The Seed Ambassadors Project

Bringing Biodiversity Back

Category: Switzerland

Pro Specie Rara – Swiss Seed Saving Organization

Pro Specie Rara (PSR) is Switzerland’s seed savers exchange. Unlike the American Seed Savers Exchange, PSR focuses solely on Swiss heirloom varieties: in order for a seed to be accepted into the PSR collection, it should have been grown in Switzerland for at least thirty years. For this reason, there are PSR listed Swiss heirloom Chioggia beets and many types of “French beans.” Traditional Swiss agriculture (and gardening) was heavily influenced by its neighboring countries (Germany, Austria, Italy, and France), as was the language, so the Pro Specie Rara inventory is quite varied. In addition to the vegetable varieties, PSR also promotes the stewardship of traditional animals and fruits. To date, 25 breeds of rare animals and dozens of fruits are promoted through the organization.

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Right to left: PSR; Marianna Serena Seeds project leader; The Seed Vault

Pro Specie Rara is 25 years old in 2007, and at the peak of their acquisitions they obtained hundreds of heirloom varieties each year — seven or eight years ago they acquired 100 – 200 new sorts per year. The past few years, though, fewer and fewer varieties have been submitted, and in 2006 they only received 20 new accessions. Marianna Serena, who manages the seed collection, said she feels good about the quantity of seeds they have, adding that the organization is about at the limit of what they can care for. Pro Specie Rara doesn’t have its own gardens like some other Seed Savers organizations — they are more of a networking and marketing hub for old varieties.

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Sativa Rheinau part two: Breeding Projects and More

The folks at Sativa do a lot of work with maintaining and reinvigorating old varieties for PSR. (Pro Specie Rara, the Swiss seed saver’s organization, see next posting). Most of this work focuses on brassicas, which often suffer from inbreeding depressions, leading to sickly plants and poor yields. By the time inbreeding depression is recognized it is often too late: one cannot simply grow out a large population of the line and save seeds, as the genetics have been bottlenecked by previous small populations (e.g. a home gardener saving seed from too few plants). The only glimmer of hope is to locate other lines of the same variety and cross the lines together — and this is exactly what Friedemann, the vegetable breeder at Sativa, is doing.

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Greehouse production, Brussels sprout de-hybridization, seed crop harvester.

The prime example of this tragic condition is found in the red Brussels sprout variety known as Rubine, still carried by many seed companies throughout Europe and the United States. Rubine has declined over the past several decades and now often fails to produce anything resembling Brussels sprouts. Friedemann recently acquired Rubine from six different sources throughout Europe, with plans to let them all flower together in the hopes that the different lines will bring enough genetics together to reinvigorate the variety — hopefully to the point of producing healthy plants that will produce large sprouts. If this cannot be achieved, he said he will begin work to develop a new red Brussels sprout variety.

Sativa is also involved in Biodynamic breeding projects of a completely different sort than Ute Kirchgasse and Christina Henatsch (see previous posts). Friedemann came to biodynamic vegetable breeding from quite the opposite direction of Christina and Ute. His training and experience is not Anthroposophical, but rather he worked as a vegetable breeder at Hild, a conventional seed company.

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breeder Friedemann, celeriac inspection, snow at Sativa.

It follows, then, that Friedermann has a different approach. In contrast to most of the Biodynamic community, he doesn’t see any problem with the wise use of F1 hybrids for breeding (unless these hybrids are geneticly engineered CMS hybrids). Friedemann doesn’t create hybrid varieties for sale or distribution, but acquires them from other seed companies and then uses these varieties as breeding material. He believes the organic/biodynamic community should utilize the genetic resources and hard work of the conventional community, just as the large seed compaines use the resources of the open-pollinated community in the creation of their hybrids.

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Sativa Rheinau part one: Swiss Biodynamic Seed Company

From Gerhard and Susanne’s we traveled by train south to Sativa Rheinau, a biodynamic seed company in Switzerland near the border town of Schaffhausen, home to the largest waterfall in Europe. Set in a seventeenth century monastery on an island in the Rheine, Sativa is blessed with being one of the most beautiful places we have happened across in our travels. The seed company at Sativa is part of a larger Biodynamic farm project that integrates 25 handicapped people into the work with animals (dairy and meat), fruits, vineyard, grains, and seed growing and processing tasks.

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falls on the Rhine, Sativa HQ, seed room

Sativa’s main vegetable seed customers are home gardeners, and they work closely with Pro Specie Rara (PSR) to distribute heirloom Swiss varieties. (More about PSR, the Swiss seed savers group, in a later posting). Sativa’s main work with farmers is in their work with seed potatoes and grains, and they sell large quantities of rye, spelt, and wheat to farmers there. Because Switzerland is not part of the EU, they do not have the restrictions of most other countries in regards to the Common Catalog. But this does not mean that they do not have to deal with limitations; as is the case in the US, high quality open-pollinated varieties for market gardeners are either nonexistent or are hard to come by.

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Rhine, monastery, garden, gate
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