How I Became an Organic Seed Producer

Corn seed germination test

Hi, my name is Katherine Rothermel and I am smitten with seed! Even though I had gardened my entire life, little thought had been given to seed: where it’s grown, how it’s produced and the implications of choosing organic, heirloom, open-pollinated (OP), hybrid, GMO*, or cytoplasmic male sterile (CMS*) seed. All that changed in 2005 when I met Robert and Carol Mouck at the Heirloom Seed Sanctuary (HSS) at the Sisters of Providence at St Vincent de Paul here in Kingston.

My seed saving venture started with heirloom varieties from the HSS collection – first tomatoes and dry beans, then peas, lettuce, peppers, squash and eventually biennials, flowers and herbs. At first, the saved seed was for my own use and then for sharing with the community through Kingston’s Seedy Saturday and the Kingston and Area Seed System Initiative (KASSI). We then began using saved seed for our vegetable CSA on Wolfe Island.

Producing more seed than we needed for the farm led to selling seed at Seedy Saturdays. In 2017 we created Kitchen Table Seed House – a website for selling our organic seed online – and shifted our farm to focus solely on seed production. Business partner, Annie Richard, brought plenty of experience to the operation with multiple farm internships, completion of Fleming College’s Sustainable Agriculture program and a summer field position at Cornell University with plant breeder Dr. Michael Mazourek. Organic seed production has been at the forefront of my farming efforts ever since I realized that seed security is at the heart of food security.

The Organic Seed Alliance provides a great quote illuminating the importance of regional organic seed production: “Building a healthy, sustainable agricultural future requires farmer-centric seed systems at the regional level, where farmers and the communities they serve consciously choose which crop genetics they use, how they are maintained and how these genetics are controlled.” (OSA).

Individual gardeners and local organic farmers have an important role to play in learning seed saving skills to ensure availability of open-pollinated heirloom varieties. Heirlooms are part of a rich culinary tradition passed down through the generations selecting varieties for flavour, particular culinary uses as well as climate suitability. Access to many old varieties (i.e. cabbage, broccoli, corn) has been lost as traditions died out and seed saving was discontinued. Supporting regional seed production, much like supporting local food production, will go a long way to solving this problem.

It is important to re-establish more environments where organic seed is grown and bred, including more breeders, farmer-breeders and regional seed companies that focus on a wider range of genetic traits. The current climate challenges we face and the ethical decisions being made on our behalf provide further impetus to dive into what is open-pollinated seed, and how can they adapt to changing climate conditions. By definition, open-pollinated (OP) cultivars breed true-to-type whether they are an old favourite heirloom or a new stabilized cross. OP seed is the foundation on which our seed system rests.

An easy illustration of what is at stake is thinking about how we access bread. Many of us buy bread made in large centralized bakeries and distributed through chain grocery stores, but you can still buy all the ingredients at that same store to make bread, if you have a cookbook and the skill to make it. We are losing our ability to “bake our own bread” so to speak with seed that is not savable. You can buy the seed but you can’t “make your own seed”. Hybrids, GMO, and CMS are removing our ability to save our own true-to-type seed. So… solve this challenge by becoming a seed saver!

Quality seed production involves three major considerations: 1) species choice, 2) population size (the number of plants required), and 3) isolation distance (the distance between varieties of the same species). To start your seed saving adventure choose the “selfing” species. These include peas, beans and lettuce. You can start with as few as 5 plants and an isolation distance of as little as 5m (15 ft.). Let peas and beans reach full maturity and pick when they have dried down. After lettuce plants have bolted, flowered and set seed, collect ripe seeds in a paper bag. This is usually achievable in any reasonably sized kitchen garden.

If you have more space, grow seed from the “crossers” (i.e. tomatoes, sweet peppers, and eggplant). These species don’t need too large of a population (5-20 plants) to maintain genetic health, but they do require more isolation distance from other varieties (50 ft. min. or covering with insect netting to prevent cross pollination with other cultivars). There are plenty of on-line resources to walk you through the process of fermenting tomatoes, drying peppers and processing eggplant to extract the seed. An excellent resource is “The Seed Garden: The Art and Practice of Seed Saving” ed. Jared Zystro, etc.

