Tag Archives: heirloom

Why Open Pollination

This post is based on a short speech that Sapphyre Miria of Commonwealth Seeds and I gave at the Charlottesville Gaia Gathering in May of last year.

Cowpeas (a.k.a. southern peas or field peas) dry on a string in a home pantry, at a scale appropriate to home seed-saving or food preservation.

Preserving seed for the next season has been a fundamental rule of survival throughout human history. And yet in our time, dependence on commodified seed is a huge insecurity to our local food systems. Almost all seed prior to the 1930’s was organic, regionally adapted and open-pollinated (non-hybrid). American seed companies first arose in the latter half of the 19th century, but in 1940, most farmers and gardeners still knew how to save seeds of most or all of the vegetables, herbs, flowers, and other plants that they grew.  When they traded and shared these seeds with their neighbors, they passed the knowledge along, too.

A variety stewarded in this way has a genetic makeup suited to the local traditions and the local growing conditions. This adaptation of seed stocks allowed for a diverse, secure food supply in each region.

This began to change with the advent of hybrid corn varieties in the 1930’s. With outcrossing crops like corn, onions, and broccoli, hybrid vigor is a significant factor, and that’s why we carry two hybrid sweet corns, a hybrid broccoli, and a hybrid onion, in addition to about 800 open-pollinated varieties.  However, around 1940, farmers started trading in their ability to save next season’s seed, adapted to their growing conditions, for seeds purchased from a seed company and promises of better yields. In the years since, using hybrids (which don’t come true to type if you plant seed you’ve saved) has become standard practice even for plant types that don’t benefit from hybrid vigor — and most don’t.

Over the latter half of the twentieth century, farmers and gardeners continued to lose their seed-saving knowledge and their stewarded varieties.  Industrial food systems replaced local food systems just as industrial seed systems replaced local seed systems. Throughout this process, seed has moved away from being the held in common by humankind, and joined the long list of resources appropriated by the private sector.

The results have been devastating. Most farming in the United States today relies on proprietary seed stocks, whether simply hybrid (F1), or plant variety protected (PVP – a limited patent), or genetically modified (GMO), the most extreme form of seed privatization.

The seed industry is now dominated by a handful of transnational biotechnology/chemical firms with 60% of the world’s commercial seed owned by 5 companies. What’s worse is that these corporations have no interest in supporting sustainable organic agriculture or organic crop breeding.  In fact, their profits rest on breeding crops that rely on agricultural chemicals, which they also sell. They have much to gain by commandeering the seed supply through market consolidation, discontinuing more seed varieties with each corporate merger, and leaving fewer varieties available to organic farmers.

Chemical companies have been buying out seed companies for decades.

 

Hybrids and other newer varieties are generally bred for shippability, appearance, and the ability to perform well in high-input, chemical-intensive monocultures.  Even universities sometimes patent varieties and sell exclusive rights to monopolize those varieties.

This privatization has led to increased reliance on hybrid seed stocks, and also to a loss in the amount of open pollinated varieties available, and also a loss of their quality, suitability and traceability. Most commercial dry seed production takes place where the climate suits the seed production, like the Pacific Northwest and Israel. That’s great in some ways, but how will those varieties grow in an opposite climate like the southeastern United States? Colorado is a good place to produce squash seed without much of the disease pressure experienced in more humid climates. But over the long run those seed stocks are not likely to hold up as well to Downy Mildew and Bacterial Wilt.

Mainstream, conventional agriculture produces increased rates of various diseases in people, too.  In this country we have epidemics of obesity and diabetes, despite increased advice on what, and how much, to eat. Once in a while, conventional breeders select for higher nutrient content, but it seems that every decade there are significant changes in which nutrients we’re told to pay attention to.  Likewise, disease resistance and regional adaptation are sometimes, but rarely, prioritized by modern vegetable breeders.

The political landscape surrounding seed is dire and reveals the vulnerability in our local food systems. Yet, there exist many seeds of potential to turn the tide of corporate control over our food supply, and to return food sovereignty to the hands of the people.  Communities that prioritize local spending, farmer co-operatives, food hubs, farmers’ markets and CSAs are also becoming the breeding grounds for a new local, organic, open-pollinated seed movement.  In Central Virginia, Common Wealth Seed Growers and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange are working together to create a robust seed system that meets regional needs. We’re creating access to well stewarded, source-transparent, regionally adapted, GMO-free, organic, open-pollinated seed varieties. Common Wealth grows, saves, cleans and packs all of the seed they sell, and also maintains several in-progress breeding projects.  This year Southern Exposure is partnering with Common Wealth and adding three of their best-performing varieties to our collection.

