at uprising seeds, better beets, north-friendly tomatoes and more

Uprising Seeds' familyWHAT MAKES A BETTER BEET, and how does a tomato variety get coaxed and cajoled to growing lustily in northerly non-tomato country? What crops can be developed so market farmers can make money—and feed fresh-produce-starved customers—in the leanest months of winter? These are the kinds of questions that the organic seed farmers at Uprising Seeds of Bellingham, Washington, work to answer. My interview with co-founder Brian Campbell on Uprising’s specialties:

Like all the seed farmers I’ve interviewed in this series (past links at bottom of page if you missed any), the Uprising Seeds team speaks of the mission, and meaning, behind what they do. It’s long, hard work—you have to believe to take it on.

“Closest to our heart, and the main reason we do this work, is our celebration of the idea that access to open-pollinated seeds and the freedom to grow, reproduce, and share them is a basic human right that empowers community, tradition, and diversity,” says Uprising co-founder Crystine Goldberg (with Brian and their son in the photo up top). “And that the opportunity to select for those traits that are unique to individual climate and growing conditions will lead to a more stable, sustainable and resilient agricultural system based on agrobiodiversity and freedom.

“That,” she added, “and the connections made when our hands reach down into the earth can change the world!” Indeed!

my q&a with uprising seeds’ brian campbell

Q. Brian, a passage on your website really caught my attention, and I want to post it here for all to read. You and Crystine wrote:

…The outlook for our seed heritage is dire. But amidst all the corporate control and GMO’s, loss of diversity and variety patenting, there is a rascally, populist movement of breeders and seedsavers bringing the work of breeding and variety stewardship back to the farms.

“We are excited to play a part in furthering the collective work of all the generations before us.

“If we are able to get good, public-domain seeds into the hands of our fellow growers, excited children, new gardeners…and maybe contribute a couple of new varieties that will stand the test of time, then we will consider our work, time, and energy well spent.”

I just love that, Brian. It helps to be rascally if you’re a 21st-century seed farmer. Tell us about Uprising Seeds.

A. We’re a rascally group, for sure.  We started as market farmers about 10 years ago, and later started putting out a seed catalog—this is our eighth year for the catalog.

We did a lot of salad-mix production as market farmers, and anybody who knows salad-mix production knows you go through a lot of seed. So we thought that was something we could produce ourselves. That’s how we got started growing seed.

Q. How much of your catalog now do you grow yourselves?

A. We’re actually exclusively seeds now, and we’ve phased out of vegetable production. We’re approaching about 200 varieties in our catalog, about half grown by us.

Q. Something people may not know is that many farmers, including yourselves, grow on leased land.  I know you’re looking for a permanent home now.

A. We have never owned land—and we were excited about that, knowing that young people see owning land as the real barrier to developing the lifestyle and work as a farmer. But it can be done.

astro-and-more-lobed-arugula-from-UprisingQ. So seed farming for you all began with arugula, I read on your website.

A. Yes—because we began with salad mix, and it was one of our central crops for production, our friend John Navazio [now of Organic Seed Alliance] gave us some seeds that he had developed—a strain that he was really proud of.

Q. What made it special, and which variety was it that John gave you?

A. It was really vigorous and had a beautiful succulent leaf [above left]—not as deeply lobed as some arugula [above right], so we liked the look of a lot in our baby salad mixes.  It seemed to outperform the others we’d been using. Originally the one we were working with was the original strain of the arugula called ‘Astro.’ But of course as with all open-pollinated seeds, everybody’s version is going to be a little different.

Q. Isn’t that the truth—a ‘Brandywine’ isn’t a ‘Brandywine’ isn’t a ‘Brandywine.’

A. Exactly! So wherever somebody is stewarding their open-pollinated seeds, they’re selecting for it in that place (or not selecting it, as the case may be, and letting it deteriorate).

A couple of years ago, a group was trying to trying to decide on a strain of arugula to do production of, and they got a bunch of different arugulas—a lot of strains of ‘Astro,’ from different sources—and there was a lot of variation in it.

