Seed Saving Can Save Us All

Last Thursday (9/25/14), our friends at Turtle Tree Seed led a field day of their seed-production farm and seed company based at Camphill Village-Copake.  About 30 individuals contribute to the management of the gardens, the harvesting and processing of mature plants to extract seed, the cleaning and sorting of seed, and the marketing and packaging of the final product.  Many of these individuals are residents of Camphill Village who have developmental disabilities, who have meaningful and fulfilling work thanks to the connection between Biodynamic Agriculture and the Camphill Village philosophy. The growers explained that to grow biodynamic seed, one simply grows the plants biodynamically (and organic seed comes from certified organic farms and plants).  Because of the length of time in the field (seed crops are generally harvested well beyond eating ripeness), any plant grown for seed will face much more disease and pest pressure; this is why organic and biodynamic seed production is so important for environmental health, and why all growers should consider supporting only organic and biodynamic seeds; conventionally-produced seeds have a heavy impact on the environment before they are even planted by a farmer or gardener because pests, disease, weeds and soil fertility can all be managed through chemical methods.  No matter the production philosophy or certification, one needs to isolate plant varieties in time and space if they are a crop that is likely to cross-pollinate (and therefore change the genetics of the seed produced).  Additionally, plants that are grown for seed also need much more room because they will grow much larger.

This is zucchini at a seed-mature stage.  Not exactly eating quality squash any more.  One would scoop out the inner flesh and clean the seeds using water and a scrubbing motion before drying and storing the seeds.

This is zucchini at a seed-mature stage. Not exactly eating quality squash any more. One would scoop out the inner flesh and clean the seeds using water and a scrubbing motion before drying and storing the seeds.

The group learned three different seed extraction methods: dry harvest, wet harvest, and fermentation/wet harvest.  Each technique involves taking the plant with fully mature seeds and separating the seeds from the rest of the plant, and cleaning out any immature seeds, making use of seed weight and seed size to help in the separation.  For dry-harvested seeds (where the plant has flowered and created a pod that dries out), one uses significant pressure to crush and break down the pod and plant parts, then winnows with air to separate off lighter-weight plant parts and debris, and finally passes the seed through a set of screens to filter out larger particles and long bits of stem.

Using a fan to winnow lettuce seeds.

Using a fan to winnow lettuce seeds. The heavier seeds land in the bin nearer to the fan, and the debris lands in the second.

For wet-harvested seeds (where the plant’s fleshy parts contain the mature seed), one has to open the fruit and remove the flesh and seeds.  In the case of cucumbers and tomatoes, the seeds are left to ferment for several days to break down a protective membrane around the seeds.  The seed saver uses a water winnowing technique for wet-harvested seeds.  Seeds and flesh are placed in a jar or bowl, and water runs on top.  Then water is poured off, and with it goes the non-useable part of the mixture, which floats to the top, and the heavy, mature seeds stay at the bottom.  After water winnowing, the seeds are spread on paper to dry.

Purple tomatillos after blending. This mixture will be filtered and water-winnowed.

Purple tomatillos after blending. This mixture will be filtered and water-winnowed.

Watermelon seeds are extracted by eating and spitting!  This variety is called Cream of Saskatchewan.

Watermelon seeds are extracted by eating and spitting! This variety is called Cream of Saskatchewan.

We learned how variety selection works in root crops, which take two seasons to set seed.  At Turtle Tree, the growers harvest mature (eating-stage) onions, carrots, etc. and sort them based on the varieties’ written descriptions.  The 25% that most exemplify healthy, true-to-type specimens will be grown for seed that becomes the future seed stock on the farm.  This helps ensure a purity in the variety for the long-term.  The middle 50% of the crop will be replanted in the second season, and its seed will become what is harvested for sale through the Turtle Tree Seed Company.  This is still a high-quality and true-to-type seed!  The bottom 25% of the crop (they do not exemplify the variety characteristics as well as the top 75%) is used as food in the community dining hall.  To account for differences in growing conditions, plants are harvested in very small batches and compared within their batch (then added to the graded piles).  That way, the grower can control for the fact that poor soil in that few feet of the garden bed impacted the shape and size of the carrots, for example.

