The Seed Ambassadors Project

Bringing Biodiversity Back

Category: Philosophical Musings

The Cabbage Coalition

The Cabbage Coalition

“Crop varieties incorporate the values of their creators. When you grow varieties bred by others, you propagate their values along with their varieties. Today’s professional plant breeders – university and corporate – are breeding plants to facilitate and serve the modern megafarm agribusiness pattern. These varieties produce well in huge moncultures grown with massive doses of herbicides and chemical fertilizers. Bred into the varieties are the values of their creators – that more is always better, that monocultures are best, and that pollution, biodiversity, and sustainability don’t matter.

“It is time for new patterns – new patterns for agriculture, and new patterns for plant breeding. It’s time for the rising up of a new generation of plant breeders out of the soil of our farms and gardens. It is time for farmers and gardeners everywhere to take back our seeds, to rediscover seed saving, and to practice our own plant breeding. It is time to breed plants based upon an entirely different set of values.”

– Carol Deppe
Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2000


Why am I growing thirty different varieties of winter cabbage? Well, I like cabbages. I also believe that the world stands on the cusp of a plant breeding revolution – in the values which inform it; its purposes; its strategies and tactics. Here’s an edited and enlarged excerpt from recent emails to a couple of friends, outlining some of the context for the shift I perceive.

Very recently, a stranger asked me who my heros were. Without hesitating, I heard myself say, “plant breeders.” As circumstance would have it, the years have gifted me the friendships of some of the key food plant breeders Stateside who, for several reasons – local ecology among them – are concentrated in my bioregion. These are the greenworld equivalent of IT open-source developers – a fiercely independent tribe whose lives are devoted to breeding open-pollinated, organically bred varieties of food plants. They happen to be some of the more remarkable souls I have ever met.

What I’ve been attempting to hang words on of late is that Wendell Berry’s observation that we can have agriculture only within nature, and culture only within agriculture (“At certain points these systems have to conform with one another or destroy one another”) is a great deal more than a tidy philosophical maxim. What fundamentally underpins the behavior of our civilization is nothing less than the literal, embodied fabric of the germplasm which sustains it (for IT hands, read OS). And because it is food crops which sit at the very apex point of our most immediate (thrice) daily interface with the greenworld, so our attitude and approach to co-evolving with our foods determines the very nature of the meme-foundation of our lives.

In the realm of archetypes, the same rules hold true through all spectrums and dimensions of experience, don’t you think, and it was when I was pondering patterns around information technology that I began considering evolutionary ontology, in earnest. What I recognized then was an implicit direction toward evolutionary drift – toward, put simply, openness. Hence, for example, the explosion of the web and the open-source movement in recent years – phenomena which proffer a timely, exacting and quite prophetic ‘rules-analog’ for the behavior of our cultural engagement with the greenworld. My strong sense is that these same evolutionary pressures are set to take the plant breeding community by storm and in so doing will refashion the fundamental fabric of that which sustains us.

No plant breeder worth her or his salt will pretend that the major imperative behind plant breeding strategies is not an economic one. This has had profound implications for the foundational genetic structure of our world because the vast majority of commercial companies sell food crops that are not open-pollinated (that is, they are not the greenworld equivalent of open-source). Instead, the overriding focus of recent decades has been on fashioning breeding techniques to create plants that are hybrids – life forms that are literally, structurally, proprietary. When we save seed from a hybrid, the ‘temporary holding pattern’ of a cross between two typically highly-inbred parents, and replant it, the resulting progeny is highly unstable. It does not breed true. What we get, instead, is a highly variable mess that also ‘disguises’ the genetic inheritance of the parental lines. Hence, farmers and, more specifically, competitors, see little benefit in ‘growing out’ hybrids. Hybrid vendors therefore literallylock a recurring annual profit into the structure of life and their balance sheet.

Why this technology is interesting to me is because evidence strongly suggests that the defining plant breeding motif, one that so far has put a great deal of money in people’s pockets, nevertheless flies fundamentally in the face of evolutionary trends. Not only do we see this in the the fact that plants naturally tend toward greater OP-ness where they are able, we see it most particularly in the essential nature of hybrid behavior. Hybrids are inherently, intrinsically, degenerative. They are designed, deliberately, to lack evolutionary resilience. In a nutshell, hybrids have no sense of place.

This, I sense, is where we encounter the not-insignificant cultural implications of dehybridization, among other practices. It’s my unshakeable sense that the fundamental essence of effective cultural regeneration will be underpinned, literally, by nothing less than an evolution in food plant breeding strategies – that in deconstructing food crop breeding as it stands, by applying strategies and tactics that honor ecological truths as distinct from synthetic ‘economic’ falsehoods, we do nothing less than deconstruct civilization and refashion it in the image of freedom, openness, sharing and the regenerative power of Nature; because our approach to seed, of course, is the foundational archetype upon which our culture is sustained. I believe this claim is not unsound.

