The Seed Ambassadors Project

Bringing Biodiversity Back

Month: December 2006 (page 1 of 2)

Lithuania Part 4: 2nd Day of Meetings

Thursday began with a drive out to the countryside for a visit at the Lithuanian Institute of Horticulture. We were welcomed by Dr. Rasa Karkleliene, Head of Vegetable Breeding Sector and Scientific Officer, and Dr. Adrius Sasnauskas, Vice-director of Science for the Genetic and Biotechnology Department (!).

We gathered in the board room and watched a very professional video explaining the size and scope of the Institute, with images of some of their over 400 hectares of idyllic apple and pear orchards, biotech labs, and delicious-looking (GE!) strawberries. The Institute is involved in every aspect of food science, from variety development to processing all in one place. They are funded only 30% by the Lithuanian government, with other funding sources coming from the EU or companies such as Syngenta (the giant biotech/chemical multinational corporation). Go here to see how Syngenta and Monsanto work together. This year the Horticultural Institute began their first organic plot – two hectares for organic variety development.

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Photos, from left to right: 1. The Lithuanian Institute of Horticulture; 2. In the meeting in the board room, talking about SAP and learning about what happens at the Institute; 3. Dr. Rasa Karkleliene and a colleague taking samples of some of our varieties.

After learning about who and what we were up against, we gave an overview of our project and Andrew presented the slide show, which by this point was smooth as silk, and talked a little bit with the Doctors, who were extremely friendly and very interested in our project. Not one word was mentioned about our differing philosophies of plant development, and it was nice to have conversations with actual biotech scientists, because despite our obvious differences in methods (and world view), they are working for the some of the same things we are: superior vegetable varieties.

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Lithuania Part 3: The First Meetings

Wednesday morning began with a three hour meeting at the headquarters of the Chamber of Agriculture, arranged by Edita Karbauskiene, with about 30 organic farmers (from large farms to hobbyists), professors, members of the Chamber of Ag., and members of the press represented. The meeting was scheduled for three hours, and despite worries that we wouldn’t be able to fill up that time, the time needed for translations and seed swapping activities extended things to a record-braking four hours!

Keeping our spiel interesting and relevant for such a diverse group was somewhat difficult, but also rather fun. We began with a discussion of the Seed Ambassadors Project, then talked about the seed scene in the other countries we have visited, focusing on ideas that could be beneficial to the organic seed scene in Lithuania. Because certified organic seeds are slim pickin’s in Lithuania, we found ourselves promoting that the farmers exchange seeds amongst themselves, and described specifically the Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) model. Many people seemed to embrace the idea for their own personal gardens, but the SSE model doesn’t work for farmers, who need to cite certified sources for their seeds.

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Photos, from left to right: 1. and 2. Sarah, Kayla and Andrew sharing seeds and discussing varieties with some atendees of the meeting at the Chamber of Agriculture. 3. Andrew receiving Lithuanian Walnut seeds, with translation help of Edita. 4. Some of the meeting participants checking out and divying up their seeds.

We learned from this meeting that in some ways, Lithuania is a few steps ahead of the US as far as facilitating farmers’ access to Certified Organic Seeds: a Chamber of Agriculture sponsored database of Lithuanian Organic Varieties is in the works, and already enough information has been compiled to assist farmers in their quest of OG seeds. We referred people to the Organic Seed Allicance’s Seed Producers Database, still in its infancy, for comparative purposes. (Another American organic seed database can be accessed at the Organic Materials Review Institute site.) Continue reading

Lithuania Part 2: Organic Agriculture Overview

The organic scene in Lithuania is still in its relative infancy compared with that of Germany or the US. Though government affiliated Organic Certification began in Lithuania in 1993 (with nine farms certified), entry into the EU in 2004 brought on a new and different set of organic regulatory laws. The Lithuanian Chamber of Agriculture has played a key role in helping farmers keep pace with these laws, but in a country whose organic industry is so young, many of the regulations are somewhat difficult to follow.

If an organic farmer wants to grow organic seed for sale, s/he must obtain a seed certification in addition to the standard organic certification. As of 2006, only about 20 farmers in the country have this certification and all but one of them grow only grain.The single grower that produces vegetable seed is contracted to Institute of Horticulture for growouts of some of their crops (carrots and onions especially), which are then sold commercially (mostly to gardeners) by the Institute. Grain accounts for 69% of the organic ag. production here (most of the rest in fodder or sugar beets), with only 0.1% in vegetables, so the country’s need for certified organic vegetable seeds for farm use is pretty small.

One of the goals of the Chamber of Agriculture is to increase the amount of organic vegetable production in Lithuania, but the market for organics is small here and there are no marketing boards to help the farmers sell their produce. Also, most farms are pretty small by production standards and the farmers can’t produce enough to satisfy a grocer’s demands, let alone meet export quantities to reach developed markets. Organic vegetable growers would then have to rely on the local markets, where consumers will pay a price premium on some products but not others (see:
for recent prices of organic crops in Lithuania).