Q. Now, you’re farming in the Pacific Northwest, and I don’t think of that as “tomato country,” but there you are, growing tomatoes for seed.

A. That’s the impetus behind a lot of what we do. We saw this trend as market growers in the catalogs we were buying from: They’re all really trying to play the generalist card, and put out widely adapted varieties that will perform decently in as many places as possible.

But in a really challenging place to grow like the Northwest—especially for hot-weather crops like tomatoes, peppers, melons, eggplants–maybe 20 percent of those catalogs’ listings were relevant. It was a real crapshoot, and lots of trialing to figure out which ones they were.

I don’t think it does anybody any service to grow and select tomatoes in places where tomatoes naturally grow well. But that’s exactly where they do it—because that’s where you can harvest a big crop, and maximize your returns.

At our home farm east of Bellingham, we have nights in the 40s regularly in the summer, and heavy dews in the morning at tomato-harvest time. We get hit with blight, and so on.

By doing our seed work here and by seeing which tomatoes sink l and swim, I think we are making a lot of progress.

You hear a lot of gardeners around here say, “Oh, I don’t really bother with tomatoes; they don’t do very well for me.” And a lot of that has to do with the seeds.

Q. And so in other Northern areas (like mine!) would some of the traits in your Northwest-grown tomatoes be helpful, too?

A. Yes, I think there is a common trend in Northern climates: able to perform in a shot season; able to perform in cooler weather…

Galina and Carbon tomatoes from Uprising SeedsQ. What are some tomato standouts that you feel proud of, that you are producing seed of?

A. We grew a new variety called ‘Carbon’ [above right]. Probably people are more familiar with ‘Cherokee Purple’—it’s a big Beefsteak with brown shoulders. Even though we had a pretty mediocre year tomato-wise, with ‘Carbon’ we harvested hundreds of pounds from maybe a 50-foot row. The flavor was everything you hoped for, too.

Another standout that’s probably the weirdest tomato out here is called ‘Galina’—a yellow cherry tomato from Siberia [above left].

Crystine used to be an advocate for it, and we all used to tease her about it. But it’s the strangest thing: When all the other tomatoes start getting really bland and the weather starts getting cold and the tomatoes start dying back—it’s great.

It does not hit its stride till low 40s and rain and September weather. ‘Galina’ gets amazingly sweet after maybe hanging there for maybe a month on the plant, and you can pick it and put it in a crate on your front porch—and it will keep for maybe a month and a half. [Browse all the Uprising tomatoes varieties.]

Lutz and Chioggia beets from Uprising SeedsQ. Let’s talk about beets. When we spoke recently, you said about one of the beets you’re working on, ‘Lutz,’ (above left) that: “I want to make it less ugly,” a breeding direction, though worthy, that made me laugh out loud.

A.  Like a lot of categories, beets is one we’ve seen become totally dominated by hybrids. Just about everybody we know who grows beets commercially grows ‘Red Ace’ hybrid. We’re just kind of bored by that.

There are all these mediocre, good-enough-producing, uniform varieties out there that don’t really pack the flavor. They don’t really have much character—but yet everybody’s growing them. So that’s another category we got excited about. There are a lot of great varieties that don’t get enough play.

Q.Like ‘Chioggia” (above right)? That’s one you can order from five catalogs and they don’t resemble one another at all.  

A. ‘Chioggia’ is the beet with the bullseye pattern red and white when you cut across it—and the red is a brighter red than the burgundy color of many beets.

But it’s plagued by wonky shapes and you get three roots sticking out the side, and all these undesirable market characteristics. Even though it’s a beautiful beet, if you can’t get it somewhat more standardized, it’s kind of a liability for growers.

We trialed it through—which is where we start with any variety—growing as many examples as we can get our hands on, to suss out where the best genetics are. And we just happened upon a variety that was really refined for ‘Chioggia.’ [All the beets at Uprising.]