Cucumbers from a trial conducted by Common Wealth Seed Growers

At Southern Exposure, we are working with over 60 small farmers who grow seeds.  For 2018, we’ve increased our source transparency: all the seeds grown on the small farms in our seed grower network now have an “S” symbol.  This replaces the “e” symbol that had a similar meaning, but that we only used for seed that’s not also certified organic.

We offer some varieties recently bred for organic production, but we focus on heirloom varieties, which have stood the test of time. They have been passed down from generation to generation.  The heirlooms we carry (marked with the hourglass symbol in our catalog and on our website) have also stood the test of our trial gardens.  Some of the heirlooms we offer might disappear if we didn’t offer them. Heirlooms are often less uniform than newer varieties, in part because the uniformity that industrial farmers seek can be a disadvantage to home gardeners. For example, when you’re growing for your own kitchen, you don’t want all your broccoli to mature in the same week.

Alabama Blue collards, a variety with lots of genetic variation

Together, Common Wealth and Southern Exposure grow and test new and old varieties in our trials and collaborate to expand the number of trials we can do during a growing season. We are building local and regional networks of skilled organic seed producers, and teaching seed-saving techniques to farmers and gardeners. We practice ongoing selection under organic conditions.  This work is an essential piece of the larger mission of creating an agricultural system that produces foods that nourish us deeply.

Guide to Growing Rice

Carolina Gold Rice

Though it may seem like an odd time of year to read about growing rice it’s actually a really good time to start planning for next season. Rice is a long season crop and preparation this fall can really benefit your rice harvest.

There’s also a few misconceptions about growing rice that make it less popular than it perhaps should be.

The first is that rice requires flooding. Flooding is actually just a method of weed control. Rice does well in water while other plants like weeds do not. However it can be grown with just and inch of irrigation or rain per week. However if you happen to have a wet area on your property you’d like to put into production rice could be your answer.

The second misconception is that rice can only be grown in really warm areas. In fact there are varieties of rice that can be grown as far north as Vermont. SESE has varieties that are best suited to the south and mid-atlantic regions.

Lastly rice is often seen as a crop for big farmers and not necessarily backyard gardeners but you don’t need big fields or machinery to get a nice rice crop. It’s perfectly easy to grow and cultivate with hand tools. The only special equipment you need is a rice de-huller and you can find a variety of home scale models available.

Selecting & Preparing a Plot

Whether you choose to flood your rice or just irrigate it, water is probably the biggest concern when choosing a plot. Make sure it’s an area you can easy water because of its irrigation needs.

Rice also does best in fertile, nitrogen-rich soil. Compost is the perfect fertilizer for rice so if you select a plot this fall you can add about 1lb per square foot of compost and till it in. You can also grow a winter-kill cover crop like buckwheat this fall. In the spring the dead buckwheat will act as a mulch and you can plant your rice through it. The mulch will help hold moisture and prevent weeds.

Planting Rice

Hmong Sticky Rice

Rice can be planted two ways either direct sown or transplanted. For transplants seeds should be started 6-8 weeks before your desired planting date.

Direct seed or transplant rice in rows 9-12 inches apart with plants about 6 inches apart in the row. Rice isn’t always grown in rows however this method has been shown to increase yields as the rice has plenty of space and nutrients and can be easily cultivated.

Cultivation

Rice doesn’t do well with weed pressure so be sure to keep it well weeded. Small plantings of rice typically aren’t bothered by pests or disease although birds will feed on rice as it ripens so you may choose to use netting.

Harvest

The rice should be harvested once it’s dry and brown. There are two methods for harvesting. You can cut the entire plant as close to the ground as possible or cut just the seed head. Whatever you choose it should be noted that leaving the straw on the field will add nutrients and keep your soil healthy for next year.

Once harvested, rice should be threshed and winnowed. There are machines made specifically for threshing but basically you’re just trying to break other plant material free from the grains of rice. A common method is to place the rice in a 5-gallon bucket and use a drill with a paint stirring attachment to break it up.

After threshing the rice should be winnowed. This process can be done in front of a fan by pouring the rice into a bowl and allowing the fan to blow away the lighter plant material while the grains fall straight down into the bowl. This will need to be repeated several times before all the material is gone.

Unlike wheat, rice also has to be de-hulled as it probably won’t come off during the threshing process. Rice can be de-hulled by rubbing it between your hands but it’s a strenuous and uncomfortable process. If you enjoy growing rice it’s probably worth investing in a home de-huller.

Finally you can enjoy your rice! Just like other crops growing your own can allow you to branch out into more varieties and tastes than the one or two offered at the grocery store.

Sweet Potatoes From Order to Plate

Sweet potatoes are really underutilized in backyard gardens. They’re so easy to grow, nutritious, and tasty. They’re often overlooked and many believe that the store-bought and homegrown versions are virtually indistinguishable but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Store-bought sweet potatoes tend to be of a few hardy, orange varieties. While they’re absolutely still delicious there’s so much more variety to be had if you grow your own.

