We sure do live in a seedy part of the valley!
Our farm has had less of a presence at Brownsville Farmers’ Market this year, the pleasant Saturday ritual definitely tough to miss out on, but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t been keeping busy. This year, in collaboration with Adaptive Seeds in Crawfordsville, we are growing veggies for seed, a very interesting process that puts us alongside a large and growing number of vegetable seed producers in the valley, the little cousins tucked away in the nooks and crannies of this place we call the ‘grass seed capital of the world.’
Seeds are an amazing connection that we have to the very beginnings of food cultivation. Through trial and error, our hunter gatherer forebearers found edible plants in the wild and selected them for reproduction so we could have more of the yummy sweet juicy fruits and shoots and not the bitter and tough “veggies” that commonly thrived under wild circumstances. Think of these ancestors discovering a Queen Anne’s Lace root that had a certain carrot-like sweetness or a fruit in the crabapple tree that was a sugary delight. It’s amazing to think that every year we carry on the legacy of some person who was able to develop a plant called teosinte, a wild grass selected over 10,000 years to produce neat rows of soft starchy kernels that we now know as corn.
Most plants either produce seed within the fruit that forms on an annual basis, like a squash, tomato, or cucumber, or they send up seed bearing stalks after overwintering, like cabbage, beet, onion, and other biennial crops. The latter types are particular important in the context of our region, which provides the perfect mild winter and dry summer combination for optimal seed production. Fruits are usually left to ripen past their fresh eating stage before seed is extracted, and as a seed grower I have the exciting opportunity to ‘rogue’ out undesirable characteristics and continue the process of selection which is thousands of years in the making. An incredible amount of careful craft, knowledge, awareness, and an unusual assortment of tools are necessary in the process of collecting seeds and processing them to a point where they end up in a packet, 99% pure and free of debris. My workload may be a bit lighter right now as I prepare very little by way of fresh produce for market, but I expect many late nights this summer and fall when the seed needs to be readied.
So why is it so exciting for me to grow seed, and why is it so important for their to be growers who are dedicated to open pollinated (OP) varieties while using ecologically mindful farming practices? OP varities of plants openly breed and have more or less uniform traits, appearance, and adaptations, producing offspring with very similar qualities. Commercial hybrid seed is inbred to have almost complete genetic uniformity and produce one generation of plants with a very specific set of what are considered desirable qualities. OP seed is an embodiment of the genetic diversity arising from the ever changing conditions of our natural environment. Where hybrid lines very easily fail when presented with less than ideal conditions, OP varieties adapt and maintain to whatever nature decides will happen in the valley.
Arm yourself with this knowledge to continue supporting local and sustainable, start growing open pollinated varieties of plants in your own garden, and start saving your own seed that is uniquely adapted to your surroundings. Just take a deep breath and know that it might take another couple thousand years for your veggies to keep the dogs from digging in the beds, the cat from relieving herself in the rows, and the neighbor kid from loving the cherry tomatoes!