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Just as people resolve to make major changes in their lives at this time of year, these winter months give us the perspective to step back and think about the changes we want to make as a farm.
Perhaps one of the biggest changes that we have resolved to make this year is to use 100 percent organically grown seed. Current regulations allow for the use of untreated conventionally grown seed when organic isn’t available for the variety you wish to use. Although the percentage of organic seed that we use has steadily increased over the years, we have had a hard time finding it for many of the disease resistant hybrids that we rely on. One of the drawbacks to being located in an intensive agricultural area within the fog belt is that there is always lots of disease inoculum floating about. Outside of spraying fungicides, one of the only ways to successfully produce certain crops—especially lettuce and spinach– is by choosing resistant varieties. These are constantly being bred to stay ahead of the ever evolving disease organisms. Until recently organic seed for these varieties wasn’t available, but that is starting to change. Enza Zaden, a Dutch seed company with a very progressive breeding program, founded a separate company a number of years ago—Vitalis–that provides 100 percent organic, and often resistant, varieties. We have been using these successfully for several years now. Other companies like High Mowing Seeds in Vermont are dedicated to providing a complete line of organic vegetable seeds.
Although the availability of organic seed has increased over the years it feels to us as though the organic seed industry has yet to live up to its potential, and it occurred to us that the crutch of farmers being able to use conventional seed is part of what is holding it back. Just as individual consumers help shape their world by how they spend their dollars, farms are consumers too, and can do the same. Organic agriculture has matured enough that it should now be possible to leave the crutch behind.
The reasons for growing seed organically are numerous. As the folks at High Mowing point out, because seed crops are not consumed, they are not regulated the same as food crops and can be sprayed at higher rates—exposing workers, neighbors, and the environment to dangerous chemicals. The volume of chemicals used is also greater because seed crops are grown to full maturity and are thus exposed to pests and diseases over a longer period of time. For me, another big reason to support organic seed production is that in a truly organic breeding program, varieties are chosen that perform well in the fertility, pest, and disease conditions that are found only in organic systems. The end result will be varieties that are better suited for organic farms.
Organic seed can cost up to twice as much as conventional, and it will be a challenge to replace certain varieties of crops that we rely on—like broccoli and cauliflower. But, because we are currently using so many organic varieties, getting to 100 percent shouldn’t be too difficult. In fact we are looking forward to the challenge. For those vegetables for which we haven’t yet found suitable organic seed, we’ll be ordering small quantities of lots of different varieties and doing trials here to find out which varieties perform best here on our farm. This is part of what keeps farming interesting and new every year!
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