In the Winter '00 issue of The Seed Bed, a review of Will Bonsall's
presentation at the NOFA Vermont winter conference suggested that growers
should boycott hybrid seeds in favor of OP's (open pollinated varieties) in order to retain
control over varieties. I believe this call to be a disservice to the interests of small
growers. It assumes that hybrids are principally a tool for monopoly corporate control and
that they are a detriment to growers.
Lois and I operate Snakeroot Organic Farm in Pittsfield, Maine, where we
have two MOFGA certified acres of truck gardens which supply our stands
at four farmers' markets. The varieties we grow consist of both
hybrids and open pollinated crops. Of the OP's we grow, we save seeds
from only a few, mostly the easy ones like tomatoes, lupines,
echinacea, marshmallow, cherry tomatoes, garlic and hot peppers. This
is because we aren't seed producers; we have specialized as vegetable,
perennial & herb growers and marketers.
We select varieties based on their ability to produce a marketable
crop, and some---like brandywine or hogheart---require a bit of extra
educating of the public in order for us to sell them. We enjoy this educating
part of the selling process, but the bottom line is that if a variety
can't be sold in appreciable quantity, it is counter-productive for us
to grow it.
I believe there is a basic fallacy in avoiding hybrids. After all,
all OP's have natural hybridization in their ancestry. Most OP's
naturally hybridize, which is why it is so hard to keep some OP's like
squash from crossing, that is, naturally hybridizing. And in the same
way I don't learn blacksmithing in order to produce my own hoes, or
weave my own trellising twine, I likewise don't engage in saving all my own seed
nor confine myself to varieties that I could, in principle, save. I
like the fact that there is an ag infrastructure out there which is
breeding beneficial insects, selling hoes, offering a wide variety of
vegetable seeds, and interbreeding varieties to produce hybrids of
superior performance. And while ther are plenty of hybrids without
superior performance, there are plenty of poorly performing OP's out
The argument that there are OP's more locally suited than hybrids
runs contrary to my experience. Even from the wide selection of OP's
offered by FEDCO seeds, I am careful to adopt only those that I can grow.
There are many which won't mature for us at our farm. So my tomato
patch consists of mix of OP and hybrid varieties that experience has
shown me best fits my growing and marketing situation: Valley Girl,
Moskvich, Paragon, Hogheart, Brandywine, Pruden's Purple, Yellow
Brandywine, Voyager, Jetstar, and Daybreak. This represents variety in
type and season as well as in an OP/hybrid mix. I would find it
difficult to make ends meet if I had to farm with one hand tied behind
Ironically, due to our busy harvest and market schedule, I have come
to the conclusion that even for many OP varieties that I could save, it
isn't worth it. Since they are OP, they are offered quite inexpensively
in the Johnny's & FEDCO catalogs, so it is hardly worth the bother to
save my own. I'd rather support some other local grower who has
specialized in seed saving and supplying those catalogs.
In a similar way, I would also rather support the plant breeders who
have made those hybrid crosses which benefit our farm. As small
growers, we need to encourage plant breeding entrepreneurs who in turn
need us as their markets. If someone is hybridizing for a trait of
benefit to me, they are part of the agricultural infrastructure I want
to see succeed.
I know many breeders are huge conglomerates, but so is Honda (my
market vehicle), Mobil (it's fuel), Kubota (my tractor), and so on.
This is the nature of our economy, the economic environment we exist
in, and if we are to choose our battles, they should be those where we
can win, or at least make a difference.
I do boycott the large out-of-state seed company's catalogs, because
I want to support those local seed companies which are smaller and more
in tune with a "buy local" philosophy we employ ourselves and atttempt to instill in
I boycott GMO seeds because the producers are currently introducing
traits for the wrong reasons, and because they are playing with forces
they don't yet even begin to understand. In the newest propaganda from
the GMO crowd, you will see an attempt to blur the distinction between
genetic engineering and hybridizing, with phrases like "farmers have
been mixing genes since the dawn of agriculture." They attempt to make
the public feel that GMO's are as safe as hybrids, but I fear some growers and seed
savers may take it to mean that hybrids are as dangerous as GMO's. In
truth, hybridization is more like dog breeding, while genetic engineering
is way more dangerous than xenotransplantation (transplanting amimal parts into humans).
In short, my aim is to support seed companies that are giving me the
mix of hybrids and OP's that best suits my needs as a market grower.
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