Q. As your next frontier, you’re working on breeding overwintering cauliflower.

A. Yes, because what is more appealing than something fresh out of the garden in the leanest time of year?  It’s a potential income crop for the growers in the appropriate regions, to harvest, say, in March. It’s important—and again, cauliflower is a category where we are also losing a lot of the open-pollinated varieties with the push toward hybrids.

Q. And this is not an overnight get-rich-quick project, is it? This one’s a challenge.

A. It takes a lot of work to produce cauliflower seeds—it’s so specific where you can produce cauliflower seed, so it’s outside the scope of many farmers. Perhaps half a dozen places on earth have the appropriate climate to do it on a market scale. The Puget Sound area is well-suited to it—and most of the cauliflower seed in the United States is grown here.

We got a grant to trial as many open-pollinated kinds as we could get our hands on—which was like 10—to see if we can use the best of the lot to see if we can release improved versions, or use them as the basis for breeding. It’s an interesting project in genetic diversity preservation.

Q. Why is it so hard to grow cauliflower seed?

A. Besides the fact that it needs to overwinter to set seed, it’s very prone to the pollen drying out in heat—and it needs a cool climate but not too cool (because it won’t survive the winter if it’s too cold).

There’s a reason that there are so many varieties of tomatoes out there–because anybody can save tomato seeds in their backyard, and undertake a major breeding project in a suburban yard—whereas cauliflower is probably at the other end of the spectrum.

January King cabbage and black popcorn from Uprising SeedsQ. Do you want to share some other goodies we should look for in the Uprising catalog?

A. A lot of work is happening in our area around open-pollinated cabbages, and we have some pretty exciting ones new this year.

We have a ‘January King’ [above left] that you harvest mid-winter. We had the coldest snap of weather in a decade—it got down to 5 degrees in November—and we had fully headed cabbages in the field, uncovered, and as soon as it thawed, they were ready to cut for market.

We’ve been working a lot with dry corns—maybe not the most exciting thing for backyard home gardeners, but we love it.  That’s another thing that’s challenging to grow in our climate. And we have a new popcorn as well—‘Dakota Black’ [above right; shop all the new 2014 varieties from Uprising].

enter to win seeds from uprising

I’VE BOUGHT TWO $25 GIFT CERTIFICATES from Uprising Seeds to share with two lucky winners. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of this page [UPDATE: the giveaway is closed, but comments are still welcome]:

In your garden region (tell us where you are!), what crop(s) test you most–the way Brian told us that many Pacific Northwest gardeners get frustrated with tomatoes or other heat-lovers? Have you sought out seed grown in a similar spot to yours–seed that might be more regionally adapted, to see if you can do better?

No answer, or feeling shy? No matter–just say, “Count me in” or something like that, and I will. Two winners will be selected at random after entries close at midnight Thursday, January 16, 2014. Good luck to all!

other articles in the seed series so far:

prefer the podcast?

UPRISING SEEDS’ Brian Campbell was the guest for the latest edition of the radio show. (Note: we had some sound issues in the first couple of minutes this week; sorry, but the transcription above should help!) You can listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The January 6, 2013 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marked the start of its fourth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.

  1. Margaret Corbin says:

    I should win this because 1/17 is my 55th anniversary and I’ve gardened all of those years plus. I have poor success rates with carrots and peas.

  2. Karyn Durham says:

    “Count me in, please.” I have just begun growing here in Orange County, CA. We shave started with cauliflower, kale, collard greens and broccili. They are growing beautifully despite our 70~80 degree winter. I am currently parcelling off a larger piece of land to grow much more and hoping to make a go at the farmers market. I am so inspired with your success. I just so excited to get started and hope to be profitable with my 1/4 acre. Hooray for heirlooms and your great effort of sussing out the best. I will definately be following your work and blogs. Happy 2014!

  3. Janis says:

    I have trouble growing eggplants (Japanese variety) and I am not sure why. Also, I was interested in the conversation on beets. I left my beets in the ground until November….But still they did not grow to full size. They were the golden variety. Anyway, I live in New Jersey and have just recently tackled vegetable gardening after being a flower garden person for many years. I grew all my vegetables from seed last year and look forward to having better luck this year.

