Breeding the Heirlooms of Tomorrow

Cultivating Resilience to Climate Change


Plant domestication is an ongoing process, a relationship rather than an endpoint.  When I first began seed saving nearly 25 years ago, I perceived our relationship with the domesticated plants as more akin to one of enslavement and servitude.  The more time I work closely with saving seeds and making selections across a wide diversity of plant families I see how we are working towards one another’s best interests.  Through understanding what traits enable a plant to adapt more proficiently to its environment we can tease out the best aspects of a given variety. 

When I take a big step back and look at the long view of the history of agriculture, I believe that seed saving is likely the defining element of agriculture, if not civilization itself.  Consider that before humanity was harvesting, saving and replanting seeds we were hunter-gatherers.  In this way we may equate seed saving with agriculture.  Ironically, agriculture has become so specialized that it is the rare farm that actually saves any seeds now.  Most farms buy all of their seed every year, even most organic farms.  Seed saving has become a task relegated to the experts.  This is unfortunate, because along with the maintenance of soil fertility through on-farm nutrient cycling, saving your own seed is the most important feedback loop to fine tune the whole farm organism to the climate, pests, diseases, stresses and consumer preferences.  If more farmers could witness what is possible through thoughtful on-farm selection they may be inclined to abandon the expensive, fancy Dutch hybrids that fill the glossy pages of so many seed catalogs in favor of growing and selecting their own seeds.  

It estimated that before the Green Revolutions far reach that India had over 30,000 varieties of rice.  After it had 8!  Where did all of that Agri-biodiversity go? And why was there so many to begin with?  The likely explanation is that nearly all farmers saved their own seed in every microclimate, which allowed the plants to constantly adapt to subtle differences in soil, climate and other stresses.  Put most simply a plant that performs the best out of a population will make more seeds, thereby producing more seeds than a plant that does poorly.  Over time, simply saving seeds inherently leads to adaptation to the environment within which it is growing.


Intentional Plant Breeding starts with Variety Trials

From my perspective, any time that you are saving seeds from anything less than a whole population of plants, you are engaging in plant breeding.  Obviously, applying some intention to the process can improve it greatly.  The process of breeding first involves identifying the traits that you want to select for.  But first you must have a comprehensive knowledge of what is possible for a given species or type.  These starts with variety trials – growing numerous individuals of a given species in order to thoroughly understand what is possible within the breadth of that species’ diversity.  This helps you to identify the endpoints of a spectrum for each trait and all points in-between. 

We have a lettuce variety trial planted at our home farm right now with 20 plants each of 75 varieties that we steward for our family farm organic seed company, Siskiyou Seeds.  This will reveal a lot of information about the lettuces that we grow when we can observe how they stack up against each other in the field.  We will evaluate and score them for appearance, vigor, pest and disease resistance, flavor, bolt resistance and an overall grade.  What may happen as a result is that we realize that some varieties are inferior to another in a given category, say Red Romaines, and we may wind up dropping a variety.  Another outcome may be that we will note that we don’t have a good variety within a given category, such as French Batavians, that are noted for their excellent performance growing in hot weather, and we may need to source new strains and trial them again to see if we may want to add a new one.  Our results may also highlight plant-breeding opportunities for us to breed for better bolt resistance by crossing similar strains, for instance one with good bolt resistance, and another with our preferred disease resistance and leaf shape.  The possibilities become staggering once you try and get a handle on all the plant biodiversity out there, but performing regular trials is a crucial component to any plant-breeding program. 


A number of years ago we planted a good sized Kale trial with 100 plants each of 22 varieties of kale that represented three basic types: Siberian/Russian (Brassica napus), Lacinato/Black Tuscan (Brassica oleracea), and Curly/Vates type Kale (Brassica oleracea).  We planted them in the late summer and observed their performance in the fall, winter and spring.  We had Red Russian Kale from 5 sources: (1) our strain that we had saved for over a decade, (2) one from southern California, (3) one from Colorado, (4) one from Western Washington and (5) another from a colleague 250 miles north of us.  We noted that the Kale from Washington truly disliked our hot early fall weather and suffered.  The Kale from Southern California had never experienced cold like we had that winter (10 degrees Fahrenheit for a week in January) and died.  The kale from Colorado did well with the heat and the cold.  And the Kale from a bit north did great (as expected). This taught us an important lesson that bioregional adaptation is an important consideration, but more importantly is adaptation to climate patterns.  So while we may actually be in the same general “bioregion” of the Pacific Northwest as Western Washington, we have observed that the climate of the high desert of Colorado is functionally similar to that of the Klamath Siskiyou region that we are in.  Once again understanding these patterns is only truly possible through repeated variety observation trials.


