Sowing for the future: Seed farmers join to grow special strains

PORT TOWNSEND — Organic Seed Alliance representatives say conditions are ripe for a new breed of seed growers on the North Olympic Peninsula.

The Port Townsend-based, national nonprofit group has helped to form the North Olympic Growers Network of Jefferson and Clallam County.

Organic Seed Alliance will help the network acquire seed-cleaning equipment that can be shared among the farmers.

The equipment shakes out the smaller unusable seeds and debris, leaving behind larger, healthier seeds for sale to companies such as Cottage Grove, Ore.-based Territorial Seed Co.

“Now they are working on goals, objective and a mission statement. They are consulting with us to increase their technical skills,” Dillon said.

Now in the organizational stage, the network includes five farms in Jefferson County — Midori, Felix, Frog Hill, Oats Planter and Finnriver ­– plus Nash’s Produce in Clallam County’s Dungeness Valley.

“They’re likely going to expand out in the coming year,” said Matthew Dillon, Organic Seed Alliance director of advocacy.

He advocates a healthy organic seed-producing system on behalf of the alliance.

“We ourselves don’t sell seeds but provide farmers with education and plant-breeding knowledge and advocate for a healthy organic seed system,” Dillon said at the office space he shares with Program Director Micaela Colley and John Navazio.

Navazario is the new senior plant breeder, whose job is split between the alliance and Washington State University, Port Hadlock cooperative extension, an alliance partner.

Done right, seed production can be a lucrative enterprise, Dillon said, with an acre of land capable of yielding 1,000 pounds of seed at between $10,000 and $20,000 per acre.

Nationally, seed growing is a multibillion business.

The Peninsula and Puget Sound are a “world-class region” for spinach seed, he said, adding that beets, chard, cabbage, kale, collards and cauliflower seeds produce well in cool climates.

“From our perspective, this is a way for farmers to diversify their crops,” he said. “It could make them more economically viable in the long run.”

The demand for organic seed production is greater than ever in the Northwest.

“If it works well for a farmer, if they like that specialty work, then they can bring in some income,” Dillon said.

The network of farmers are not all in seed production. Some are in seed trials and breeding projects through contracts with the alliance or a seed company.

Frog Hill Farm in Port Townsend, for example, is conducting seed trials with beets, chard, cabbage, arugula, spinach, radicchio, chicory and endive, Dillon said.

Nash’s is growing carrot, cabbage, kale, spinach and chard seed.

Midori and Felix farms are conducting trials with snap peas.

Finnriver conducted spinach seed trials this year.

The trials help companies learn about the vegetative stage of a plant, allowing them to test seeds to see how well different varieties grow on the the Peninsula.

“Trials are a real important piece of agriculture,” Dillon said, adding that if good seeds are not produced, farmers suffer.

Organic Seed Alliance, formerly Abundant Life Seed Foundation, established in 1975, lost its seed collection and catalogue when its original offices inside Aldrich’s Grocery store in uptown Port Townsend were destroyed in a 2003 fire.

After that, the organization chose to focus on education, Dillon said.

The loss of heirloom crop varieties over the last century is well documented, according to the Organic Seed Alliance.

Consolidation in the seed industry, changes in breeding methods and technology, restrictive intellectual property practices and the loss of wild and farming land to development all contribute to the erosion of genetic materials that are essential to sustaining a plant’s life.

There has been a concurrent loss in the base of knowledge and skills necessary to improve plant genetics in an ecologically and ethically sound manner, alliance staffers said.

“The work we do is very similar to an extension,” Colley said, which is why a partnership was formed with WSU.

Organic Seed Alliance has also helped form the Family Farmers Seed Cooperative, a national organization, also aided by a federal Department of Agriculture grant.

With the Peninsula being part of the largest vegetable seed sector in the Northwest — having long summers, dry falls and lower disease pressures — the demand grows for more cool-crop seeds.

“As organic acreage grows, there is a lack of seed,” Colley said. “So that’s one of the opportunities, and that drives us to work with local farmers.”

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Port Townsend-Jefferson County Editor Jeff Chew can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at jeff.chew@peninsuladailynews.com.

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