The future of farming:

These thoughts are derived from a June 2004 posting by Nick Routledge to the Eugene Permaculture Guild listserv, in which he described some of the insights garnered from the years he spent walking among local gardeners and farmers who are consciously engaged in stewarding the communion of food crops and landscapes:

The art of authentic seed stewardship is evolving rapidly. We are learning, for example, that for-profit growing regimens have blinded us to revolutionary insights into the way Nature co-evolves. Put simply, it transpires that the most effective seed stewardship approaches are, of necessity, small-scale, highly-localized, inextricably related to the long term care of the larger ecologies in which they are embedded, and beyond the ecological reach of Big Money.

Recently, I found myself across a bed from a local farming couple, weeding and sharing. This couple have been one of my key sources of indigenous food knowhow over the years because they have a closer relationship with their own food than anyone I’ve encountered in this bioregion – or anywhere else for that matter. They raise almost everything that they and their animals eat. Their reverence for life plays out in many ways. They are conservatives. They use a watering regimen far, far more frugal than anything I’ve encountered in my years of pottering about the local veggie growers scene – watering all their crops, once a week, for a five hour stretch; whereas I’m used to seeing some farmers overhead-water their lettuce for four hours every day during the high heat of summer – eight hours for raspberries, and suchlike.

Necessity is the mother of revelation perhaps and, as you might expect, going frugal with the water has pushed these farmers along a wisdom path that holds useful lessons for all of us interested in growing food well. Some of their insights are modest. Which lettuces are deeply drought-tolerant? “What about celery?” (the great water hog) I ask them, “Do you plant it somewhere different and water accordingly?” “No,” they say, “We grow it the same as the rest but don’t harvest until after the winter rains have arrived and the plant has had a chance to fatten up.” This small but revealing piece of intelligence is one you’re unlikely to hear from other growers, myself included, because we’ve never gone that route; because the general agricultural, and indeed horticultural tendency, is to bring the fattest crop to table or market as quickly as possible – which typically means throwing as much fertility and water as we can profitably get away with, at our dirt – pushing our harvest as far as the seasons, front and back, will allow. “Let’s give our plants the mostest!” we chant, mantralike, and so we slap on the goodies. One consequence? We’ve been prisoners to our experience. We know little about the strengths an alternative approach may be hiding.

What, then, if our current perspective on what makes for a healthy harvest – raising the fattest, biggest, quickest greenest veggies we can, now – has been based on a limiting understanding of how to nurture health at large, over the long term? Indeed, what happens once we begin incorporating the saving and replanting of seed as a defining priority in our relationship with our food – when we carry over the “memory” of our co-evolutionary relationship with our food, from year to year, and can witness how our choices, each season, affect the quality of the germplasm in our stewardship?

George Stevens, the farmer-seedsman Sage out of northern California observes: “From my experience of 12 years of growing food and seed crops …Imbalanced [high] fertilization results in an effect referred to as “leveling the playing field,” where natural selection is defeated by pumping up plants to uniformity. With moderate fertility only the strong will survive and make seed. A low-input approach may at first be lower yielding …but aspiring seed savers shouldn’t be discouraged.” In other words, an ‘immoderate’ regimen produces high yields now, but suppresses the intelligence which allows us to see and help usher forth the germplasm possessing the deepest sense of health-in-this-place. Currently, we ‘suppress’ the natural health and intelligence of the plants that hold up our world. Simply put, the experiences of those who are rediscovering what it is to embrace the Long View more fully, suggest that a deeper understanding of our ecological context, and a shift in the priorities associated with raising our food, are one and the same thing.

The increase in yields that accompanies an attentive localization dance doesn’t take very long at all. I see clear evidence in the seed I carry and grow. Take Painted Mountain flour corn, for example, the result of Dave Christiansen’s remarkable 30-year corn breeding effort in the mountains of Montana and a crop I see in many of the avant-gardens in our bioregion. (Painted Mountain Flour Corn is also a cornerstone of many localized corn breeding efforts as the rich genetic motherlode it offers is segregated out to suit the exigencies of personal taste and local ecology – Dr. Alan Kapuler’s Painted Mountain Sweetcorn, a cross between it and Luther Hill, being one fine example.) As I have moved around the seedgeek crowd of late, being gifted this corn from friends who have been growing it out locally over recent years, I’ve been holding it and looking at it.

