by Erin Jakubek and Katy McCoy
Folks, it’s that time of year – time to get those greenhouse benches or windowsills cleared off and seeds planted. In this post we’re going to talk about the reasons why you’d be crazy to not buy local organic seed from Oatsplanter Farm and/or Seed Dreams, our local seed producers each of which are offering their full lines at Chimacum Corner Farmstand. We’ll also fill you in on the Rockwell Bean seeds from Willowood Farm on Whidbey (which you’d also be crazy to not buy).
But before we begin, let’s talk about our area’s seed heritage and what an amazing seed growing area of the world we live in. Ever wonder why the ecological seed company Abundant Life Seed Foundation was founded in Port Townsend (1973) and was headquartered here until the tragic fire at Aldrich’s in 2003 when their extensive library and their seed collection with 100s of one-of-a-kind seeds were destroyed? Ever stop to think why the Organic Seed Alliance, one of our nation’s leading research, education and advocacy groups promoting the stewardship of the invaluable genetic resources found in agricultural seed is located here?
Micaela Colley, executive director at the Organic Seed Alliance explains that we live in one of the best seed growing climates of the world for certain vegetable crops, a climate very similar to Holland where traditionally a bulk of the world’s vegetable seeds have been bred and cultivated. To get specific about what our area really really excels at, it’s growing Brassicas, the family that includes cabbage, turnip, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, rutabaga, collard greens, kohlrabi, and mustard.
With climate on our side and local expertise to spare, you may be lulled into thinking any seed you plant will thrive. But no… turns out not all seed is created equal and you will have much better success planting seed that is organically grown, open pollinated, and locally adapted (ie seed from Oatsplanter or Seed Dreams). A great article last month in the NY Times explains the reasons well.
First off you want to buy seeds that were grown using the same gardening practices (presumably “low-input/organic”) that you plan to use. Because plants grown for seed are in the ground significantly longer than plants grown for consumption, they are more susceptible to disease and pests. Because seed is not an edible crop, commercial seed growers are allowed to use higher levels of pesticides, fertilizers and fungicides than farmers growing plants for consumption. Seeds selected under these conditions are artificially pampered and will not grow as well when you plant them using organic methods. (Not to mention that by supporting such commercial practices you are indirectly contributing to pollution).
Secondly you want to buy seed that is adapted to our marine environment. You can assure yourself of this by buying locally grown seed that is open pollinated. Open pollination means that plants are pollinated naturally and somewhat randomly by insects, birds, or wind which increases biodiversity and allows nature over time to select for the plant characteristics most suited to its particular microclimate. Each year farmers like Jadyne Reichner and Steve Habbersatzer of Oatsplanter Farm, Tessa Gowans of Seed Dreams, and Georgie Smith of Willowood Farm carefully observe their plants, judge which ones are the most successful, and set aside those seeds as the ones to plant the following year.
You can do the same. Start your first season with local quality seeds, let the best plants “go to seed”, and then harvest next year’s seed. The Organic Seed Alliance’s guide “A Seed Savers Guide for Gardeners and Farmers” will guide you through it. You will have started with seed adapted to the Port Townsend area and over time nature will further fine-tune customized seed specific for your patch of land. How fun and rewarding!
SEED DREAMS: A little bit about Tessa and Seed Dreams. Tessa’s been saving seed since she was 3, taught by her grandmothers. In the beginning it was just part of the cycle of growing food, but over time it became a life-consuming passion. She began growing seed on her own in the Willamettte Valley in the 60s, moved to Port Townsend in 1973 to check out the commune scene at the Town Tavern, and soon began growing seed for and working for the Abundant Life Seed Foundation. “A kindly gentleman” gifted her use of a half-acre of farmland on Discover Bay Road for seed growing, and this is the same land she has been cultivating ever since. Elsewhere in Port Townsend, deep in the woods, she built herself a simple house and raised a daughter.
The fire at Aldrich’s in 2003 was particularly devastating to Tessa, as that is where her seeds and the majority of seed for Abundant Life were stored. She spent much time in the subsequent years trying to track down any previously sold seed. Many varieties she was able to recover, but many others were lost for good. To this day it is hard for her to go into the newly rebuilt Aldrich’s. She finds it eerie — once she claims she actually heard the seeds screaming.
The fire was also the death of the Abundant Life Seed Foundation. Prior to the fire, Abundant Life was already talking about changing their mission from selling seed to focusing more on education and research. After the fire they reorganized under the name “Organic Seed Alliance”. Territorial Seed Company bought the “Abundant Life” name and the seed selling part of their business.
Tessa and business partner Shane Murphy, both from Abundant Life went on to form “Seed Dreams”, their own business selling seed. Shane farms outside Santa Cruz, CA and grows seeds for that area while Tessa serves our area, offering about 100 seed varieties, all of which Chimacum Corner is excited to be offering for the first time this year.
OATSPLANTER: This is the third season we’ll be offering the full line of seeds from Oatsplanter, a five-acre picture perfect organic farm in Port Townsend farmed by Jadyne Reichner and Steve Habbersatzer.
When it comes to Jadyne and Steve, seed is literally at the core of their lives together – they met while both serving on the board of directors at the Organic Seed Alliance. Steve, who grew up on a dairy farm in Southern Washington began growing vegetables and saving seed at Oatsplanter in 1988. At the time he met Jadyne, he was active in growing seed variety trials and breeding projects with OSA. Jadyne meanwhile was farming in Sequim, had years of experience teaching biology under her belt, and was growing increasingly passionate about seed (and evidently Steve). It was a perfect match of ideals and together they ventured into the business of producing organic seed for sale, which after years of hard work brings us to today and their handsome seed rack at the Corner (Steve is also a talented woodworker).
In this handsome rack you will find 19 varieties of seed. Oatsplanter has narrowed their offerings to the varieties they feel do especially well in our area, making selection a little easier. A visit to their informative, well-referenced, and inspiring website is advised in case you need any further encouragement to get growing!
WILLOWOOD: We’re only selling one type of seed from Willowood Farm on Whidbey Island, but that seed is a keeper. In fact the Rockwell Bean has been growing continuously in Coupville kitchen gardens since the late 1800s, well adapted to our marine environment (meaning it germinates in cool soils and matures rapidly). A cassoulet style heirloom bean which cooks up creamy, but holds its shape, it’s gone into hundreds of baked bean casseroles taken to the island’s Sunday Methodist potlucks over the years. Georgie Smith, a 4th generation farmer on Ebey’s Prarie Willowood farm, is so smitten with the bean, she is now growing 4000 lbs/year for consumption (we have them for sale — try them if you haven’t). The best plants however she saves for seed, and that’s what you’ll find in her little seed packets. She recommends planting the seeds between May 15th and June 1 and has provided us growing, drying and threshing instructions.
And that wraps up Chimacum Corner’s “SEED FROM HERE” post. We have all become accustomed to the idea of buying food that is local and organic. The next level is paying attention to the provenance of the seed that made that luscious local produce possible. Enjoy and good luck planting!
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