Research and Education Seed Farm

Posted on Monday, 25 April 2022 under Supporting Farmers and Ranchers Featured Farmers

The Research and Education Seed Farm is an initiative of ours, hosted at Maple Lane Agricultural Innovation Centre in Abbotsford. The space is used as a center for local seed development and conducting public breeding trials. Our seed farm also fosters citizen learning opportunities and engagement with city and farm folks on themes related to seed production in BC. Our seed team works to advance vegetable seed research through programs and collaborations with growers to analyze plant performance based on regional climate, soil, and growing methods. The goal is to demonstrate that local seed production can be economically viable, documenting the successes of each crop and varieties best suited for BC’s growing conditions. Seeds and resulting produce from our seed farm and network of breeders contribute to a genetic pool that will create newfound varieties in BC and ultimately help sustain our local food systems.

Our BC Seed Security Program Coordinator, Siri van Gruen, spends many of their working days on the farm. As they continue to work to make BC seeds more adapted and viable for our province, they also incorporate climate solutions into their work. Like many farms in BC, crops at the seed farm were affected by recent catastrophic climate events. High temperatures cause disruptions in the life cycle of a plant. “When temperatures reach a certain threshold, pollen degrades very rapidly. If the pollen can’t survive, it’s not going to pollinate. You’re not going to get fruits, you’re not going to get seeds,” van Gruen explains. Biodiversity is a crucial part of climate solutions, and seed-dispersing animals are being greatly affected by climate change. “Furry seed savers are having troubles too, many seed-dispersing animals are in decline, and a lot of migratory bird movement has changed as climate change occurs,” says van Gruen.

Climate mitigation strategies are top of mind for farmers at the seed farm. Feeling the effects of climate change forces farmers to adapt and emphasizes the need for mitigation efforts. Being a small farm, “everything’s mostly done by hand, so obviously, that’s very climate-friendly,” says van Gruen. The farm is slowly moving away from tillage, using landscape fabrics for weed suppression and soil cover over the winter. Seed crops are often harvested later than the fruit or vegetable would generally be harvested, making it challenging to introduce a cover crop after the harvest. However, there are opportunities in seed production to intercrop. Van Gruen says, “By the time the plant is producing seed, it’s mostly taking energy from itself to go into that seed.” A cover crop introduced while the seed crop is growing does not affect the seed crop that no longer needs nutrients from the earth.

Waste can be an issue on a seed farm. Van Gruen says, “The by-product of seed production is food, and a lot of times it’s not economically viable [for farmers] to save that food.” There are, however, many options for using the food that is a by-product of seed production. Van Gruen suggests, “If you’re putting resources into creating that crop, ideally it’ll be eaten by someone. If it’s not eaten by someone, the next level is like feeding it to livestock. And then the next option would be putting it into compost.” Donating food by-product is an option we opt for. For many farmers, that can mean unpaid labour. Van Gruen says, “If there’s some way you can make it work, create connections in your community where there’s a non-profit that maybe creates soup every week or maybe you can have somebody out to the farm,pick your squash for food and then save the seeds for you. It’s about creating that collaboration.” Composting is a practice that van Gruen is hoping to increase at the farm in the future.

Extreme weather events are making it difficult for some farmers to maintain their already carbon neutral systems. Van Gruen says, “Relying on natural storage conditions is becoming less viable. We’re seeing temperature swings and when you’re storing, for example, a celery stalk or carrots over winter with fluctuating temperatures like heavy frost, the vegetables can freeze and then when it warms up, they have crystals that expand.” This process diminishes the quality of the product and makes storing longevity less predictable.

Local seed is an important part of increasing food security. Van Gruen says, “Local seed is adapted to the local climate, and I think that’s very important because if you’re growing seed that’s used to that area, it’s more likely to be successful, which will create a more resilient food system.” Seed farmers are consistently both adapting to climate change and mitigating their impact. BC seed farmers, like van Gruen, know the importance of reducing their impact and taking care of the land. They say, “I think it’s so important to be respectful of the land, to care for it and develop a relationship with it. It provides your livelihood, it provides biodiversity, it provides stories, it provides culture.”