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Working to Keep Seed Diversity in the Public Domain, Part 2

Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement spotlights 18 Oregon farms and farm supporters who are committed to a return to ecologically sound agricultural practices. This group reflects the diversity of people, both young and old, who are reshaping our state’s food system and reclaiming our right to eat well. In their stories you will hear how they came to be where they are, learn something about the challenges they face, and share their happiness at the successes they’ve enjoyed thus far. The following profile has been excerpted from Planting A Future.

Mario DiBenedetto with tomato plants

Read Peace Seedlings, Part 1.

One very important thing both Dylana Kapuler and Mario DiBenedetto have gained from their informal apprenticeship with Dylana’s father, Dr. Alan Kapuler, is a broad-based foundation of practical field experience they most likely would not have garnered from a university degree. The agricultural departments of most land grant colleges have followed the money represented by industrial agriculture in the same way businesses do. This is because university research dollars come from the large agrochemical companies or the government agencies run by former agrochemical company employees. Because of this fact, they reflect the industry they are supporting, which is an industry of specialization.

When agriculture is run as a mechanized industry, it functions in a manner similar to a giant assembly line with every person doing their one specialized task. For that reason, a college student studying plant breeding might spend his or her entire time focused on a single factor within a specific market. Alan Kapuler recognized that and thus encouraged actual field work.

“To us, college just doesn’t make much sense,” says Dylana. “First, of course, there’s the debt. Why would we want to go into debt to do something we can do right here? And from what I’ve seen, those kids are completely focused on just one type of something the whole time. One strain of barley. Or barley just for beer. Or barley just for something else. They spend their whole time at the university working on some professor’s project that’s not even their own work and they come away with this narrow bit of knowledge about a subject as broad as plant diversity. With virtually no field experience. Doesn’t make sense to me. I can definitely see why my dad gives what we do such props.”

Peace Seedlings test gardens

Mario adds, “And the resources they waste. When you go look at their greenhouses, the lights are on in the middle of the day and they’re growing oats in the wintertime. There’s so much space and energy and resources being put into it, I hope it’s doing someone some good, because otherwise it’s just unforgivably wasteful.”

“But we’re mostly talking about plant breeding,” explains Dylana. “About getting real experience living within a truly diverse ecosystem and working through each year’s cycles and watching what really happens in this particular environment. Seeing which plants succeed and how they adapt. We do understand that universities offer some very important training that you can only get there. We talked earlier about analyzing amino acids or other nutritional qualities… we can’t do that here and that work needs to be done even more than it is now.”

Mario continued with Dylana’s comments about studying what is happening in front of you… paying attention to how plants are adapting in nature. It was a point both of them kept coming back to… allowing plants to adapt to the environment. The breeder’s goal, they believe, should be to limit external inputs, which include things like excess fertilizer, to the extent possible and allow plants to grow by themselves within a diverse ecosystem. Some plants will do better than other plants. So if the seed from successful plants is saved, the grower will have a better chance of succeeding with that plant the next year because the parent plant was already successful within those growing conditions. Every farmer wants – or should want – plants that are vigorous without high inputs because it makes good sense, both ethically and economically.

Peace Seedlings zinnia variety

Another way Mario and Dylana are attempting to bring economic benefits to the marketplace are through the introduction of new types of food plants, especially root tubers from the Andean region of South America. They have been growing yacon, oca, and mashua for a number of years, and because the plants are so prolific, they have become Peace Seedlings’ biggest product, both in sales and in weight.

“The Andean people had an amazing food culture,” says Dylana. “They grew more root vegetables and different taxa than anybody. I mean potatoes came from them, of course. But they also grew oca, which are tuberous oxalis, mashua, a tuberous rooted nasturtium, and yacon, which is an edible rooted daisy related to sunflowers and such. And oh my gosh, the list just goes on.”

Mario adds, “They have something like a dozen different tuberous rooted food plants in a dozen different families. I feel they are some of the best farmers and food plant developers in the world. Andean foods have provided important staple foods to cultures all over the world.”

Adding these unique root vegetables to its product line provides Peace Seedlings with a revenue source that helps make their business more viable for the long term. Which is important, because now that Mario and Dylana have gained the ability to successfully maintain heirlooms and introduce useful new varieties of seed, they’re still novices at the business of running a business. Currently, like their personalities and outlook, their business practices are unconventional, even with seemingly straightforward decisions like how many seeds to include in each packet they sell.

Mario explains, “Most seed companies state how many seeds are in each packet, and they include pretty much exactly that number. We list a quantity also, but we view that as a minimum. If we’ve got plenty of seed, we’ll just add extra to each packet. I mean, you don’t want to waste good seed. And usually, we’ve got plenty. We just list the minimum in case we don’t get a good crop or a bird swoops in and eats several hundred starts… which happens sometimes. That’s just kind of how we do business. I guess there’s still a lot we need to learn about the business side of things.”

After a short discussion about marketing topics, I ask them both if they plan to do this forever. The answer shouldn’t have surprised me.

“We’re not really the type of people to make that strong of a statement,” said Mario. “In general we see ourselves doing this type of work, but we see everyday how much adaptation is just a part of this world, so we understand that applies to us, too. So it’s hard to know. But we hope that we’re able to keep this land and keep doing this work for a lot longer.”

Get your copy of Planting a Future: Profiles from Oregon's New Farm Movement.

(top) photo by Lisa D. Holmes. Mario DiBenedetto displaying one of his company's tomato varieties.

(middle) photo by Lisa D. Holmes. Peace Seedlings test gardens are located on several acres just outside of Corvallis, Oregon.

(bottom) photo by Lisa D. Holmes. Peace Seedlings offer many outstandingly beautiful varieties of flowers, particularly marigolds and zinnias.

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