Farmers work to maintain beloved varieties that otherwise could be lost. By Joan OBray 5/20/08 Fresno Bee (it was hard to find this article) It explains why this issue of seed is so vital, from a farmers point of view, for us all.
He coats the thick, fleshy leaves in a hot sherry and bacon vinaigrette. The heat wilts the leaves just a little — a different result than if he’d used the same hot liquid on baby spinach leaves.
“When you cook the baby spinach, it just turns into nothing,” Shackelford says. “Bloomsdale spinach keeps its texture. It’s still spinach when you’re done cooking. It’s not just a mushy ball.”
Because of these characteristics, the winter bloomsdale from T&D Willey Farms in Madera has been served in restaurants near and far, including Trelio, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Coi in San Francisco and some of the Google cafes in the Bay Area. Some local home cooks also prefer it.
But despite its following, this spinach is in trouble. Alf Christianson Seed Co., the company that produces this strain of winter bloomsdale, has discontinued the product.
With its crinkly leaves, winter bloomsdale spinach isn’t as convenient to harvest or bundle as the flat-leaf spinach that’s the standard in supermarkets.
“Demand for it was falling off year after year,” says Marvin Anderson, who handles quality control and customer service for Alf Christianson.
Farmer Tom Willey hopes to save this prize crop. Last week, he sent some of his remaining seeds to a farmer in Washington state, where cool temperatures are ideal for spinach seed.
“You can’t believe all the time I spend just chasing seed,” says Willey, who started growing seed for crops such as Genovese basil and Fresno supreme hot pepper after companies dropped them. “This whole seed thing has gotten to be a problem in the last five to six years.”
Farmers worldwide face the same challenge: As the seed industry consolidates, the largest companies hold increasing power over what farmers grow — and what we eat.
In 2006, 10 corporations controlled 55% of the worlds’ commercial seed market, says the ETC group, a Canadian conservation organization. At that time, the top 10 list included companies such as DuPont, Syngenta, and Sakata Seed Corp., the parent company of Alf Christianson.
Monsanto, the largest seed company, has since gained more market share. In March, the company bought Dutch company De Ruiter Seeds, one of the world’s largest vegetable seed companies.
Driven by profit, seed companies maintain products that sell well and cut those that don’t. This motive makes sense from a business standpoint, but it also affects the diversity of food crops. It favors foods that are easy to harvest, ship well, have a long shelf life or uniform appearance — the produce common in supermarkets. And it limits specialty fruits and vegetables.
In response, devotees of crops that have fallen out of favor must find other ways to preserve their seed. Local farms have joined others around the world in networking with seed farmers and specialty-seed companies, as well as learning how to propagate their own seed.
“If you own the seeds, you own the food supply,” explains Jeremy Lane, sales manager at Baloian Farms in Fresno.
He opens a box and pulls out an Italian sweet red onion. That’s the retail name for it, anyway. Its producer, Lockhart Seed Co. in Stockton, calls it the early red burger.
Because its shelf life isn’t long compared to some other onion varieties, there’s not a big commercial market for the early red burger, says Lockhart store manager Stephen Auten. Lockhart, a smaller, independently owned company, is the only company Auten knows of that still propagates this seed.
Last year, Lockhart ran out of it. The company says it will have more this summer, but Baloian is taking no chances. Baloian has devoted about three-quarters of an acre to early red burger onion seed. The harvest should yield enough seed to plant 100 acres of the onion, which will end up in supermarkets such as Save Mart, Lane says.
The onion-seed field looks like dandelions on steroids, with balls of seed pods atop thick, green stalks. Lane points out where they irrigated too early, resulting in tangles of wilted, brown plants.
It’s a mistake that upset Baloian farm manager Yosh Kamine. Growing onions for seed requires careful management, he explains. They’d selected onions with a deep red color, flat shape and good size. Then they planted them in a field three miles away from any other onions, lest bees cross-pollinate them with a different variety. They’ll harvest the pods around June 20, crack them open, and store the seeds in a sealed bucket. “It is a thorn in my butt,” Kamine says of the process.
So why not plant another crop with seed that’s easy to find?
“I couldn’t imagine losing this onion,” Lane says. “It’s the best.”
When eaten raw, its remarkably sweet flavor pairs well with a champagne vinaigrette, Lane says. He also drizzles these onions with olive oil and sprinkles on rock salt, then wraps them in aluminum foil and grills them for about 40 minutes.
Kamine’s preferred vinaigrette contains Japanese seasoned vinegar, and he’ll use butter instead of olive oil when grilling the onions. But while his flavorings are different from Lane’s, he feels the same way about this vegetable: “There’s no other red onion with a flavor like it.”
Crops such as winter bloomsdale spinach and early red burger onion have more than one strike against them. In addition to being less popular crops, they also are open-pollinated varieties. With such plants, farmers can harvest their own seed and use it for the next crop.
By contrast, companies are switching to hybrid varieties. Farmers can’t collect their seed in the same way. That’s because a hybrid seed is the result of artificially crossing different plants.
“You’re going to get a better product with a hybrid because you can breed for certain traits,” Anderson of Alf Christianson says. These include better yield, disease resistance, longer shelf-life or more consistent size, shape and color — all characteristics needed for large-scale agriculture and food retailing.
If farmers tried to harvest seed from hybrid varieties and use them, the next generation of plants usually would resemble only one of its parents, Auten says.
“If you want that same formula or the same recipe every time, then you’ve got to use the same goods,” says Auten, who points out that Lockhart sells hybrid seed developed by other companies.
In other words, farmers must buy hybrid seeds every year. And they’re more expensive than open-pollinated varieties.
“Like any company that’s out to make money, if they can make hybrids, they can get a better price for them,” Auten says.
Some seed companies are going a step further by developing genetically engineered vegetables, such as sugar beets resistant to Monsanto’s pesticide Roundup — a controversial variety that has northwest chard and table beet growers worried about contamination of their crops.
Because of the seed industry’s shift toward hybrids and research in genetically modified seeds, more farmers are becoming stewards of open-pollinated varieties.
The Organic Seed Alliance, a nonprofit based in Port Townsend, Wash., helps farmers reach this goal with a project called Heirlooms of Tomorrow. “We want farmers to have seed sovereignty over their varietals and their markets,” says Matthew Dillon, the alliance’s director of advocacy. “We provide farmers with the plant-breeding skills.”
Plant breeders associated with the alliance conduct field visits, workshops and other training to help farmers improve open-pollinated varieties that suit local climate and market needs. It’s an effort to reclaim the skills that farmers had before agriculture became industrialized.
“Farmers used to have that sense,” Willey says. “They used to pick all their corn by hand. They were looking at every ear of corn and were setting aside the exceptional ones for their seed.
“… Because everything was done by hand, they could visually inspect everything,” Willey adds. “They could inspect the best stuff and maintain and improve their own varieties.”
The Heirlooms of Tomorrow project has already helped restore rhubarb supreme red chard, an old variety that was “losing its vibrant color, increasing in its disease susceptibility, and being more and more prone to bolting,” states the Organic Seed Alliance’s Web site. It also has helped develop hyper red rumple waved lettuce, a new variety with purple-red, crinkly leaves.
And the alliance is helping farmers develop an improved variety of winter bloomsdale spinach.
Helping farmers restore or develop varieties isn’t just a matter of creating interesting things to eat. Farmers increasingly play a role in maintaining our genetic diversity.
“We have to restore these seed skills because that’s the real safety net,” Dillon says. “We call it going beyond conservation.”