  4. Anna says:

    I’m a newbie veggie gardener in Western Washington, so many crops are still a challenge for me to grow. Or perhaps, in the case of carrots, a challenge even to sprout and grow an inch! I’m a huge fan of regionally appropriate seeds.

  5. Margaret Mary Dabe says:

    The photos remind me of fractal enlightenment. Are sunchokes part of sun flowers? I love gardening with prize seeds!

  6. Sue Marucci says:

    I live in Westchester, NY and I’ve had trouble growing peppers for so many years now. Not hot peppers, but those nice juicy red / orange / yellow / green peppers. I haven’t tried growing them from seed yet, maybe that’s what I’ll do this year.
    Cheers Margaret, love you website!

  7. Karen Lee says:

    I live in SE Michigan. I struggle with all the brassicas, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, although I did get several nice Brussel sprouts this year! They all seem to go to seed without producing anything. Everyone in our area had low production of peppers last year, I don’t think it got warm enough. I have limited success with eggplant too, a couple of years I had some nice, small, Japanese eggplant, but usually nothing. I love tomatoes here, beautiful greens, chards, kale, collards. I grow garlic & as many herbs as I can, cilantro, basil, rosemary, thyme, etc. I’m working on carrots, my soil hasn’t been deep enough, but we did higher raised beds for next year and amended the mix to be sandier for carrots & root veg. Thinking of adding horseradish this year! And finally, I’m going to do a potato cage & see if I can grow them :) I’m obviously getting early onset spring fever! Going to browse the seed catalog now…..

  8. Karin Cunniff says:

    We just moved to Upstate NY from Louisiana. Last Winter I started my tomato seeds way too early and everybody told me to throw them away, because they were way to lanky. I re-poted them 4 times and each time I planted them really deep and a little sideways. They grew great and we had lots of them.

  9. sathya says:

    I’m in zone 6 and sometimes it is too much heat and humidity that doesn’t allow fruit production.
    Please count me in.

  10. CW Crumb says:

    I’ve tried several times to grow broccoli and cauliflower. Every time they seem afflicted by something new – fungus, mites, root-ick… Any tips would be appreciated! Love the diversified seed movement… We do pretty well here in Olympia, with early maturing tomatoes and really healthy peas and beans growth.

  11. Ann Spadafora says:

    I live on Cape Cod, MA. This past season’s garden was pretty productive, except the broccoli, which produced gigantic plants, but small thin heads that bloomed out quickly. I used only organic heirloom seeds.

  12. Sue says:

    I have gardened in Western Washington for 30 years and am challenged by long, wet springs. I successfully grow tomatoes on my full-southern-exposure deck, but often it’s a race with the first frost in the fall to harvest mature corn.

  13. Liz Potashnyk says:

    count me in. I have yet to successfully grow tomatoes, without building a greenhouse! we live in an area where we still get frost in June and usually a first fall frost by the middle of August!

  14. Vicki Erickson says:

    Hi I am really enjoying your emails. Just moved from beautiful Montana where I could get all kinds of seeds to grow in a short growing season by starting them in a basement (that I am learning to live without) to Arizona where you garden in the cooler months and read all of your garden books and magazines the summer. It seems to be harder to start seeds indoors. Timing is really important as they do not like the air conditioner and this small house really doesn’t have a place for me to set up a table and get the lights hanging over it. But I am determined to keep trying until I get it right because there is nothing more satisfying than growing a tomato from a seed to a ripe beautiful juicy bite standing over the plant!

  15. kim says:

    My problem is the heat! Even during the winter months, we have heat spells which cause my garden to bolt.
    I would love more seeds for my garden. :)

  16. Luise says:

    I’m in Germany, zone 7b. The crops that have tried me most were carrots. Somehow they only ever stayed tiny – if they grew at all. I think I’ll have to try to make my clay-y soil more sandy?

  17. Joan Huyser-Honig says:

    The crops that test me the most are spinach, I think because my garden is somewhat shady and sandy, and eggplant, because I don’t get optimum sun.

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