Traditional Plant Breeding

            Before the advent of modern hybrid plant breeding, we had many skilled traditional plant breeders across the world.  In the USA, many of these were affiliated with our Land Grant Universities, helping to select and breed for varieties that helped those areas’ farmers to thrive.  This was a wonderful feedback loop that worked fairly well to serve the needs of small-scale family farmers.  With the Corporate take over of plant breeding through proprietary hybrid plant breeding much knowledge about traditional plant breeding was lost and consolidated in the hands of companies whose goal was profit over people.


            I am grateful to have had the opportunity to study with John Navazio, PhD., who was able to learn from some of the greats of a bygone era.  He is currently employed at Johnny’s Selected Seeds breeding open pollinated vegetables.  From his and others like him, influence there exists a new vanguard of amateur plant breeders.  Many of them may have their own small seed companies to showcase their varieties and provide an economic vehicle for them to continue this slow and sometimes laborious work. 


            Before one embarks upon a plant-breeding project, a thorough understanding of the species that we aim to improve is vital.  In the words of John Navazio, “we should strive to become a Samurai warrior for the species we want to work with.”  This entails an exhaustive study of its botanical relatives, currently available varieties through variety trials and detailing of the important traits and agronomic considerations that we should focus our attention on.  I believe that this is vital work, so in light of this we have been offering the 5-day Seed Academy training at our farm, which is a deep dive in a whole systems approach to seed saving, plant improvement, breeding, seed cleaning and seed stewardship with guest appearances from luminaries in this movement for the past five years.


Why Breed New Varieties?

            Paging through the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook is an astounding glimpse into the tremendous diversity of open pollinated varieties that are currently commercially available.  Nonetheless, this diversity represents a mere 7% (or so) of what was available 50 years prior.  Why would we need so many different varieties?  There are so many unique different microclimates in this country and then couple this with our culinary palates and regional preferences and you can begin to understand that there are many ideas as to what constitutes the perfect variety depending upon the vantage point of the observer. 


            After performing thorough variety trials, and still you come to the conclusion that there is still something lacking – what is one to do?  Consider further that what was once suitable within a region or amongst a community of growers occurred in the past.  Our ideals of perfection and suitability must align with the dual moving targets of climate change and shifting consumer preferences.  Now it gets complicated!  The way I see it, seed saving is the doorway into cultivating a deeper relationship of seed stewardship.  Many of the varieties that we grow here at Seven Seeds Farm we have been working with for nearly two decades, or longer.  Add to this that we inherited a seed collection that includes many varieties that have been grown in the area since 1978.  So we have strains of vegetables that have 40 years of adaptation to the growing conditions of our region.  Baby steps from an indigenous agriculture perspective, but also a good start. 


            Through evaluating the collection that we steward here on our farm and make available through our retail seed company, Siskiyou Seeds, we are firmly convinced that seeds “imprint” upon their locale.  I believe that we have two paths that we can choose as permaculture horticulturalists: one option is to adapt to climate change through working with adapting our seeds – from the inside out – taking a cue from how water flows around obstacles.  The other option is the path that is being taken by most organic farmers and conventional agriculture – to adapt to change by manipulating the environment – outside in – row covers, herbicides, insecticides, high tunnels and prima donna hybrid genetics that do great when everything is optimized perfectly.  I’ve heard stories from John Navazio of Dr. Henry Munger at Cornell University who would grow thousands of cucumber starts and then taste the cotyledons of each, selecting for the non-bitter tasting ones that he had observed were less favored by cucumber beetles, thereby breeding for cucumber beetle resistance!


            The more I ponder the question of “what is the way forward considering the enormity and potential severity of climate change upon the meta-stability of human civilization in light of Anthropogenic induced climate change?” I am directed to conclude that the thoughtful breeding of our annual food crops, domesticated animals and perennial plants represent our best chance for thriving and maintaining resilient agrarian communities.  I do not place my stock in techno-fixes.  I believe in Biology.  Can I get an Amen?