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Lithuania Part 1: Vilnius

We arrived in Vilnius, Lithuania on Sunday night and secured lodging at a hostel. Monday morning Andrew and I began our quest for Russian Visas – a process that took a day longer than planned at considerable more expense than we imagined. Because of the visa delay, we were forced to cancel our first appointments in Kaunas with the woman that made it happen for us in Lithuania, Edita Karbauskiene, ecologist (her title) and “Lithuania’s Angel of Organic Farming” (my title for her) for the Lithuanian Chamber of Agriculture.

However, we did get to see Vilnias by night. This included some beautiful old town architecture, a Frank Zappa memorial and the pseudo-independent Republic of Uzupis (a quaint neighborhood of artists, hippies and drunks). Uzupis has a great Constitution posted on a wall for everyone to see. It includes “Everyone is free to be free and everyone is free to not be free if they choose”. It seemed like beautiful tax-paying anarchism to me.

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Over the course of the next two and a half days of meetings, we got an amazing survey of the organic and seed scene in Lithuania. What will follow is a brief summary of what we learned.

Plan B… More Hamburg, then Grain

Our plans for Poland on the 9th of December fell through, and so we found ourselves in Hamburg with lots of options but no plans. We did what we could to pursue new seed-related contacts, even recruiting the help of Christina and Juan, but we found last-minute arrangements around the holidays to be somewhat difficult in Germany.

We wound up staying in Hamburg until our December 17th flight to Lithuania, mostly exploring various parts of the city and lying low.

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One of the contacts Christina pursued for us worked out, and so we spent a delightful afternoon with Karl-Josef Muller, the head of the Association for Biodynamic Plant Breeders, and his fellow cereal breeder Martin Timmermann. Karl Joseph has been breeding for high quality grains in low fertility, low-input organic systems since 1986, and has developed and registered a variety of “naked” barley, Lawina, on the EU’s common catalogue. Take a Look at their website “Cereal Breeding Research Darzau” it contains a lot of great information.

We first checked out of some of their “nursery” plots and grow-out fields of fall-planted rye, spelt, einkorn, and barley on neighboring organic and biodynamic farms. Then we returned to the research center to see some of the specialized equipment (including custom tractor and special de-hulling machine), and then retired to their offices for coffee and a long discussion of the methods and whys and wherefores of organic grain breeding.

Karl-Josef told us, “Our aim is to develop new varieties, but it does not end there. It is also to develop new ideas for new varieties and to research and tell others (even the conventional breeders) what we have learned. Because if the idea is developed, sometimes that is enough for now. The market/interest (in organically developed seeds) is very small, but it is not our job to improve this. What is important is to develop new criteria for farming, organic farming, human being, these ideas.”

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It was a wonderful visit, and we left with a few new varieties of grains (Lawina naked barley and a light grain rye), and shared with Martin some of the perennial wheat that we had brought. We also left with our heads full of new ideas and information.

Germany: Into the Heart of the Matter

Early morning on Monday, December 4, we arrived at the doorstep of Christina Henatch, a pivotal player in the German Biodynamic seed breeding scene, Working at the Gut Wolfsdorf Farm outside of hamburg Germany. Christina was gracious enough to host us for several days during a very busy time of year for her. We talked about a great deal — from nematodes and flea beetles to the reality of so-called “organic hybrids” now on the market. We participated a bit in the process of selecting carrots for next year’s seed crop, and helped process some of this year’s carrot seed crop.

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We worked a great deal with Juan Richter, Christina’s knowledgable and helpful research assistant, and had what amounted to a four day seminar in the Biodynamic seed world of Germany.

Christina eagerly accepted many of the seeds that we brought, including the broccoli and beans, which are two of her main breeding crops. She was also excited to pass on some of our seed to her colleagues that work with grains, eggplant, salad greens and more. She shared with us some of her favorite carrots, broccoli, and beans, as well as a “naked barley” and some over wintering spinach, and offered us new contacts to explore in her network of Seedspeople.

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Christina is a part of the oldest and largest cooperative of Biodynamic breeders in the world, Bingenheimer. Bingenheimer is dedicated to developing and promoting open-pollinated varieties for the professional gardener/farmer that are of the calibar to compete with and surpass hybrid varieties. It is a pivotal time in the evolution of the seed business, especially considering the introduction of “organic hybrids,” and the German Seed Initiative, comprised of dozens of dedicated seed breeders like Christina, is the only organization taking a pro-active stance to ensure that market gardeners will continue to have access to increasingly high-quality open pollinated varieties.

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We hope to visit Bingenheimer later in our journey, but for now stay tuned for some photos of the Gut Wulfsdorf farm and our experiences here.


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