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Lessons Learned On a Seed Farm

5/28/2014 9:41:00 AM

Tags: food independence, seed saving, New York, Matt Kelly

seed1I am not a farmer. Not by trade or aspiration. I am, however, interested in food independence. Which means growing and raising as much of my own food as possible, and supporting those locally who do the same. Of course, this also means understanding how the whole “food thing” works: the growing, the harvesting, the storage. It means understanding weather and seasons, soil and seed. It means gaining knowledge and skills I don’t yet have. And the best place to gain this understanding and experience is on a small, local farm. Working with good folks who are wise about both farming and the rhythms of the land. Consider yourself lucky if you get to work on a small, local farm with people like this. I do.

Working On a Seed Farm

This spring I started working on a seed farm - a farm that grows crop for seed - just over the ridge from where I live: Fruition Seeds in Naples, N.Y. Co-owned and co-farmed by Matthew Goldfarb and Petra Page-Mann, Fruition Seeds is a unique place to be. Matthew and Petra have a strong, earnest commitment to keeping the highest quality seed in the hands of the people. To this end, all of the farm’s seed is:

Organically grown. None of the heavy chemical and mechanical inputs used by industrial agriculture.

Regionally adapted. Organisms that will thrive in a given environment are those that have been grown, bred, and adapted to similar conditions.

Open pollinated. No hybrids or GMO here. Any seed collected from the vegetables you grow are yours to save and will grow true-to-type in future generations.

It would be an understatement to say I learn something new every day I’m on the farm. Just as often, it’s relearning a dozen things I thought I knew already. Here’s a few of the more interesting things I’ve picked up after just a month in the greenhouse and fields:

lettuce

Roguing Crops

To rogue is to remove inferior or defective plants or seedlings from a crop. It’s an ongoing process on the farm and the key to harvesting the highest quality seed possible. Selecting the most vigorous and true-to-type plants starts with the first sprouts to appear in the greenhouse. At this early point in a plant’s life cycle, the easiest sign to identify is size: select the biggest seedling in each cell. But the devil’s in the details when you really start paying attention.

Lettuce is an interesting example. The first true leaves that unfurl on a lettuce sprout will show the same color as the leaves on a mature plant. We can see very early on how red each of our New Fire Red plants will be and how green each of our Plato II plants will be. We don’t have to wait long to start making selections for richness of color. With lettuce, it’s also important to pay attention to the size of these first true leaves when considering the overall size of the sprout; better to keep a smaller sprout with the biggest true leaves in the cell than the biggest sprout that is mostly cotyledons. Depending on the specific variety of plant, there are any number of details you should pay attention to when roguing. What you look for in tomato sprouts is significantly different than the things you look for in lettuce.

Economy of Movement

Economy of movement is the trick to everything we do on the farm. The goal is to waste no effort but to spare no care. There is too much to do. Too much to do right. I have quickly discovered where my own economy can improve; I’m still training both my body and mind to move in the most effective ways. pottingRepotting seedlings starts with an assembly line approach: carefully pop the plants from their cells and stage them in three-inch pots. Then comes the detail work of massaging the new soil down around their roots while gently supporting the seedling. Cover the seedlings deep but don’t cover the crown. Then set aside your finished transplant and move to the next pot.

Putting seedlings in the ground is a completely different set of movements: drive your trowel into the row, pull the soil back, drop the new transplant in, push the soil back, and pat it down. When you’re good at planting, connecting these movements is seamless. You simply glide through the process. And then there’s spreading six tons of chicken manure over 1,200 square feet of field. In the midday sun. By hand. With the wind blowing it back in your face. Economy of movement is the key to success. In addition to a sense of humor.

Celeriac

Celeriac is a tough vegetable to like at first glace. It’s a pale, knotty, knobby root vegetable with a squid-like mass of tangled root structure hanging from its bottom end. But you can roast it, peel it and make soup stock, or mash it just like potatoes with butter and garlic. Even a raw slice in the middle of the field tastes good; celeriac’s smooth, white meat has a creamy texture with the taste of celery.

celeriac

Celeriac is a biennial and needs two years to reproduce. When planting the bulbs to grow out for seed, we selected celeriac that are large like a softball, heavy and solid in your hand, have a healthy stem growing from the tip, have a large tangle of root structure hanging from the bottom, and have no open wounds or mold penetrating the skin. It’s quite a process looking over each one. Getting these bulbs into the ground was a heck of a process, as well. You need to get the roots aimed down into the hole, or they grow upwards and pinch themselves off. You need to get soil around the root structure after the bulb is settled, or they’ll die out and sap energy from the plant as they regrow. You need to sit the bulb deep enough so the tip with the stem is poking above the ground, and don’t break off the stem as you move to the next one.

seed2

Seed Saving Is the Goal

Most of the work on the farm is done by hand. And all of the work is done with seed in mind. Which has been an interesting thing to wrap my head around. Most of us – even most small, local farmers – only think about crops to a certain point in their lifecycle: the vegetables we will harvest. Thinking and working with a focus on producing and saving seed brings up a whole range of new conditions and considerations that are critical to success.But working with seed saving as your goal goes hand-in-hand with working towards genuine food independence. Real success isn’t just about what you can produce today; it’s about what you can reliably and consistently produce in the future.

Did I mention how lucky I am to be working with the good folks at Fruition Seeds?

Matt plans to continue writing about his work with Fruition Seeds over the coming season. You can follow his experiences, observations, and anecdotes at BoonieAdjacent.com/category/finding-fruition/. He also writes regularly at BoonieAdjacent.com about his efforts to achieve a little bit of food independence.



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