Seeds, Politics, Ducks and Fungi – Farmer Submission

Posted on Tuesday, 21 February 2017 under BC Seeds

NorthEast Farming Association Winter Conference 2017

Saratoga Springs, NY
January 19-21

By Jolene Swain

I am incredible grateful to have received funding from the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security to attend the NOFA-NY Winter Conference. It was a very long trip from Northern British Columbia, but worth every train, plane, and automobile ride to get there. I gained new knowledge, ideas, and advice from every session attended and met knowledgeable individuals and representatives not only presenting at sessions, but in the audience and around the dinner table.

While the Seed Saving conference stream was a main focus, as a market farmer, organic inspector, and biologist, discussion of topics related to certification, livestock, fungi and fermentation helped complete the experience. There was so much knowledge and information shared at the meeting, that it has taken weeks to absorb, but I would like to share some of what I gleaned, much of which may be common knowledge to experienced seed savers and growers, but hopefully not all.

One main message stood out at the meeting came from C.R. Lawn of Fedco Seeds, in a very emotional keynote address (on the day of the women’s march no less). While I’ve known that our seed supply has been under threat, the extent this threat is much more complex that I had realized. With recent mergers announced between ChemChina and Syngenta, and Monsanto and Bayer, two companies could soon control 60% of the global seed supply. This means not only is it harder to find sustainably produced seed to grow, patented seeds are making it challenging for plant breeders to find seed with desirable traits to work with. What can we do? Well, fight the merger for one. And support the local and small seed producers and breeders (BC Eco Seed Co-operative shout out). When you’re ordering seed, look for seed that has not come from one of these large corporations. Even better, look for seed that is part of The Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI). Curious about seed suppliers? The Fedco seed catalogue includes the source of all of their seed, from small farmers, to multinationals engaged in genetic engineering and the production of pesticides. It’s a great read and mind opener of seed sources. The take home, get to know your seed source.

Politics and sovereignty aside, here are some fun bits of information from sessions I attended at the conference.

  • Saving seed from biennials such as cabbage can be value added. Harvest the main head for sale or consumption, and then save the side-shoots for the next season seed crop. The smaller side-shoots will produce fewer, but larger, seeds AND the smaller heads are less likely to rot during overwintering storage.
  • Looking to source organic seed (important for certified producers), check out
  • Want to work as a seed technician? Iowa or Colorado state have programs specific to this (I’m not sure what the Canadian equivalents are, but I know that there are some mentorship opportunities circulating).
  • Did you know that most domestic duck breeds are descendants of Mallards?
  • Want to grow more seed? Advice from John Hawkins of Galusha Hill farm: consider high-value crops suited to your region, proven species and varieties, talk to seed companies, have a crop-failure and disease risk management plant. Also, consider if you want to sell the seed yourself (packaging, marketing, displays, etc) or work with a seed company. Daniel Brisebois of Tourne-Sol farm shared his experience of growing seed to sell direct; getting to the point of making a profit from this takes time, and dedication. Dream big, start small?
  • Market farmers – try expanding your selection to include vegetables that ethnic communities in your area may be seeking. Bitter gourd, asparagus been, stem mustards, gandules, cardoon… They may not be big sellers, but getting your customers excited is rewarding and keeps the market thriving.
  • “Bitter is the new sour” – Dr. John Navazio, Johnny’s Seeds
  • Interested in growing mushrooms on your farm. Look up the stinky straw method for an easy, minimal input (and yes, stinky) strategy.
  • Interested in plant breeding? Do it. But be diligent in your labeling and recordkeeping.

If you have any questions about the conference, or any ideas to share, please let me know. I have been inspired to keep moving forward with growing seed as part of our market farm in Northern British Columbia, but I hope with a clearer trajectory. I look forward to learning more, and getting involved with the BC Eco Seed Co-operative this. Thanks again to the Bauta Family Initiative for this great opportunity to expand my knowledge and participate in a wonderful convergence of people passionate about farming. Happy seed-saving!

Jolene Swain, MSc
Woodgrain Farm, grower
Organic Verification Officer