Hello everyone,
here are my ‘3 Gems’ from the 2012 Organic Seed Growers’ Conference. First of all many thanks to my travel companions, Heather, Jen, Vanessa and Rupert for making the journey very interesting and enjoyable, even at 6am! I literally could not have made it to the conference without you, so special thanks to Heather for sharing her vehicle, and to Jen for her mad driving skills!! Thanks also to Farm Folk/ City Folk for their financial assistance and furthering the work of BC seed folk.

The conference was a wonderful meeting of ‘my people’. As a newbie in the seed world, it definitely provided much needed inspiration and vision for the upcoming season, and instilled a deep sense of pride in the work that we do. Keep it up folks!! It was a great reminder of how important it is to come out of our winter hibernation and experience the power of connection and cooperation, before getting caught up again in another growing cycle. As a group we have a solid vision for the future, and the work ethic to make it happen! I’m looking forward to the 2014 Conference already.

The first gem I would like to share is a perspective on traditional plant breeding vs genetic engineering. In his keynote address on our first morning at the conference, William Tracy from the University of Wisconsin spoke about the value of public plant breeding projects. With the loss of funding for Land Grant Universities in the States, public plant breeding projects have been in decline, with privately funded plant breeding work taking their place. Instead of being added to the public domain, the result of this work is proprietary information, and contributes more towards private bottom lines than towards our shared agricultural heritage and food security. He claims that organic agriculture and public plant breeding are made for each other!

What I found so interesting was his description of plant breeding as ‘technology’ vs genetic engineering as ‘science’. At first it seemed strange to say that traditional plant breeding is not a ‘science’. But as Bill Tracy explained, there is a fundamental difference between the two. Genetic engineering, as the name would suggest, functions within an ‘engineering’ paradigm. In this paradigm, the solution to a problem is envisioned, each element of the solution carefully studied, and the end result literally ‘engineered’, as a road or a bridge would be. It is an ‘A to B’ path, with B clearly in view. In this context, humans are very much in the driver’s seat. On the other hand, plant breeders are definitely not engineers. They operate within an altogether different paradigm. They may identify a problem with as much precision and understanding, but they cannot proceed as the engineer does. Plants are simply too complex to control! As human plant breeders, we may apply carefully selected pressures, but if we are to be successful, we must step back and let the plants offer up the solutions to our imposed problems. This ‘dialogue’ is at the heart of successful traditional plant breeding. Although I’m not a plant breeder or a geneticist, I really enjoyed this angle which added another layer to my understanding (arsenal!) in the GMO debate.

The second gem was a little more practical, and directly related to my experience starting a small seed company. My understanding of genetics is fairly basic, but I do know the difference between an inbreeder and an outbreeder. One of the practical applications of this knowledge is that I need to plant a larger number of individual plants of any given outbreeder to maintain healthy genetics. Otherwise inbreeding depression will occur. When this happens, the plants are less vigorous, tend to have lower germination rates, and may be weaker in other aspects too, like failing to fully mature.That is the inherent benefit of ‘land races’, e.g. they are so genetically diverse that although they may not be as predictable in appearance or performance, their genetic variability makes them exceptionally resilient in an unpredictable environment. Based on this understanding, I was curious about increasing the genetic diversity within any one genetic line of an heirloom variety. I wondered: would it be beneficial to obtain genetic material from different sources of say, Calabrese Broccoli, and mix them together to obtain of more genetically diverse line? John Navazio told me that this was not in fact a good idea! The reason being that any one of those sources could represent a poorly maintained line. In that case you could be setting yourself back by many years of improvement, by inheriting undesirable genetic material. The better solution, he told me, was to source out a reliably maintained line, from a breeder with a good reputation for varietal purity and cultivar enhancement, and to maintain the foundation of good work already present within the line. I have to say that I heard many great things about Frank Morton’s work, so I will be looking to his salad and brassica stock for my own initial grow outs.