carrot grading buckets poor good select carrot grading 2

While not every one of us will become seed farmers, it’s important to support the work of the companies who are preserving the range of plants and subtly-different varieties.  It takes more land and plenty of extra vigilance on the part of the grower, especially if the plants are being grown organically!  Here are a few other seed companies we know and love (and who have taught us about seed farming in the past):

seed grower to do list

Further Resources:

When Buttercups are Bad: Co-Pasturing Field Day at Wild Geese Farm

Nancy Apolito, our Finance & HR Manager, sends in this report about her recent adventure in Western New York, staffing a field day in Rushford, NY at Wild Geese Farm.  The field day’s theme was “Maintaining Pasture Systems to Meet Your Farm Goals.”

Lynn and Shawn Bliven pasture feed a herd of cattle, 5 horses, and 25 sheep in addition to housing a dozen chickens.  Lynn Bliven led the field day with a walk through four of the pastures to demonstrate the results of co-pasturing livestock.  Aaron Santangelo from Cornell Cooperative Extension–Allegany & Cattaraugus County provided valuable information regarding pasture plants that are harmful to livestock and the way that these plants propagate.  Farmers who know about the full lifecycle of these invasive can strategically manage their herds on pasture to avoid problems and sometimes alleviate the weed pressure using the animals’ inherent capabilities.

Bull Thistle

Canadian Thistle

Bull Thistle

Canadian Thistle and Bull Thistle grow and spread differently.  Bull Thistle needs two years to produce seed–it’s less aggressive when its life cycle is disturbed yearly by turning the soil, but it’s a problem in pastures since they are not tilled.  Canadian Thistle has underground growth that makes it problematic even in tilled fields.  I found out that even common plants, like buttercup, can be very dangerous to a herd.  Grazing behavior (as in, what to eat) should be taught to animals–they won’t know what is poisonous by instinct.  Older animals in the herd or flock can set the right example, and farmers should be careful to watch what the young animals are eating.  Lynn shared that she lost 15 sheep due to their grazing on a plant in the nightshade family.  Even wild rose can cause problems for the smaller animals.

The highlight of the afternoon for me was seeing the sheep and the cattle pasturing in separate areas. Lynn spoke of the differences in the pastures after the different herds have been grazing.  I was amazed at the difference (I don’t live on a farm, remember!) between the vegetation in the pastures, which was impacted by the physical size and shape of the different species.  One great way to deter invasive plant species is to allow cattle in to trample the plants down.  The sheep on pasture clip the field down farther than the cows want to and this maximizes the value of each pasture.

The pastures at Wild Geese farm have taken 17 years to reach this point.  Co-pasturing takes organization and each species requires different enclosures and management; Lynn also discussed some common problems with grass fed herds, weaning calves, and establishing healthy environments for many types of animals on a farm.  However, going this route has helped make the pastures more productive and the farm more profitable.

Lynn shared aerial maps and grids that help the farm plan out pasture schedules.  They’ve also used this tool to carry out a slight re-grading of the landscape and some drainage improvement projects.  This allows for animals to have access to high-quality pasture areas and a water source at all times.  Healthier animals will make for higher-quality meat and better returns for the farm!  My day was rounded out by two Red-Tailed Hawk and one Osprey sighting over the gorgeous landscape.

Further Resources:

Fields of Greens at Remembrance Farms

There is nothing quite like the late afternoon light on a summer day in the Finger Lakes.  As I pulled up the gravel road to Remembrance Farms in Trumansburg, New York, even the dust kicked up from my tires seemed to shimmer.   This was my first visit to a certified biodynamic farm and I was curious and excited to learn more about this unique way of farming.