Everything I’ve learned since even before I began my working life hopscotching around the deepest reaches of the international capital markets tells me that hitching a survival strategy, in this day and age, to breeding strategies that are fundamentally closed, is a Loser’s Game; that “the irresistible march of evolution” as Teilhard de Chardin puts it, has our economic imperatives beat. Hands down.

For complicated reasons, what it takes to raise food genotypes with a deepening capacity for co-evolving intelligently with local ecologies through the years, as distinct from ‘self-destructing’ after one season, isn’t simply a question of tweaking our existing approach: it will require a fundamental re-engineering of our culture and the assumptions which sustain it. A shift in collective conscience, perhaps. But as we move toward the evolutionary inevitability of inherently sustainable – as distinct from unsustainable – foodsheds, the plant breeding story moves center stage because it, of all human activities, provides us with a tangible, navigable cultural roadmap into the roots of authentic health.

Quite how this transition in breeding tactics and strategies, and the profound cultural shift it embraces, will unfold, I have absolutely no idea. We are all steering, after all. Tim Peters’ work is one example of what we might describe as a ‘deeply contextual’ approach to breeding – one which comes closer than most to annihilating the distinction between breeding plot and the harmonic chaostrophy of wild nature – as distinct from the moncultural segregation that conventional breeders typically seek to foster. What kind of lifestyle and awareness does it take to breed plants in this way?

And here in Eugene-Springfield, we are now co-ordinating growouts among the various non-profit teaching gardens in town. This is affording us the opportunity, for example, to work simultaneously with several crop types of Brassica oleraceae (which include, among others: kale, cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, collards, kohlrabi and rutabagas). This species is highly problematic for small scale independent plant breeders, given that it accounts for an extraordinarily high percentage of our food crops, yet brings with it cross-pollination-isolation concerns that are typically only assuaged by spreading growouts, expensively, across disparate, isolated plots – one of several factors contributing to the very great paucity of independent efforts to develop depth in OP B. oleraceae especially, in recent years.

Stateside in particular, independent breeders’ efforts to develop B. oleraceae (particularly of the heading types) have, with a tiny number of notable exceptions, been paltry. Let us hope that in time, conventional breeders will bring their remarkably sophisticated array of knowledge, expertise and passion to bear on the OP B. oleraceae story.

Of course I’m aware of the fundamental structural resistances standing in the way of such a transition. As a plant breeder with the Dutch transnational powerhouse, Bejo Seed- and one of the more impressive souls lurking around the PNW plant breeding scene – responded politely and matter-of-factly to me a few weeks ago: “Plant breeders need to be paid.”

The man’s concerns are as deeply valid as care for one’s family get – especially, goodness, in this day and age. But we live in an evolving universe, and the life forms which sustain us are not economic abstractions, even as our dominant cosmology treats them as such. As Terry Tempest Williams puts it:

“We are talking about the body of the beloved, not real estate.”

And these abstractions, if insufficiently faithful to life, are innately harmful and intrinsically unsustainable. Look about us: a Reckoning with such false idols was always predetermined.

We can, however, choose to be servants of, rather than slaves to, this Reckoning: because, blessedly, this challenge amounts to one and the very same thing as our great responsibility, our great opportunity, our great salvation. Conscious, generous-hearted work with the plants that hold up our world points us to the heart of a pathway into authenticity. It gifts us a pathway toward “ontological concurrence with the facts of the world” as George Steiner puts it, toward fashioning the cornerstones of our lives in the harmonious image of Nature rather than in the image of an incoherent and, as it happens, quite temporal abstraction – the authority of the bottom line.

As Tessa Gowans at Abundant Life told me when she gifted me seed to carry on my 2001 cross-country seedswapping adventures: “Seed wants to be free.” Interestingly, this is an exact analogical echo of philosopher Stewart Brand’s prescient observation: “Information wants to be free.” Regard seed: regard information. Perceive how they work. Perceive how this seed of an idea works. (“Seed-syllables travel and carry certain efficacies” – Anne Waldman.) Life, indeed, wants to be free: and will be free. This, we can be certain, is an evolutionary inevitability. The fight to fight, is lost.

In the meantime, the Universe has accorded me the immense privilege of living a life which aspires to what Jim Corbett referred to as the Quixotic Principle: “To open the way, a cultural breakthrough need not involve masses of people but must be done decisively by someone.” Right now, I am growing 30 different varieties of winter cabbage, together. Mostly hybrid. I hope to let this array of characters cross, and to use the immensely rich genetic squishfest which results, a de-hybridizing ‘grex’ we call it, to provide the foundation for local, grassroots efforts to segregate out stable, ecologically resilient, open-pollinated winter cabbage varieties over the long-term. The seed will be free. Succeeding seceding seeding, you might call it.

“I want death to find me planting my cabbages – caring little for it and even less about the imperfections of my garden.” – Montaigne

(…edited and enlarged from thoughts shared in email conversation, August 2006, with john chris jones and Richard.)

The Future of Farming

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.