A productive vegetable farm starts with high-quality seeds; for organic farmers, those seeds ideally come from organic plants. However, the National Organic Program recognizes that may not always be possible and allows for the use of conventionally produced, untreated seeds when their organic equivalent is not commercially available (the one exception to this rule is that edible sprouts must be grown from organic seed). The NOP also allows for the use of conventionally produced seeds that have been treated with either a substance listed on the program’s national list of approved synthetic substances or with a prohibited substance when its application was a requirement of federal and state phytosanitary regulations.

These caveats allow for considerable wiggle room and are yet another example of how muddy the federal organic regulations can be. Why not use conventional seeds? There are a few reasons. One is that gene technology may have played a role in the plant variety’s development. Another reason is that, while growing, the parent plants were fed synthetic fertilizers and treated with chemical pesticides, and herbicides were applied to reduce competition with weeds. Once collected, the seeds were coated with chemical fungicides. It isn’t just about what was spliced, sprayed, coated or filtered through an irrigation system though. It’s also about what these seeds have been selected for over time: plants that grow well in a high-input, low-stress environment.

Organic systems are low-input, relatively stressful environments for vegetable seeds and plants. They tend to face less-than-favorable moisture levels and temperatures during germination. As they grow, they must compete with weeds, demonstrate some level of pest and disease resistance and/or tolerance to survive, and develop deep, broad root systems that make efficient use of slow-release nutrients and water. If they yield predictable, high-quality crops, the farmer will favor them. If they don’t, they won’t be worth the investment. The ideal organic vegetable seed must produce a plant that is tolerant, resilient, robust, productive and cost-effective—a tall order, for sure.

The 2002 organic seed regulations stimulated organic seed production and research. Seed companies, nonprofits and land-grant universities realized what organic farmers have long known: there is a growing need for plants adapted to local, low-input systems. The current global model for seed production, where seeds produced in one region are grown in another, will not serve the organic movement. However, until organic farmers are required to use organic seed, large seed companies will be reluctant to dedicate significant time and money to breeding efforts. So, the ball is largely bouncing between the small seed companies, the nonprofits, the universities and the private farms, and the game is called participatory plant breeding. If you’re an organic farmer, you may already be a player.

The farmer plants the variety of interest and monitors its growth and development over the course of the season, noting its response to physical and biological stressors. At the end of the season, the farmer selects those individuals that excelled and works with the breeder to develop new crosses. The new crosses are planted the following season, and the farmer monitors and evaluates their growth once again. Over time, an improved variety is developed, one that is not only suited to the farm it evolved from, but to surrounding farms that share the same climatic characteristics.

This is a simplified version of the process. There are a number of different modes and levels of participation, and the decision-making roles that farmers and plant breeders play can and do vary from project to project. Whether you call it collaborative plant breeding, farmer participatory breeding or participatory crop improvement, though, the goal is the same: develop local breeding methods that incorporate farmer perspectives and fulfill farmer needs. The result is the development of varieties that are locally adapted and perform well in niche, low-input environments.

The Organic Seed Alliance (www.seedalliance.org ) offers a seed producer database, along with links to news, research and publications related to plant breeding. The alliance, in partnership with the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, National Organic Coalition and the Organic Farming Research Foundation is hosting a State of Organic Seed Symposium on February 25, 2010, in LaCrosse, Wis.

The USDA ATTRA National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (http://attra.ncat.org) also maintains an organic seed producers database on its Web site. When you select the region you live in, it lists those suppliers specific to your region.

The author is a biologist who lives and farms in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.