Monday, September 14, 2020

Organic Seed Choices

The Genuine Faux Farm has been certified organic since 2007 and passed its organic inspection again for the growing season.  We realize that the process for organic certification likely seems like a mystery for many.  We also understand that most people only have a high-level (and likely inaccurate) idea of what it means to hold organic certification.  What certainly does not help is that there have also been incidents where people who know better have abused organic rules and certification for their own profit. 

We would like to try to make a real difference by improving understanding regarding the practices that a producer, such as ourselves, must consider for organic certification.

We hope you take a moment and learn something new (and perhaps interesting) today.  Perhaps that new thing has to do with organic certification! 

If you have interest, we have a post with links to older posts that address how we farm.  If you want something more recent, this recent post includes a section on how we make choices to leave crop residue in the field. 

It Starts With the Seeds

If you want to grow veggies, you either need seeds or starter plants.  And, if you have even done a little bit of growing and have chanced a look at a seed catalog, you realize how quickly you could get overwhelmed by the choices available to you.  I remember, in the days prior to the Genuine Faux Farm, that Tammy and I typically made choices based on how 'interested' we were based on a quick read of the text in a catalog.  Over time, we started to identify a few favorites based on their performance in our gardens.   But, really, the process was far from scientific.  In fact, we admit that we were often swayed by a good name as much as anything!

Oh look!  Supersmeltz!  That sounds like fun! Let's get a packet of that.

Once we became 'commercial' growers of vegetables, our perspectives started to change.  We needed seed that resulted in plants that performed for us.  And, by performance, I mean we needed to get a decent yield of product that looked good enough for people to buy AND it had to taste good.  And that, is the simplified version of what we were looking for as our farm evolved.

Sometimes we were looking for plants that held themselves more upright than other varieties of the same vegetable.  Sometimes we wanted smaller plants.  Sometimes, we wanted more leaf cover. Smaller fruits.  Bigger fruits.  Sweeter taste.  Tangier taste.  Single harvest.  Multiple harvest.  Holding capacity of ripe fruit.

You get the picture.

But, when you are certified organic you have a little bit more to consider as well.

Seed Considerations for Our Certified Organic Farm

I thought we would start with part of our Organic System Plan from 2020.  This is a form provided to us by our organic certifier.

The first thing to remember is that these forms are created for all types of growers.  A row crop farmer may only have five to ten seed types to document.  Our farm, on the other hand, included a list of 214 different seed types in 2020.  And, that was a year where we were cutting back.

Ideally, a certified organic grower would identify a supply of certified organic seed for each and every crop to be grown during a given year.  In and of itself, this is not so terribly hard to do if you have a limited number of crops and you are looking for some of the basic characteristics for success in a given crop.  But, what happens if you grow multiple varieties for an extensive list of crops?

The Case of the Bunte Forellenschus Lettuce

One of the lettuce varieties we have selected for repeated use on our farm is Bunte Forellenschus from Seed Savers.  We like the taste, the growth habit and we have found the proper growing time slot to be successful with this particular variety on our farm.  We are also attracted to heirloom varieties that produce well for us because we feel that it is important to maintain our heritage seeds and crops.  Successfully growing them out and putting them into the market helps maintain this diversity.

As you might guess, finding Bunte Forellenschus in seed catalogs is not always easy.  Seed Savers has carried it ever since we started growing this variety.  But, the seed for this variety has not always been certified organic.  

So, what does our farm do then?

Step one is to do a seed search to see if this variety is offered elsewhere as certified organic.  If we DO find that it is, we need to purchase that seed instead.  When that happens, we aren't always completely satisfied because different strains of a variety can actually exhibit numerous differences.  In other words, Bunte Forellenschus might not be the Bunte Forellenschus we are used to growing.  For that matter, not all seed houses produce the same quality of seed, so germination levels may not be the same.  We usually do not have too much of a problem with this if the seed comes from one of the houses we are used to dealing with.  But, when we find certified organic seed from a seed house we don't usually deal with - buy some of the non-organic seed from a seed house we trust more in case there is an issue with the new supply.

As you might guess, Bunte Forellenschus is not commonly offered by other seed houses other than Seed Savers.  So, it is unlikely that an organic option exists.  At this point, we can technically use the non-organic seed in our operation because there is not an organic option.  However, the spirit of organic certification tells us we should also continue to explore whether there are other speckled varieties that meet the needs of our farm that Bunte Forellenschus does.  Thus, if a certain variety doesn't seem like it will move to certified organic status in following years, we find ourselves trialing other varieties with similar characteristics to show that we are looking for an organic seed source to meet that crop need.

What happens if that fails?   Well, we can keep sourcing Bunte Forellenschus from the seed source as long as it has proper Safe Seed Pledges (as Seed Savers does) and most certifiers will allow this to continue.  However, another option if to start growing the crop out for your own seed supply.  

That sure does sound easy, doesn't it?  Well folks, that opens up a whole new set of record-keeping and processes for a farm that is already busy.  So, while I won't say it isn't a viable option - since we have done this a couple of times.  It isn't as simple as just collecting a few seeds and being happy about it.  Remember, it is not just a garden for our own use - there is a bit more at stake here.

A Quick Summary

If you didn't want to read all of that.  Oh. ups.  You already did?  Well, here's your review.

To be certified organic, a grower must:

  1. Source organic seed whenever it is available
  2. If it is not available, they must show that they did due diligence in searching for organic options
  3. If, a seed variety is not available as certified organic over a period of time, the conscientious organic grower will look for varieties to substitute or will look to produce their own seed if either is possible.
  4. The grower must document their searches and be able to justify their choices to the organic inspector or organic reviewer at the certification agency.
  5. The grower must maintain sufficient documentation to show the chain of acquisition for seed used in a growing season.  Things like invoices, seed tags and packets, organic certificates and safe seed pledges need to be available.

And now you know.  Thank you for taking a moment to learn more!

Have a good week everyone.

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