The “out-crossers” (i.e. squash, corn) can require both large populations (min. 200 plants for corn) and far greater distances (up to a 2 km for corn) in order to maintain genetic health and remain true-to-type. Squash requires fewer plants but good isolation (800 m) to prevent crossing. Fruit is removed from the plant after they have died down and then cured for a period of weeks. Seed can then be removed, washed and thoroughly dried. The nice thing about squash is that you can still eat the fruit.

I am a great advocate of experimenting so don’t let these “rules” dissuade you from saving seed for your own use. Doing is the best way to learn. You may inadvertently become a plant breeder.

At Kitchen Table Seed House we continue to determine which species produce quality seed in our climate. The hot and humid summers on Wolfe Island work best for squash, corn, beans, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and some of the flowers and herbs. We bring in seed from trusted wholesale suppliers, or contract growers for those crops that we cannot grow in our location (i.e. carrot as it crosses with Queen Ann’s Lace).

Many of our varieties on offer are heirlooms because we are looking for great flavour and a wide range of variability in colour, shape, size and culinary usage. But, we also have a strong interest in breeding new heirlooms for the future. Annie has a number of ongoing breeding projects where she is selecting for flavour, disease and pest resistance, and the ability to perform well in organic or low-input systems (i.e., farms that don’t use off-farm inputs of pesticides & insecticides). We are also interested in less genetic uniformity as a means of providing plants with as many options as possible to adapt to their changing environment. We continue to select the most robust plants in field production to ensure that each year’s crop is performing well in our local conditions.

Seed saving requires very little in the way of specialized equipment. Some screens, sieves and buckets will get you started with tomatoes and peppers. Seed storage requires a cool, dark and moisture free space. On a larger scale, we use a sea container with a dehumidifier for drying down crops and have built a Winnow Wizard for removing chaff from seed crops. We have also converted a wood chipper to a thresher, which works very well for peas, beans and lettuce. Our seed crops are stored in a climate-controlled room at optimal temperature and humidity.

Threshing peas

We sell our seed through a web-based shop, which was well received throughout the pandemic. We market our seed through retail locations in Ontario and Alberta. Seedy Saturdays are also a great way to connect with gardeners directly.

Our seed is certified organic. This is particularly important for market gardeners and farmers who require certified seed to meet the requirements of their organic certification. Organic seeds are better adapted for organic vegetable growers as the seed is better able to cope with low-input systems. We use green manure cover crops, rotation, straw mulch and minimum till practices, along with natural buffer strips to control erosion and increase biodiversity on the farm.

Opportunities for more regional organic seed producers exist in Canada. Hone your vegetable production skills first and then add seed production as you gain experience. There are opportunities to grow seed on contract for small and medium sized seed companies. Internet, marketing and quality control are just a few of the additional skills required to be successful if planning to grow seed on a commercial sale.

We have met many key supporters, educators, farmers, scientists, and plant breeders through our engagement with the seed community at regional, national and international events. For further resources check out COG’s library, Seeds of Diversity, the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, Organic Seed Alliance, the Open Source Seed Initiative and Seed Savers Exchange.

We can all play a part in increasing our communities’ resiliency in these uncertain times by growing and buying locally grown organic food and choosing locally grown and bred seed for our gardens. In addition, adding seed saving to your garden experience is a great step in creating resilience for you and your family. If you know of someone who does save seed, ask them about their favourite varieties and get to know its story. Community building through shared experiences like sharing saved seed and growing new varieties of plants/vegetables is rewarding and ongoing.

Good luck with your seed saving endeavours.

Katherine Rothermel
Kitchen Table Seed House (KTSH)
602 Highway 95, Wolfe Island, ON K0H 2Y0

Photos by Andrée Thorp

From Garden Seed Saver to Regional Organic Seed Producer

One thought on “From Garden Seed Saver to Regional Organic Seed Producer

  • September 8, 2021 at 4:55 pm

    A great article! I love the bread ingredient analogy and the easy invitation to come over to the seed saving side!

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