A Variety Improvement Case Study

            From the Kale trial that I described above we determined that there was room in the available open pollinated seed offerings for a workhorse curly green “Vates” type kale.  This conclusion was underscored by the shortage of Winterbor F1 seed that was occurring at the that time – a variety that most all organic growers were relying upon to fill boxes for kale hungry customers.  So we let the 7 varieties of that type in our trial that constituted both open pollinated and hybrid F1 types to intermate, or cross-pollinate.  That was in 2010 and the total population was about 700 plants of 7 varieties.  That winter we experienced a week of sustained lows at about 10 degrees Fahrenheit.  Nevertheless, about 25% of the plants survived and managed to make flowers and seeds – freely cross pollinating amongst one another.  What we had created was a diverse gene pool of potentiality, also known as a “Grex” which is Latin for “herd”.  Another term used for this is a synthetic cross, or “Syn” for short.  It was anything but uniform containing so many different traits.  We harvested seed in summer of 2011 and replanted right away, overwintering and then flowering and inter-mating in spring 2012 again.  Once again we harvested seed and replanted in fall of 2012, allowing the cycle to complete one more time with no selection pressure other than the climate.  In Fall of 2013 we planted a large population of about 2000 plants and overwintered.  In the early spring of 2014 we identified our favorite 100 plants on the following traits: deep green color, vigor, deeply curly leaf shape, upright stature and disease resistance.  We tagged our favorite mothers with surveyors tape and allowed them to flower and set seed.  Once seedpods had dried down we harvested the seed from our 100 favorite “mothers” into 100 separate bags.  Mind you that the other 1900 plants were allowed to flower and make seed so these 100 mothers had a potential of 2000 different “fathers”.  Kale is a monecious perfect flowering plant that has both male and female flowers on each plant.  This project is known as a “Half Sibling Progeny Row Breeding program”. 


            From these 100 different bags of seed we planted 50 plants from each, giving us a total population of 5000 plants that we transplanted in the early fall of 2014 in small blocks that were labeled with stakes numbered 1-100.  This represented a sampling of the progeny of our 100 mothers, meaning that they all had the same mother, but that their fathers were unknown, hence the term, “Half sibling”.  As the season progressed we evaluated them for the same traits listed above and then we “Rogued” or eliminated about 30% of the mothers as unsuitable.  Then within the remaining 70% we removed individuals that failed to meet our breeding criteria.  This resulted in a total population of about 2000 plants that went into the winter of 2014/2015.  Then in the summer of 2015 we harvested the resulting seed from this vastly improved population.  This became the new “Alive Vates Grex Kale” and we sold seed of it widely.  In order to evaluate if we had actually made any genuine improvements we planted another trial including a wide diversity of Kale in the fall of 2015.  This allowed us to compare our efforts against other commercially available strains.  Fortunately we had made great strides in the direction that we were aiming, however, we realized that it may be worthwhile to breed more height into the Alive Kale population, so we selected the tallest and best specimens from the other Vates types in our trial and allowed them to overwinter with the 50 plants of the Alive Vates in our trial.  In the spring of 2017 these 150 plants all flowered and intermated.  They are in the field now and seedpods are maturing.  We will harvest this seed in July and then replant alongside our original Alive Vates to evaluate if we have made progress. 


            I share this case study to highlight what long process plant breeding becomes, especially with a biennial like Kale.  But please do not be dismayed, because, through employing traditional plant breeding techniques such as the Half-sibling progeny rows and then the back-crossing to tall Vates Kale we can greatly accelerate the process over simple “Mass selection”; which is the term to describe simply saving seed of the best plants in a population.  The parent lines of hybrids (including GMOs) are created using similar techniques.  The laboratory can’t do everything.  Sexual reproduction in the field is absolutely necessary.


Where to Start?   

            I encourage anyone reading this to not become overwhelmed by the seeming complexity of plant breeding and start small and chose a crop that you have affinity with and begin on the journey of a deeper relationship with plants.  In a way I see that selection, adaptation and breeding allows us access to the fine-tuning control knobs of the genetic potential of a species.  In doing so we can begin to steer a variety towards the goals that we outline for our project, fostering greater adaptation to the stresses that that variety will encounter in our systems.  We also become witness to the great diversity of interactions that take place between soil, insects, environment, our diets and our creativity that converge in a given variety.  This deep interplay has birthed human civilization and I firmly believe with every ounce of my being that it is the portal of the way forward.  See plants as your allies and they will guide you to becoming more curious as to how we may be of service to them and all life in the process.