“My grandfather used to say that once in your life
you need a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman and a preacher
but every day, three times a day, you need a farmer.”
~ Brenda Schoepp, Farmer and Author
No longer the scythe wielding labor of yesteryear, farm production today has benefited from a myriad of advancements in agricultural technology and research, all with the goal of higher yields and less work to reach ever increasing goals. While farming methodology in the United States may have changed, some of the biggest differences can be seen in regards to seed sourcing.
In the days before large scale seed manufacturing, a major step in the harvest process would be to secure the future of the farm by seed saving. A simple enough process, collecting the best seeds from one year’s crop to sow available fields ensured another year of quality production. While time consuming, this process allowed farmers to remain independent and keep overhead production costs relatively low. As small family-owned farms gave way to large scale operations, the booming agricultural industry gave rise to the concept of seed ownership.
For farmers in the fall, the wrap up to the year includes more than just picking up tools and putting away the harvest – it means planning for the next year. Seed catalogs arrive as summer draws to a close, praising the benefits of specialized seed traits – the drought hardiness of this variety, herbicide resistance in that one, the high-yielding nature of the next, and so on. With almost all options privately owned and patented, seed sourcing comes complete with a signed contract strictly prohibiting seed saving. For grain farmers looking for bulk seed, the choices are limited, especially for organics.
While every farm will have variations in their operational costs, for growing corn, the two major components for operations are the ever increasing costs of seed and fertilizer. Due to advancements in technology, one study based on numbers provided by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows overall production costs for an acre of corn have barely increased from 1975 to 2012 when adjusted for inflation. However, the costs just for the seed corn alone saw an increase of a whopping 182% per acre due to the rise of patented seed technology.
Within the world of these patented seeds, not all options are created equal. Corn, like soy, is not only one of the most commonly grown crops in the U.S., it is also one of the most likely to be a genetically modified organism (GMO) with about 93% of all corn being GMO as of 2015. To create GMOs, scientists combine genetics from two or more organisms to produce an end result with a specific trait, i.e. injecting genes from bacteria into corn to create a new GMO, called Bt-corn, capable of producing its own insecticide. To add to the confusion, many of the patented seeds sold today are cross-bred or hybridized by private companies through selection methods, not through altering genetics in a laboratory like GMOs. One big difference is that the seeds from GMOs are unlikely to be fertile while hybridized seeds are able to propagate but, as an unstable first generation crossbreed, they will be unlikely to come back as the same plant. Regardless of creation method, both GMO and hybridized seed manufacturers contractually obligate farmers to purchase new seeds every year. While it may seem like an uphill battle, some farms are working to return to their seed saving roots.
Passionate about seeds, Jahns Farms of Washington State is one of a growing number of privately owned commercially producing grain farms actively taking steps to change the current system. As a Certified Organic farm growing a mixed variety of crops for Scratch and Peck Feeds such as corn, wheat, barley and peas, this family owned farm is going even more ‘against the grain’. After receiving a less than ideal load of Organic corn from another farmer blended with over a dozen varieties in one bag, Jahns Farms decided to put it to good use and try something new.
A unique location buffered by a wildlife preserve and without neighboring crops for competition, Jahns Farms is ideal for seed trials. Using isolation methods to prevent cross pollination, they go out of their way to prevent contamination from other sources like the Organic hybridized corn. Although a local bee keeper does have hives at the farm, Jahns says corn pollen spreads mostly by wind so crop buffers are necessary.
“Genetic variety will be gone in a few years and what’s left will be owned by the few,” said Jahns. “It is hard to find organic seed in the amounts we need and even harder to trust what we do find. There can be areas of contamination even where they (GMOs) aren’t supposed to be.”
In just over 30 years, Jahns Farms has seen their land more than double in size since its purchase by Isaac’s dad, Ike, in 1981. With around 700 acres to manage, it will come as no surprise that seed saving to generate the volume needed for a large planting is no overnight feat. A side project nearly 5 years in the making, Jahns Farms has worked at developing several new varieties of open pollinated corn adapted to conditions in their specific area. Year after year, seeds are saved from only the best plants exhibiting the most desired characteristics. Over time, the open pollinated seeds that are produced will become true-to-type, adapting to the climate and localized growing conditions. This hands on approach to grain sourcing not only provides control over the whole process from start to finish, it also creates aunique corn seed acclimated to a particular area that can be handed down to future generations as heirloom seeds. Jahns explains that the whole seed saving process adds only a few days and the hand sorting allows for better seed quality with less contamination issues and reduced overhead.
“There are a lot of heirloom varieties out there,” said Jahns. “But consistency is crucial to making a living. It’s always evolving. We started out of necessity but it is also a fun process. It will be all worth it if we can stabilize the varieties and have a few that are reliable.”
Along with the varieties sourced from the mixed bag of corn seed, Jahns Farms has also been experimenting with going green – with Oaxacan green corn. This unique heritage corn variety was originally grown in the Oaxaca Valley in Southern Mexico and used by the Zapotec people for tortilla flour and animal fodder. Like looking into the depths of a tropical sea, the Oaxacan corn radiates jewel-like hues of rich jade and deep emerald. Combined with the brilliant golds of the yellow and the rosy shades of purple corn currently under development, Jahns Farms is creating a rainbow of possibilities for their contract-free seed sourcing future.
As agricultural biodiversity declines and less seed options are available to farmers, developing open-pollinated grains like the Oaxacan green corn helps to maintain genetic diversity and sustainability in the food system. These types of seeds allow for better long-term adaptability to environmental changes and can become the family heirloom seeds of tomorrow. We all depend on farms to grow and produce the food we eat every day. Their choices affect the future of our food system and life as we know it.
Have you thanked a farmer today?
– Organic Seed Alliance
– Non GMO-Project – What is a GMO?
– Seed Savers Exchange- Definitions
– Kansas State University – College of Agriculture – Rising and Changing Costs of Production Agriculture