What’s a Regional Seed System?

Micaela_Aug 2010_smallerSummer sweet corn: Is there anything better? How about a sweet corn that was developed with organic farmers in mind — an open-pollinated variety that germinates in cool spring conditions without the use of fungicides and demonstrates superb taste?

Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) is a proud collaborator in a participatory plant breeding project that developed just that. In partnership with breeders at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and farmer-breeder Martin Diffley of Organic Farming Works, OSA is taking this soon-to-be-released sweet corn variety to the next level by adapting the original breeding population to the mild growing conditions of the maritime Pacific Northwest region.

With support from the Port Townsend Food Co-op, OSA’s breeders planted a large trial in Sequim, WA, to identify which of these sweet corn plants would thrive in our local climate.

Why is this important? This sweet corn trial is just one example of how regional networks of plant breeders and farmers are supporting national efforts to expand farmer options in organically bred seed — seed that will deliver high-quality crops without the assistance of synthetic fertilizers and other chemical inputs.

So when we talk about a “regional seed system,” region-specific plant breeding is a big part of that system, providing farmers seed adapted to their specific climate and environmental conditions — like the need for sweet corn that germinates reliably in cold soil and matures early — while emphasizing enhanced flavor and good market qualities.

Most of the sweet corn seed planted in the U.S. was developed — and is owned — by the biggest players in the business: Syngenta and Monsanto. Participatory plant breeding projects like this one help reduce farmer reliance on a handful of seed firms that don’t support organic agriculture and seed saving. Farmers can take back control of the seed they sow, but first they need options like this one, and knowledge in seed breeding and production. (Check out our new manual on how to breed sweet corn for your farm.)

OSA encourages a regional approach to seed breeding, production, and distribution because farmers constantly face changing disease, insect, and weed pressures that vary by location. Climate, growing seasons, soil, and water availability also differ dramatically across the country. The best way to meet the seed needs of farmers is to adapt plants to the environment where they will be grown, which is why we continue to expand our cutting-edge work across the U.S.

In this newsletter you’ll find a number of new OSA resources that help farmers participate in regional seed systems by starting their own plant breeding projects on their farm. You’ll also find two organic seed webinars: one that covers the issue of organic seed availability and the National Organic Program’s seed requirement, and a second on “Keeping Your Seed Crops Healthy.” Finally, we’re thrilled to welcome Mary Black as our new operations manager and Ken Greene of Hudson Valley Seed Library as a new board member.

Our team is strong and growing. We hope you’ll join us by participating in an upcoming event, building your skills as a seed steward, or donating today.

Read our summer newsletter here.

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