The third gem has to do with isolation distances. Jen already covered this one quite thoroughly, but I’ll give my 2 cents. Isolation distances seem to be a hot topic among novice seed savers. In workshops and presentations I’ve done, people have many questions about this, especially about where to obtain reliable information, since so many sources seem to provide conflicting numbers. Some sources indicate 50 feet between lettuce varieties, others 1/2 a mile. That’s a big difference! And rarely does there seem to be much indication of why these distances are recommended. That makes it difficult for the novice seed saver to understand ‘why one distance and not another’, and how to adapt this information to less-than-ideal (read: real life) circumstances in the field or garden. Well Dr. John Navazio certainly helped to clarify this for me: basically, there are no sure-fire methods for preventing cross-pollination. That’s right, no certainty! That’s Nature for you. We learned during the pollinator management workshop that honeybees can travel up to 7 miles in a single foraging trip, and will not necessarily politely stick to one variety at a time. In any case, commercial seed growers have a number of strategies for overcoming this, including planning amongst themselves to limit the crossing of dissimilar crops. Basically, if two frilly, red lettuces cross, who is really going to notice? But if a green romaine and a red oakleaf get mixed up, you’ve got some confused and possibly unhappy customers. You get the idea.

Thanks for reading! Happy seed saving to all.
Robin Sturley

March 13 – 7-9 pm, 

Seed Saving and Basic Plant Breeding by Grant Watson

Cranberry Commons, 4272 Albert Street, Burnaby

Learn about the different strategies that plants use to reproduce and how to use this information to effectively select, harvest and store your own seeds. The emphasis is on annual food crops.

It is strongly recommended that you take “Botany for Gardeners” prior to this workshop.

Click the web link for details and to register.  $30


March 26 – 7-9 pm

Seed Saving and Basic Plant Breeding

West End Community Centre, Bidwell Room, 870 Denman Street, Vancouver

You will learn about the different strategies that plants use to
reproduce and how to use this information to effectively select,
harvest and store your own seeds. The emphasis is on annual food crops. Instructor TBD. Cost is $25. Event #45409.107WE

Register at: http://westendcc.ca  $25

November 9-11

BC Seed Gathering at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Richmond Campus

Topics include:

  • beginners’ tips and tools
  • skill building for commercial growers
  • supporting community collectives
  • developing a BC seed co-operative

Some sessions will be webcast from Montreal.

Keynote Speaker:  Don Tipping of Siskiyou Seeds and the Family Farmers Seed Cooperative

For program updates check:  http://www.farmfolkcityfolk.ca/

It is hard to believe that it has been one month since the Organic Seed Alliance Conference!

And I had best write my learning’s before they disappear!  And make my thank yous!

The conference was like coming home to a BC Food Systems Network conference.   The opening MC welcomed us all, and expressed her heartfelt feelings of joy in seeing so many good friends and colleagues, that she considers to be family.  Very similar to the BCFSN in tone and in the organization.   The conference location meant that we were in a retreat atmosphere.  Everyone was housed on the same facility, and able to learn and share as a whole for the length of the conference.

And the Food!   Local food, yummy food, food that made me giggle with joy.   My, I was happy.

And thanks to farm folk city folk.   They financially supported a number of folks from the Center Island Seed Saving Network to attend and were the provider of the shared vehicular transportation.

We had the opportunity to meet and network with other BC seed growers, and meet our American cousins engaged in the valiant work we do!    BC had a proud showing.

There were many outcomes from the discussions around many tables.

Including how BC seed producers can work together.   These discussions were quite invigorating!   With talk of working collaboratively,  to increase a BC local seed supply and system.

I realized that across the border,  we have  much in common with the experience of our American cousins  who are also challenged and benefit from the changes to the seed economy.

I can say that one learning was the thought of how we can build on the strengths and common experience of folks growing in BC and in Washington and Oregon.   What alliances could we build with fellow seed growers?

