Happenings in California

Wheat1As California’s dry winter continued through the spring, the future climatic challenges the state faces become ever more immediate, and the need for diverse and resilient agricultural seed systems becomes ever more evident. OSA continues, crop by crop and farmer by farmer, to help organic farmers access more diverse, adapted, and adaptable varieties.

Thanks to generous support from Columbia Foundation, Gaia Fund, the California Wheat Commission, CCOF, Organic Valley, and the USDA Organic Research and Education Initiative, we have a number of projects growing in California.

Vegetable variety trials: In cooperation with Coke Farms in San Juan Bautista and Riverdog Farms in Guida, OSA finished evaluating vegetable varieties for winter and spring regional production, including broccoli, carrots, beets, spinach, kale, and rutabagas. We will be publishing a report from our 2013 and 2014 trials in the coming months. We have more variety trials in the ground for this summer, including specialty red peppers, lettuce, onions, and carrots. See our 2012 California Organic Variety Trials Report for results from our 2012 variety trials.

Silage corn trial: The North Coast of California has a strong organic dairy industry. Many farmers use locally produced corn harvested as a whole plant that is then fermented before being fed to animals. This type of corn is called “silage corn.” There are very few varieties of silage corn that can mature and produce high quantities well in the cool, coastal maritime climate of the north coast. OSA is testing 10 promising varieties to provide local farmers with more silage corn choices.

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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.

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Who’ll Own Our Seed?

broccoliAuthor Lisa Hamilton has written a must-read article (“Linux for Lettuce“) on how utility patents — patents for inventions — impact the future of our seed and food. In this piece, she describes the recently launched Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI), which is one example of how some plant breeders and independent seed companies are responding to the dangerous trend of patenting seed. This trend has facilitated extensive consolidation in the seed industry, altered farmers’ relationship with seed, and restricted important research, as Lisa describes.

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From the Field: Breeding Sweet Corn for Organic Agriculture

Planting an organic sweet corn trial at Nash's Organic Produce

Planting an organic sweet corn trial at Nash’s Organic Produce in Sequim, WA

Summer sweet corn: Is there anything better? How about a sweet corn that was developed with organic farmers in mind – an open-pollinated, uniform, and early maturing variety that demonstrates superb taste?

OSA is a proud collaborator in a participatory plant breeding project that developed just that. Supporting the work of breeders at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and farmer-breeder Martin Diffley of Organic Farming Works, OSA is helping to take this soon-to-be-released sweet corn variety to the next level by adapting it to the Pacific Northwest region.

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Save Our Bees, Save Our Seed

Parsnip flowering at Oatsplanter Farm, an organic seed farm on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State

Parsnip flowering at Oatsplanter Farm, an organic seed farm on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State (Copyright Organic Seed Alliance)

Pollinators are an essential partner in our work to build healthy, organic seed systems that support biodiversity and provide high-quality seed. The focus on pollinators this week is a helpful reminder that the dramatic and ongoing decline in pollinators – both commercially managed as well as native species – threatens not just the viability of organic seed producers but food security itself, since most of the food crops we eat everyday require pollination. Since the mid-1950s, the number of commercially managed honey bee hives in the U.S. has declined by nearly 50%. Yet, in the same timeframe, the amount of U.S. crop acreage requiring bee pollination has nearly doubled.

We all have a role to play in protecting our pollinators. Tell Congress today to support the Save America’s Pollinators Act, which calls for the suspension of bee-killing pesticides until a full review of scientific evidence indicates they are safe and a field study demonstrates they do no harm to bees and other pollinators. The European Union has already placed a two-year ban on many of the most harmful pesticides in an effort to protect pollinators, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has delayed action until 2018. Call on Congress to require swifter action.

And if you’re a seed producer, check out Pollinator Management for Organic Seed Producers, a publication that Organic Seed Alliance co-published with the Xerces Society earlier this year. It’s a timely resource that provides detailed overviews of the role and diversity of seed crop pollinators and strategies for managing pollination, including crop-specific guidelines. The publication also includes profiles of common pollinators and strategies for reducing pollen movement between organic and conventional farms, including farms growing genetically engineered crops. Read on for an excerpt from this publication. Download the full version here.

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