A fellow farmer taking notes in the fields of greens

A fellow farmer taking notes in the fields of greens

Remembrance Farm offered a fascinating view of how the philosophy behind biodynamic farming turns into something we can see, touch, and taste.  As we followed farmer Nathaniel Thompson down the farm path, the fields of greens rolled out in waves ahead of us, all in various states of maturity depending on when they were planted.  The Golden Cornet hens squawked and ran and the geese honked a warning from their pasture as we walked by.  A row of mustard trials waved their yellow flowers in the breeze, and on the other side of the hedge row, varieties of onions and other root crops stood their ground despite the recent downpours.

Remembrance Farm is the only Demeter-certified Biodynamic farm in the Finger Lakes region, where Nathaniel and his wife Emily specialize in baby salad greens and stored root crops for wholesale markets throughout New York State and a collaborative CSA in the Ithaca area, the Full Plate Farm Collective.   Grains are used on-farm to feed the laying flock, and the eggs are sold to primarily to CSA members.

As the crowd gathered, Nathaniel gave us a brief overview of the history and philosophy of biodynamic farming.   Biodynamic agriculture is a holistic method of farming which emphasizes sensitivity to subtle processes in Nature, with the goal of producing food that truly nourishes the body and spirit. While the fundamental principles of present day organic farming (the exclusion of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers in crop production) are included in biodynamic agriculture (and to be certified biodynamic one must first be certified organic according to NOP standards), its breadth and depth extend beyond the technical definition of organic farming.  A biodynamic farm is understood to be a living, breathing organism, so farming practices strive to balance the overall health of the farm in order to produce the very highest quality food.  The role of the farmer in biodynamic farming is to understand and nurture, in very intentional way, the health of the farming organism.

On the farm something was always being planted, germinated, growing, and harvested.  Nathaniel explained and showed how through trial and experimentation he used biodynamic principles to learn what worked best on this particular farm.  In some cases he was partnering with other farmers, such as Fruition Seeds located outside of Naples, to discover which plant varieties had the best germination and production levels in the unique climate of Upstate New York.  Certainly the winter of 2014 helped all of us discover truly winter hardy varieties!

The mustard trials

The mustard trials

Nathaniel also showed how organic and biodynamic farming can also be quite mechanized and efficient in its production. Nathaniel has invested heavily in buildings and equipment and pays close attention to cleanliness and safety in his salad green packing area.

Remembrance Farm was an amazing combination of beautiful, practical, and mystical. As we closed the day and the evening light turned gold, I felt the experience could not really be described fully in the two hours I spent there. For more information, you can check out their website at http://www.remembrancefarm.org.

Bread, from Wheat Field to Millstone to Our Bellies

Group behind wheat and weeds3
Last Wednesday, we had a farmer-education event* all about growing grains that are good enough quality for milling into flour for human food.  This is the holy grail of grain-growing, and an important topic for newer grain growers.  Elizabeth Dyck from OGRIN (an excellent, thorough teacher) joined farmer Ashley Loehr at her Sparrowbush Farm on a clear, sunny day in Hudson, NY.  Our own Robert Perry, Grain and Field Crops Coordinator, joined in the processing discussion, showing the components of our mobile grain processing unit that small-scale growers can use.  (The unit is currently parked in the Hudson Valley to support the network of small-scale grain growers involved in our Value-Added Grains Project).

Over 25 farmers (and a few bakers and extension agents) attended to learn about the impacts on quality that various factors can have.  We learned about wheat and grain varieties, crop management, weather, disease as they relate to the milling quality.  For instance, a weedy field means that grains are harder to harvest and mill because the weeds clog the equipment, or weed seeds “contaminate” the pure grain.  Planting dates, weather, cover-cropping practices and mechanical tillage all impact weed pressure–so, a farmer can be doing plenty of the right things and still find themselves with a weedy wheat field.

Grains are scored for quality by a processing facility, but a grower will have a sense of the grain’s final destination (human food/milling, distilling, animal feed) based on:

  • The amount of weed pressure observed in the field: weeds can be separated out, but through extra processing and care;

    Red Fife weeds and clover

    Though farmer Ashley has done everything right, the ragweed and lambsquarters have outcompeted her underseeded cover crop of clover.