This was one of the points of the keynote speaker Dr. Eric Holt-GiménEz  who discussed the political context of seed growing to food security, and how as seed producers we strategically align ourselves with other movements internationally to plan for the future of seed and our continued ability to grow seed and market seed and sell seed.   He showed many slides that visually and viscerally demonstrated the consolidation of seed companies into multinational corporations.   Their control of seed will eventually impact our ability to legally grow and sell seed.  Therefore we need to consider how we will work to preserve our ability and legal right to grow seed.

The price of admission for me?

Talking to John Navassio about growing carrot seed.   Not only do I have a sketch of a hoop house screened at both ends with remay or other material to exclude insects from carrots, (which carrots love, because they love the extra heat inside the hoop house) but he also gave me the secret to pollination.  Yes, you guessed it, common house flies.   I was thrilled!   Flies!   I have a new love for buzzing house flies circling under the kitchen light.

And there is more.   He also reminded me that even though I could take a small animal, slice it down the middle and let maggots and then flies hatch out to do the wondrous job of pollination,  he added that it might be easier to order flies in when the carrots are in flower and require a constant source of pollinators.  In this way you can reorder pollinators and ensure that there is consistent numbers of pollinators available to do the work we love over the entire season that the carrots are in full bloom.   One little (rodent?)  would not suffice, I would have to work with many little animals over time to have success.   Kind of like succession planting, but not quite.

Maybe a small deer?  But that is another story.  And certainly an undertaking that would be carefully considered for alternatives as a vegetarian.

And that was but a small 2 minute conversation.

John had more to say, and he did not limit his topic to carrots.   He shared his expertise about isolation distances for many crops.  And stated the obvious, that is always not stated in the charts and appendices in many seed saving books.

“Minimum distances are dependant on ‘intended use’.  No distance is absolute”

You can decrease an isolation distance when there are:

  • Physical barriers to cross pollination
  • Staggered flowering time
  • Seed is collected from only the centre of a large block grown out
  • Crop types being grown are very similar

You increase distances when:

  • There are increased numbers and types of pollinators
  • Crop populations are large
  • Dissimiliar ‘crop types’ are produced

Isolation distances are also based on how much outcrossing is acceptable to the grower and the market

Distances will change with wind, weather, bumblebee populations, stress, humidity.  (ex.  Bean crossing increases to 15-20% with increased humidity).

He has developed what he states are conservative distances.  These may vary from others that are published and you have referenced.   One example of a reason for the variation?   The dates of when distances are published has an affect.  Isolation distances done originally were conducted on fields that were sprayed with insecticides.   That dramatically reduced the isolation distances because there were far fewer (or no) pollinators in the area!

Here are some of the distances Mr. Navassio presented.


Minimum distance with Barriers, Minimum distance without barriers

Asteraceae, fabaceae, and solanums WITHIN type with barriers 40 ft, without barriers 80 ft

Asteraceae, fabaceae, and solanums BETWEEN type with barriers 80 ft, without barriers 150 ft

Runner beans, fava beans, hot peppers with barriers 600 ft, without barriers 1200 ft

Alums, apiaceae, asteraceae, brassica, cucubits WITHIN type ½ mile, without barriers 1 mile

Alums, apiaceae, asteraceae, brassica, cucubits BETWEEN type 1 mile, without barriers 2 miles

Note:  for beets where GMO beets grown, or where red beets and gold beets growing 5 miles

Now I am left wondering, if I can gain a new love of house flies…….what transforming understanding could I gain about scotch broom?


Jen Cody

Thanks again to Farm Folk City Folk for their ongoing support and tireless work on agriculture, community farms, and SEEDS!