Just like other crops there’s sweet potatoes that are better suited to different growing conditions and cooking methods. The classic orange Beauregard is an excellent baker while the white fleshed O’Henry is one of our favorites for mashed potatoes. The Bunch Porto Rico has compact vines better for small gardens while the All Purple is especially hardy.

There are also dry and moist varieties. Dry varieties tend to be starchier and are more like regular potatoes. Some people consider them to be more versatile. Moist varieties are often sweeter and usually are the ones you find at the grocery store.

Choosing a variety can be tough so it may be wise to try a mix. Southern Exposure has two mixed packages available.

Bed Preparation

Sweet potatoes thrive in loose, well drained soil. If you have heavy soils it’s a good idea to work in a lot of compost and maybe even broad fork your garden bed before planting. To help with drainage you can grow sweet potatoes in raised beds, ridges, or hills.

Sweet potatoes also prefer warm temperatures and a relatively long season. Using black plastic mulch to help heat up the soil may be a good idea for those in cooler climates.

Surprisingly sweet potatoes don’t require especially fertile soil. In fact using chemical fertilizers often leads to tiny potatoes and huge vines. Simply adding some compost before planting is more suitable.

Planting

Unlike regular potatoes, sweet potatoes cannot be planted using seed potatoes. You need to use slips. Slips are the eyes on sweet potatoes. These are grown and then broken off to be replanted.

Note: for information on saving sweet potatoes and growing slips for next year check out our growing guide.

Slips should not be planted until 3-4 weeks after your last frost date. They’re very susceptible to frost. They should be planted 2-3 inches deep with their leaves above the soil. The slips you receive may or may not have grown roots already but they’re fine to plant either way.

Sweet potatoes have large sprawling vines and require quite a bit of space. You can plant sweet potato slips 10-18 inches apart in rows 3 feet apart. Water them the evening after you plant them and be sure to keep them moist for the next few days as they get established.

Care

Sweet potatoes should be mulched soon after planting. If you’re in a warm area where black plastic isn’t required straw or old leaves can be used. This will help keep the soil moist and block out weeds. Until they’re large it’s a good idea to keep them well mulched or weeded occasionally to keep weeds from overtaking them.

While sweet potatoes don’t like to be soaked (too much water can cause rotting) they do better with consistent waterings especially in dry areas. Too little water can lead to splitting and poor yields.

Pests & Diseases

Sweet potatoes can be affected by a number of pests like sweet potato weevils and diseases. The best way to combat them is purchasing healthy disease free slips, using simple crop rotation, and through maintaining healthy soils.

They’re also a favorite of deer so make sure you fence them off or cover them with netting.

Harvest & Curing

Aside from the potato itself the sweet potato shoots can also be harvested for cooking greens throughout the season. Just ensure you don’t take too much and kill the plant. 

Choose a dry, sunny day to harvest your potatoes. It will make both harvesting and curing much easier. Potatoes can be dug whenever they’ve reached an ideal size. It is best to harvest them all before the temperature dips below 55°F. Any lower temperatures can harm their storage capability.

Use a garden fork to lift them from the soil before collecting them by hand. Be careful and try to avoid nicking or damaging the potatoes. You may have to search a bit as they can grow up to 1 ft away from the plant itself. Sweet potatoes should be dried before any excess dirt is shaken off. Do not wash them, they don’t store well when washed.

For the first 7-10 days they should be kept at about 85°F and 90% humidity to cure. Then they can be stored at about 55°F in a dry, dark, well-ventilated area. Colder temperatures will affect their flavor so don’t refrigerate them until they’ve been cooked.

Any sweet potatoes with nicks or bruises will not keep well and should be used up first. You should regularly check you potatoes in storage and remove any bad ones as needed so they don’t spoil the whole crop. Properly cured sweet potatoes stored under the right conditions will keep 5-12 months.

Summertime Sweet Potato Ideas

If you still have have sweet potatoes in storage from last years garden (or are now craving them) there’s a couple simple ways to cook them even in the summer heat. Unlike in the autumn where I don’t mind baking them and heating up the house, in the spring and summer I typically cook sweet potatoes outside.

The simplest method is to clean them, poke a few holes in them, and wrap them whole in tinfoil before popping them onto a grill or into the coals of campfire. Alternatively they can be thinly sliced and wrapped in tinfoil packages with slices of onions, other veggies, and seasonings. All the ingredients should be drizzled in oil oil and the edges of the foil should be rolled or folded tightly to avoid leaking. Then they can be cooked just like the whole potatoes they’ll just cook much quicker.

Sweet potatoes truly are a wonderful crop. They’re high in vitamins and their storage ability makes them great for people looking to lessen their dependence on a global food system. It’s not too late to order slips! Try one of our productive varieties in your garden this summer.

What’s your favorite sweet potato variety?