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Working to Keep Seed Diversity in the Public Domain, Part 1

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.

Dylana Kapuler and Mario DiBenedetto

Most people who closely follow the organic farm movement in this country have heard of Dr. Alan ‘Mushroom’ Kapuler, the plant-breeding pioneer who was one of the original founders of Seeds of Change and who helped put environmentally adaptive, public domain plant breeding on the map.
What fewer people may know is that for that past seven years Alan Kapuler has been working in his Corvallis, Oregon breeding garden with two dedicated proteges… his daughter, Dylana Kapuler, and her partner, Mario DiBenedetto.

Dylana and Mario have spent these years formally studying with, being inspired by, and working with a master plant breeder who, in turn, has trained, nurtured, and guided them through the equivalent of a degree in plant breeding and garden ecology.

Today, these two proteges are beginning to realize what they have acquired – the ability to help sustain Dr. Kapuler’s work and, in turn, build a seed company of their own. Rather than take over the senior Kapuler’s Peace Seeds, Dylana and Mario launched their business, Peace Seedlings, with an obvious nod to their mentor.

“Some people were surprised when we didn’t just take over Peace Seeds,” explains Mario, “because people knew Mushroom was at a place where he was thinking about retiring. But he didn’t want to stop doing everything, he just didn’t want to continue selecting all these varieties he had developed. So we started taking that on. As we did that, we also got more involved with our own breeding projects, and naturally since we were working with Mushroom, our work was focused on public domain plant breeding.”

“Which needs to happen for the sake of adaptation,” adds Dylana. “The climate is changing, so seeds need to be selected based on where they’re located and how they adapt to those changes, as well as a number of other considerations like nutritional makeup. My dad’s past work needs to be continued and built on. By doing that, we’re freeing him up to focus on his latest inspirations, which include things like native food plants that are overlooked or neglected. He’s inspired by species that are hard to get your hands on… that you have to wild collect and learn how to grow so they’re not at the mercy of who knows what bulldozer.”

circular rows of seed plants

Mario continues, “We have two different seed companies, but obviously there’s still a lot of collaboration, especially on varieties he developed. As we grow and develop plants, we talk with him about what he was selecting for, what his process was. If we weren’t doing this, then things like double red sweet corn would no longer be available. And that would be kind of sad.”

As I talk with Mario and Dylana, the influence of Alan is ever present. In his quiet, humble manner, Mario speaks with something approaching reverence about what Dylana’s father has taught him, how he has inspired him to embrace the principles of breeding plants in a way that benefits all people and selecting for traits beyond the lure of profit.

“We visited our friend at Oregon State not long ago, and they were doing berry trials,” Mario says. “They have these amazing, huge raspberries, blueberries, honey berries… all sorts of berries. But the only things the researchers go by is how sweet, big, and productive they are. That’s cool. That makes sense. But Mushroom’s thing is that if everyone is stuck on sugar, what are we doing to ourselves? We might want to look at other aspects, like amino acids or anthocyanins. Things that might make the berries more beneficial. We should keep trying to learn what’s possible.

“And honestly it’s pretty hard not to be inspired to learn when you’re around Mushroom,” Mario explains. “One of the most interesting things about him is how incredibly motivated he is to learn at all times. So he’s been a huge help for us, just to keep us inspired, and also to give us direction and things to learn. He continually challenges us. Plus, he advocates that if you want to talk about something then you’d better learn as much about it as you can, otherwise you’re not really doing other people justice… or yourself for that matter.”

I ask if it has always been this way for Dylana, growing up in her father’s gardens and under his watchful eye.

Peace Seedlings greenhouse

“As a young kid I was certainly encouraged to pay attention to seeds and plants,” says Dylana. “He always encouraged all of us – me and my sisters – to be interested in plants. For me, it probably really took hold when I didn’t go to kindergarten because I wanted to stay home and watch my dad clean seeds and hang out, and that was fine with him. Of course, after that I did go to public school, which pulled me into that whole public school world for a period of time, but I still spent time in the garden. At one time I thought I wanted to be an organic farmer and work for Seeds of Change… of course that was before Seeds of Change was bought by a large corporation.

“And then there was a time as a teenager when I kind of forgot all this and spent some time asking teenager questions, like ‘what am I going to do with my life’ but by the time I was halfway through high school I was backyard gardening a lot on my own, and I knew I wasn’t going to college. Because I just wanted to learn hands-on. I’m really a hands-on learner.”

While Dylana was growing up in her Corvallis gardens, Mario got his start a little farther north in Washington. He grew up on the Olympic peninsula. Like Dylana, he doesn’t have much interest in higher education, although he did have an Associates degree through a local community college by the time he was eighteen. But a short time later he relocated to Eugene, Oregon and began working on the Walama Restoration Project, a non-profit dedicated to environmental stewardship and biological diversity through education and habitat restoration. It was then he and Dylana met through mutual friends and first got together. And not long thereafter, he moved to Corvallis to live with Dylana and her parents.

Dylana puts it simply… “and that’s what led to us being out here in the garden.”

Mario adds, “And we began gardening and learning. That’s what Mushroom has always advocated for, just learning about plants, and he feels one of the best ways to really learn is to get hands-on experience with as many different plants and seeds as you can. That grew as kind of an organic process. You’re saving seeds, you’re learning more each year, and then you reach a point of realizing that you have quite a bit of experience, a growing body of knowledge, and a whole lot of seed.”

“When we started, my dad said it would take us five years before we really knew anything,” says Dylana. “At the time I was like, five years? But he was right. You have to go through that many cycles to really get an understanding of what’s happening and why. So I guess our first five years was kind of like going to college.”

Click here to read Part 2 of Dylana's and Mario's story.

Order your copy of Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon's New Farm Movement.

(Top) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes. Dylana Kapuler and Mario DiBenedetto, owners of Peace Seedlings.

(Middle) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes. Circular rows add interest to Peace Seedlings’ test gardens.

(Bottom) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes. Peace Seedlings’ greenhouse is home to an indoor forest of citrus trees and other tropical plants.

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