And wouldn’t you know, the palm of my hand tells a story. As I weeded with my farming friends, I was able to alert them to the fact that the Painted Mountain seed they gifted me was noticeably fatter than the seed I’ve picked up from any other grower in our bioregion. Because they’re not a peripatetic seedcarrier nipping at the heels of southern Willamette seed geeks and their stashes, they had no idea how their seed compared. Remember, their corn isn’t fatter because they’ve been throwing steroids, even organic steroids, at it. Wherever I find a deepening tendency toward conscious stewardship of the foundations of our world, I witness a story of marked increase in health and yield, with less in the way of management and input, over time.

The pace is quickening. We’re seeing revolutionary discoveries flowing into the hands of the local, small-scale seed saving tribe, all the time. Take the following insight, with immense implications for the future of small-scale, bioregional food stewardship, wherever it finds its home.

I tend to let intelligence find me, so when Peace Seeds’ Alan Kapuler (the Corvallis-based former research director for Seeds of Change) thrust a three page photocopy in my face and said, “Here, this just came in. You definitely ought to read it,” the klaxons were fairly tooting.

It transpires that Chinese agronomists have been putting their peoplepower to good use and, by painstakingly planting out seed saved from different locations on individual plants, they’ve discovered that where seeds on plants are harvested, has one humdinger of an impact on genetics. It is difficult to synthesize the wherefores concisely, but the tactic was born out of the newly emerging science of ECIWO biology (Embryo Containing the Information of the Whole Organism) which, in a nutshell, looks at plants as holographic archetypes. Goethe (“a flower is a leaf in love”) and the biodynamics tribe have been hip to this trip for years, of course, but the Chinese are the first, to my knowledge, to make a concerted effort to note what happens when we apply this insight empirically to seedsaving across many plant crops.

How does it work? Old timers know that if you want to birth, for example, a rosemary plant with a spreading habit, then take a mature plant and select a cutting growing horizontally off the side of the plant. Then stick it in the ground, and water. Likewise, if you’re looking for progeny with an upright habit, then take a vertical cutting growing at the top of the plant. Similarly, with ECIWO seedsaving, we’re basically looking at correlations between seed location and the habit we’re trying to encourage in progeny. So, for example, corn ears grow not on the top of the plant, or on the roots, but on the middle of the stalk. Studies show that seed selected from the middle of the ear yield anywhere from 6% to 35% more than seed taken from the lower or upper thirds of the ear.

Potatoes? The lower part of the plant is what we wish to emphasize. The Chinese have have found that by planting only the lower half of a seed potato (the distal end, the end where the umbilical was attached) yields can be upped by 20%. Wheat? Seed from the mid-spike ups yields by 14% (the awns on the spike are modified leaves which explains why seed is chosen from the middle instead of the top of the spike). Sorghum and millet? Seeds from the top of the seed head increase yield by 6.5% to 26%. I’ve seen similar stats for cucumbers, beans and turnips, among others.

The applications are revolutionary, simple, and, here’s the clincher, any gardener and farmer can use them to improve old varieties, and develop new ones. Could it be that ECIWO seedsaving is a critical key we’ve all been looking for our own smallscale seed saving efforts? Want to enhance the morphological traits of the brassica oleracea family, for example – cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi, brussel sprouts and collards? Give it a go. Perhaps some of us have ideas about how we might develop new crops from wild plants using these principles, calling forth the characteristics we wish to encourage.

It is revolutionary insights such as these that are fuelling a sudden surge in grassroots seed-saving efforts, locally. People are waking to the truth and beauty that even the smallest-scale, highly localized seed-saving efforts are whupping the dictats of the market. That’s because Nature’s truths support a deepening sense of place – highly personalized plant stewardship in ecological context, through season after season after season. This localized thread-of-return to health is an inherently uneconomic trend for big ticket seed savers, who find the direction of the evolutionary impulse smacking them up the back of the head. Put simply, the deeper insights of holism are propelling us into a field of potentialities that’s exists, literally, beyond the ecological reach of The Market. I keep coming back to the words of one of the pillars of our local farming community, “The future of farming,” he says, “is in the hands of the gardeners.”

The weekend before last I found myself at the Dharmalya permie gathering, sharing starts, most of which I’d grown up from locally-saved seed. More than a couple of people remarked on how unusually green and vital and strong these starts were. Yes, I admit it, their unusually robust vitality was a message I was hoping would register. As I keep repeating, the magic has very little to do with me and everything to do with the quality of the germplasm shining through. Wot’s more, because I know which plant comes from which seed comes from which hands, I know from experience that the more conscious the Long View surrounding a seed’s local lineage, the stronger the plant tends to be. No surprise, perhaps, but when the evidence is alive, right before your eyes, it takes on a resonance and an impact that has to be seen to be believed.