Do It Yourself Seed Sorter

Check out this great clip on a DIY mechanism using a shop vaccuum designed  by Real Seeds in England:


Posted on February 1, 2012 by hank

The WGS crew has recently returned from a weekend retreat with our organic seed comrades. The Organic Seed Alliance hosted their 6th organic seed conference in Port Townsend, Washington. It was three days of tall talk and three nights of smoky scotch whiskey. Here’s what I learned:

1. Prime your peas.
A study comparing the effects of several different seed treatments for damping off in peas showed that simply soaking the peas in good ol’ water overnight, with occasional agitation, followed by a quick dry before seeding was more effective at reducing damping off than a host of branded commercial seed treatments. The presenter, Lindsey du Toit of Washington State University, went on to note that the USDA has standards of review for the acute toxicity and environmental impact of new chemicals, but has no standards for whether or not they actually work. We don’t need any of these bogus products for our seeds. This spring, soak your peas like your grandmother did.
Get real, get a bowl of water.

2. Get off your corn cob!
Bill Tracy of the University of Wisconsin told us a surprising story about corn genetics and the “green” revolution. When scientists finally had the right genetic analysis tools, they compared corn from before and after the green revolution to see what caused the dramatic increase in yield that conventional agriculture is always crowing about. They were expecting to find more chloroplasts or some kind of enhanced protein synthesis. To their surprise, they found a slight difference in leaf angle, and a shorter tassle length. That’s it. Mainly there were just more plants per acre, and corn plants with more upright leaves could be crammed closer together. Now we have the same corn that is slightly adapted to living in a corn city, and we grind it up to feed to cows living in cow cities, and we grind them up to feed people living in people cities. We don’t need all that unhealthy processing in our food system.
Chew for yourself. Get real. Get fresh sweet corn on the cob.

3. Get Radical!
It’s not enough to be right, said Eric Holt-Gimenez from the Food First Institute. We can lobby Congress all day long to throw us a bone from the Farm Bill, but it won’t do any good if we don’t have the political power, the will of the people behind us. Don’t waste time persuading politicians, convince the audience: the people. Dr. Holt-Gimenez told the story of his work in the early days of la Via Campesina. Together the farmers of Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua did a massive study comparing two thousand organic and conventional farms spread across the three countries hit hard by hurricane Mitch in 1998. Their meticulously collected data showed that peasant farms practicing organic methods were more resistant and resilient than their conventional neighbors. They were right, but the World Bank had the power. Instead of supporting the burgeoning organic peasant farming movement, the World Bank decided to build a network of roads and sweatshops that ultimately crushed the movement and moved thousands off the land. No change can come from a movement without power.
Get real. Transform what power is. Stand together, brand together!

4. Adam Butler, cofounder of Butler Bros, a values led advertising company, showed us some numbers about industry spending on advertising. The orange juice industry spends millions of dollars annually to convince people to drink more OJ. Monsanto spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually telling us all how wonderful biotechnology is for feeding a growing planet. The organic industry spends zero dollars on any advertising. Mr. Butler’s point was not that we rush out and buy up some TV ads, but that we as a movement and a profession could us a little public relations help. He proposed combining a brand logo with a values statement that would unify our movement and help to explain what we stand for. The organic seed industry has the Safe Seed Pledge; perhaps the organic food industry needs a Safe Veg Pledge. What we can’t do is continue to allow Monsanto and its minions to dominate the global food conversation. The power is in the people, and we need to take our side of the conversation directly to them.  Get real. Talk organic.

I recently was told about this gem of a short by the National Film Board. It’s a five minute clip about what was once a very thriving vegetable seed industry in Grand Forks, BC. It has some great footage and is quite inspiring for us seedgrowers. If it could be done back then, why can’t it be done again?

Here is the link to the video about the old-time seed industry in Grand Forks: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDOiIYzRFbQ


Patrick Steiner
Stellar Seeds
RR1, S4, C7
Kaslo, BC, V0G 1M0

Our Contributor’s Circle

We acknowledge and thank the following people who have contributed toward the collective.

FOUNDERS–2011:  Amy, Cylia, Peter, Robin S., Tara, Vicky.

GROWERS:  NSt (2011)

SEED DONORS:  Amy, Cylia, Peter, Robin S., Tara, Vicky.

SPEAKERS–2011:  Robin S.; Justice Marshall.

%d bloggers like this: