February was a surprisingly productive month at Pitchfork & Crow. We attended Bee School through the Willamette Valley Beekeepers Association, ordered a colony of Italian bees for April pickup from Ruhl Bee Supply in Gladstone, made a visit to Birds and Bees farm in Oregon City, went to a farmers’ retreat at Breitenbush Hot Springs, and attended the Small Farms Conference at OSU. During our free time, we started flats of leeks, beets, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, chicory, collards, fennel, parsley, kale, lettuce, eggplant, peas, Asian greens, and five types of onions. Our plan is to begin transplanting these starts into the field by the end of April, weather permitting.
The most notable event of February was the Breitenbush Hot Springs farmers’ retreat. The mystical location, with its steaming natural pools, meetings in forest-nestled yurts, and tangible aura of long Native American presence was a perfect setting for a bunch of organic vegetable farmers sharing their insights and struggles of the previous year. It felt like a meeting of revolutionaries in a mountain stronghold, and revolutionaries we are, striving to cultivate a sustainable, human-centered agriculture in a world of industrialized farming.
A popular theme in farmer meetings is a review of everyone’s “Ah-Has” and “Uh-Ohs” of the previous year. One decision we have made for this year is commitment to use only heirloom and open-pollinated (non-hybrid) seeds as much as possible. We are hoping that this is not a major “Uh-oh” for 2010, since many farmers praise hybrids for their vigor and productivity, especially in crops like broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, tomatoes and corn. It was Frank and Karen Morton of Wild Garden Seed who inspired us, in their catalog, by explaining the importance of preserving the “genetic commons” of open-pollinated seed, so that organic farmers have the ability to adapt crops to their growing conditions and trait preferences.
We understood this concept in theory, especially given the knowledge that large scale seed production often selects for uniformity, shelf life, machine harvest and long-distance transport traits over nutrition, taste and local adaptability. But, it was Brian Campbell from Uprising Seeds who explained the situation further at a seed saving discussion during the Breitenbush retreat.
Brian outlined the basic process of hybrid breeding. First, plant breeders select the parents with the traits they want to exploit, and then create two plant populations with these traits by inbreeding. For many generations, they artificially inbreed the two lines separately until they have parents that are genetically homogenous and one-dimensional. Once these lines are predictably showing the desired traits, the two lines are crossed. Although the parent populations are weakened by inbreeding, there is a burst of vitality in the new hybrid as it expresses the exact desired traits. Although this process may seem innocuous, the resultant hybrid is a “genetic dead end,” lacking the storehouse of genetic potential to pass to its progeny. Farmers cannot save seed from these hybrids for the next year and must depend on seed companies for a new seed crop. With seed access controlled by market whims, there is a real risk of loosing genetic diversity developed over thousands of years.
In light of all this, we are glad that we decided to focus on heirloom and open-pollinated varieties. Although our broccoli and cauliflower may have slightly looser heads, our carrots may not be as uniform, our tomatoes may have a thinner skin, and our corn will have a shorter window of harvest, we will persevere knowing that we are working with plants handed down by our ancestors, in a way that will allow us to hand them down to future generations, unadulterated and genetically intact. We hope you will taste the difference as we focus on bringing you fresh, well-cared-for heirlooms and open-pollinated vegetables.
We also realize that you are an integral part of the farm. Without your support, we would not have the means or motivation to continue. We welcome your feedback regarding the heirloom varieties and look forward to seeing everyone again at the Salem Saturday Market. We hope to have vegetables ready to bring to market by mid-May and plan to be in full-swing by the beginning of June. We are still accepting a few more CSA members and thank all those who have committed to a weekly box of local, chemical-free veggies!
Jeff Bramlett and Carri Heisler
Pitchfork & Crow