  • The weather: warm, moist weather during grain flowering can lead to diseases like Wheat Scab (Fusarium graminaearum) which at a certain level causes the grain to be considered unfit for human consumption.
  • The weather, again: humidity and wet weather leads to other diseases which reduce a crop’s eventual development into full, heavy grains.  So the amount that the farmer harvests and sells is less than they’d anticipate in a disease-free situation.
    Elizabeth Dyck with discolored and smutty Red Fife wheat

    Elizabeth Dyck shows a Red Fife wheat stalk with a few disease issues (note the discolored leaves and black grains)

    Harvest and post-harvest conditions:  Even out of the field, a farmer needs to ensure that the grain stay (or become) dry to at most 12% moisture.  There are machines and methods for this, and it’s so important!  A perfect crop can be ruined for human consumption if left too moist during storage.

Ashley Loehr in wheat

Ashley Loehr, who farms a lot of vegetables and is making use of her land to grow these amazing grains, too!

So, a grain farmer takes those things into consideration.  An organic grain farmer can’t rely on the arsenal of chemicals that a non-organic farmer would use for weed pressure and disease control, so their best practices include crop rotation, using very clean (weed-free, disease-free) seed from reputable sources, and a lot of good timing for everything from planting (to let the crops establish during the right time of year) to harvest (when the grain is ripe and the weather is dry).

A harvested batch of grain has its berries separated from the stalks, and then sent to be processed.   Grains are tested for:

  • Moisture content: for storage quality and as a preliminary measurement of quality

    Frederick wheat

    Frederick wheat: a lower-protein variety that makes a great “all-purpose” flour.

  • Test weight: a high weight-to-volume ratio indicates high quality and full grain development
  • Protein content: while not the only factor a baker needs to know, protein content largely dictates what type of flour–pastry, all-purpose, “bread”–a flour is considered.  Milled grains are often blended for a consistent protein content under a brand or label)
  • “Falling weight”: important measurement of how much pre-sprouting activity has happened (and therefore how much enzymatic activity has happened prior to processing).  Too much enzyme activity means that the grain will create a sticky dough, or in the case of malted grains, won’t germinate at a good rate to create the desired result.
  • Vomitoxin: amount of a particular contaminant; vomitoxin causes sickness, so the threshold for it is very low; disease and storage conditions affect this level.  NOTE: no grain is sold for human consumption if it exceeds the threshold; it may be re-purposed for animal feed or distilling.

Then we ate bread and had a discussion about the benefit of direct marketing.  For a small-scale grower, the ability to add value to the grain by milling it, working with a baker and offering bread to customers, or another arrangement, means that the effort is financially rewarded.  That’s why small-scale processing infrastructure is so key–growers need to be able to test and mill their grain locally and control what happens to their grain.  From the perspective of a baker, locally farmed grains offer the chance to elevate the flavor of baked goods, and developing a relationship with grain farmers might even result in custom-grown varieties.  Antoine Guerlain was the day’s resident baker (he bakes loaves with local wheat for Camphill Community–Copake) and he did an excellent job advocating for working with grains and flours because of their interesting “personalities.”  He had baked a variety of loaves, using a consistent formula (except for the 100% rye breads) to showcase the qualities that can be coaxed from different grains.  There were even differences between two strains of ancient wheat–Arapaho and Banatka.

Banatka wheat bread2Arapaho wheat bread1Spontaneous levain2Roggenvollkornbrot3

 

 

 

 

 

 

Resources:

Wheat Quality Indicators Fact Sheet by Elizabeth Dyck

Equipment Sources in the Northeast

The Wheat Flour Book

Bread Baking Classes at Wide Awake Bakery (Trumansburg, NY): Instructors provide a day of instruction, focusing on understanding the variability and interesting qualities of local, freshly-ground grains

*Our in-field farmer education events are called Field Days.  Check out all the NOFA-NY Field Days listings