatings that offer disease resistance, conventional growers have a wide selection of seeds. When Rick Pedersen converted one-third of his 1,500 acres to organic vegetable and grain production six years ago, he changed his seed selection tactics. He felt intrigued by the idea of growing produce free of GMOs and chemicals. For Pedersen, incorporating organics into his produce line has been rewarding.

On Standard Process’ certified organic farmland, silver beet, red beet, kale, Brussels sprouts, kidney beans and peas are the most produced vegetables. Farm manager Christine Mason says seed selection is one of the biggest challenges to growing on a larger-scale organic vegetable farm, not only because supply is more limited than conventional seed, but also because keeping up with organic certification standards involves showing diligence in acquiring organic seed. “We have to give the certifier a map that shows our acreage. We have to show where we went for seed, and provide receipts that prove we ordered enough organic seed to cover our acreage,” says Mason. One tactic she uses to make sure her farm has enough seeds is to order earlier than normal. Also, because it’s difficult to find organic peas, she tries to order the same variety every year.

As one of the founders of the modern California certified organic farmers in 1976, Brians’ seed selection tactics are influenced by the philosophy and practicality of organic growing. He considers how a variety will fit into his climate and production practices, and also notes special production issues associated with a particular variety. For example, during seasons when he needs spinach that resists downy mildew, he grows modern hybrid seed since the resistance doesn’t exist in heirloom spinach.

Connection to produce, agricultural community and the land

Over 30 years ago, Brians learned never to grow something he doesn’t like. “If you really don’t care for it yourself, then you’re being really foolish producing it. You’ve just handicapped your chances for success,” he says. Growers with little or no connection to the produce don’t have the capacity to make objective decisions about whether a particular variety is the right choice or not; a farmer’s feelings will color their choices about that particular crop.

Stowell is passionate about melons and unusual produce, so a few years ago he acquired some melon seeds from Afghanistan and grew them. Baker Creek bought the seeds and now offers the variety in their catalog. It’s difficult acquiring seed from politically unstable areas, but Stowell’s connections and determination are helping him grow his business. While still growing produce, he is excited about his new endeavor as an importer of heirloom seeds.

Other influences on a grower’s seed selection may come from colleagues as well as the competition. Talking to seed producers, salespeople, researchers and other farmers can provide valuable information. Trade shows, organizations, cooperative members and cooperative extension programs offer resources at little or no cost to the farmer. “You got a lot of years of experience at those places,” says Pedersen. “They’ll tell you what works and what doesn’t.” Pedersen belongs to NOFA-NY, Fingerlakes Organics, NY State Vegetable Growers, Farm Bureau, and Profac Cooperative, and also takes advantage of agricultural trade magazines.

Like many farmers, Pedersen conducts his own variety trials. “The ultimate test is your own experience,” he says.

To help farmers select varieties, potato seed growers offer small samples to trial.

Although Standard Process utilizes test beds for research and development, Mason says the trials also benefit her. “There’s a huge difference in seed viability,” she says. “You can’t underestimate the value of little plots.” A mishap with peas convinced her to use test plots before growing new varieties on a large scale. For example, by testing seeds in small quantities, Mason learned that purple organic kale with a little ruffle isn’t as devastated by worms as is Lacinato kale.

When setting up test plots, a farmer should not plant so much as to endanger their operation, or so little as to provide minimal information. A grower should let the unique parameters of their operation be their guide.

Resources

Growers who purchase hybrid seeds this year will need to repurchase seeds next year. Although one may save hybrid seeds, they cannot rely on a seed saved from a hybrid crop to produce the same plant as their parent. Most of the produce Pedersen grows is hybrid, but for five years he has saved the seed from an OP field corn variety and selected out his own sample each year. He says the corn is slowly improving. He also saves seed for garlic, soy, wheat, barley and spelt.

If a seed looks healthy and can go through a combine, Mason keeps it. She also purchases seed. “I put out a request to respected suppliers for what we need and go with whoever gives me the best price,” she says.

Brians believes in saving seed; however, he only saves seed from a few varieties. He is growing over 100 varieties of vegetables, and in turnips alone he grows eight varieties. With this type of operation, saving seed and maintaining genetic purity is extremely difficult. “I have to consider how many varieties I could keep pure without crossing issues.”

Stowell saves seeds from crops with visual appeal or super sweet taste, and offers a dollar discount on subsequent purchases to customers who save their seeds for him. Response has been strong. “They’re more diligent than I am,” he quips. “They wash, dry, wrap and seal them in manila envelopes.”

In Idaho, saving potato seeds is risky, for both legal and practical reasons. Legally, farmers may plant some of their own cuttings for one year, provided they meet the seed criteria. It’s against the law to plant one’s potato seed more than once, and violators risk making their potatoes unmarketable as Idaho potatoes. This law protects the safety of Idaho’s potato crop, as well as market share for seed potato growers.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Johnny’s, Seedway, Seeds of Change, Rupp, High Mowing Seeds, Sagers, Harris and Seed Savers Exchange provide seeds and service. Some farmers continue to source from small companies or individuals.

Brians sources almost exclusively from family and individual-owned seed companies whose varieties are well-suited to his type of operation. When the varieties he wants are not produced in North America or the quality doesn’t meet his standards, he imports from Europe and Asia.

Because the Russet Burbank variety is so popular among potato growers in the Midwest, and because of the prevalence of virulent pests, weeds and diseases, Hoff sources from the northern growing regions of Idaho. In the last 10 years, he has purchased almost all his potato seed from one grower. However, Bottland, Arnolds and Pinnacle have also serviced Hoff Brothers’ needs for potato seed. Hoff suggests farmers visit the seed grower and examine seed prior to purchasing.

What to expect from your seed source

Look for quick turnaround on orders, knowledgeable and helpful sales staff and thorough follow-up. Expect to grow a quality crop. The seed company should be willing to guarantee their product under proper growing conditions.

“The amount of support I get strongly determines where I purchase,” explains Mason. She suggests finding specialists who understand your business. “My contacts at Johnny’s and High Mowing totally know what we need, so I let them do the looking. Johnny’s organic specialist is very diligent about finding Standard Process organic seed, which I appreciate.”

Mason says both companies offer thorough follow-up.

Brians has discovered most seed suppliers don’t have testing data that matches his environmental growing conditions. “Every time I try any new variety, it’s truly an experiment to see how it will do where I am,” he says. “No matter how confident the supplier is that it will do well for you, it still is a requirement for the farmer to test the seed.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts and a monthly contributor to Growing.