My trip to the OSA Organic Seed Growers Conference

On Jan 19-21, 2012, I attended the 6th Organic Seed Growers Conference in organized by the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA). The event started off with a one-day tour of the Skagit Vally seed region and then two days of conferences in Port Towsnend, WA.

If you missed the event, you can download the conference proceedings or view videos of the plant breeding sessions through eOrganic.

Though I did participate in a panel on marketing and growing seed profitably with Maud Powell and Steve Peters, today I won’t be posting about that but about the rest of my experience.

Pre-Conference Skagit Valley Seed Tour

Skagit county produces approximately 8% of the world’s spinach seed, 25% of the world’s cabbage seed, and 50% of the world’s beet seed (from WSU Skagit County Agricultural Statistics 2010) .

Here are some of the highlights of the tour:

Field Tour

A couple of days earlier about a foot of snow had fallen (an exceptionally large volume for this area). The walking part of the tour was subsequently canceled and all the following field pictures were taken through the tour bus window.

Here is a field of overwintered cabbages for hybrid seed production. The tour guide mentioned there were 2 rows of female plants for one row of male plants.

Another shot of a cabbage field. There is a v-ditch every 12 rows for drainage.

This area also produces a lot of raspberries.

Pinning Maps

With so many seed crops grown in one area, isolation distances are a big concern. Seed companies growing seed in the valley meet every year to decide who will grow what crops where using pinning maps.

In the Skagit Valley seed companies meet at WSU Mount Vernon Research Center for this process.

These are the cabbage pinning maps.

This is a chart of minimum isolation distance for different types of Brassica oleracea.

The red lines indicate areas where only one type of Brassica oleracea may be grown.

The pinning order is determined randomly. The first person pins a field for their crop. Then the next person pins a field. Each subsequent person needs to respect the minimum isolation distance from the fields that are already pinned.

This way seed companies cooperate to make sure their seed crops maintain varietal purity.

Soil Testing For Spinach Seed Crops

Spinach seed crops are particularly sensitive to bacterial and fungal disease. A 10- year crop rotation is the minimum to break many of these spinach disease cycles. In some cases this isn’t enough. Prior to pinning, growers can bring soil samples to WSU Mount Vernon Research Center to determine whether their soil is indeed disease-free.

Spinach seeds are planted (with replication) in the soil in a greenhouse in January. Within a month it is possible to evaluate the spinach seedlings to see what degree of disease might be expected.

Dr. Lindsey du Toit runs the vegetable seed pathology program.

The Conference

When I came to the previous Organic Seed Growers Conference in 2008 in Salem, OR, I was bombarded with information about climate appropriate seeds, plant breeding, seed cleaning details,  dynamics of the vegetable seed industry, and more.

Having already had this experience, I wasn’t at the 2012 conference only for seed information. I was here to be inspired (and I was inspired – especially about seed libraries, which I’ll be posting more about soon) and to mingle with the seedy underbelly of the organic farming world. In addition to seeing many old friends, I made some new friends.

Some folks I’d been reading about, or following their blogs, or even ordering/growing their seeds. I got to meet Sarah Kleeger and Andrew Still of Adaptive Seeds (and the Seed Ambassadors Project)  – Sarah was a touch disappointed I didn’t have a French accent.

I was surprised to be talking with Madeline McKeever of Brown Envelope Seeds. She was a long way from Ireland. She told me this wasn’t the first OSA conference she’d gone to either.

With other folks this was the first time I touched base. I spoke with Holli Cederholm of Proud Peasant Farm (who also works for Fedco) about how crop planning books don’t seem to factor in the food that the farmers eat. I was impressed by how much food Holli puts up and I thought Fred and I need to add a homesteading chapter if ever we revise our Crop Planning book.

I chatted with Doug Baty of Wild Plum Farm for quite a while about garlic. He couldn’t believe how big our porcelain garlic grew. I couldn’t believe how big his artichoke garlic were.

Sometimes you have to go a long way to meet someone from close to home. Though she’s now based in California, Rowen White of the Sierra Seeds Coop  grew up a couple of hours from Montreal. She is also the author of the just-published Breeding Organic Vegetables (available through NOFA NY).

I kept running into Chris Hardy of the Village Farm in Ashland, OR. We talked a lot about Tulsi.

And I got to know some folks better that I’d only met briefly at the 2008 conference such as Hanako Myers and Marko Colby of Midori Farm. I think every farmers market needs quality locally-produced kimchi and sauerkraut.

I did meet a lot of other folks too, including a number of people who’ve been reading Going to Seed. It was great meeting and talking with everybody. Seedy people are an interesting and friendly lot.

If you haven’t been to a OSA conference, you should. The next one will probably  be in 2014. I’ll likely be there.

(P.S.  the just posted Five Books Dan Brisebois thinks new farmers should read)

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