BECAUSE SEED ADAPTS to its environment like other living things, I try to shop for seed grown the way I’ll care for it in my garden, meaning: organically, without chemicals. That way, I hope it will feel right at home. My seed series continues with a Q&A with Tom Stearns, founder of the catalog with the largest selection of certified organic seed in the world—as he says in his opening letter in the 2014 edition of the High Mowing Organic Seeds listing. Learn what makes a good cherry tomato; the key role hybrids play in the seed world; why everyone wants short-season varieties, and more—and maybe win some organic seeds!
His background: Concerned about the lack of organic seed to meet the needs of a growing number of organic farmers, Tom started farming seed in 1995, and now employs 65 people at the Wolcott, Vermont-based High Mowing Organic Seeds headquarters, in Zone 4B. High Mowing originated the Safe Seed Pledge that more than 100 seed companies have signed on to since 1999, speaking out in unison against genetically engineered crops.
When we last spoke, Tom said something I think bears repeating:
“Organic gardeners are using a dull tool when they use seeds from conventional agriculture.”
With that need, and the needs of organic farmers in mind, High Mowing breeds, grows, and sells both open-pollinated and hybrid varieties that are all certified organic. We spoke this week about that product mix, and about breeding directions at the farm.
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HIGH MOWING ORGANIC SEEDS’ founder Tom Stearns was the guest for the latest edition of the radio show. 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 December 16, 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.
the q&a with tom stearns
“Whether you love the uniqueness and story of heirlooms and OP’s, or the uniformity of hybrids, we have the largest selection of certified organic seeds in the world.”
So how did you make the decision to offer both open-pollinated varieties and hybrids–a different assortment from other companies we’re talking to as part of my seed series, which focus on OPs alone.
A. We have had hybrids for a long time [at High Mowing]. Some are ones we breed on our farm, and some we breed in collaboration with universities, and others come from private plant breeders that we work with.
One reason: We sell a substantial amount of seed to small farmers, and the demands on a farm scale for what a variety of seed needs to produce–or perhaps the uniformity it needs to do that with–are therefore a focus of ours.
Imagine you have an acre of broccoli, and 20 percent is ready to harvest one day, and then 20 percent three days later and so on. Most growers don’t like that; they want the whole patch to be ready to harvest at the same time, unlike the home gardener, who benefits from the variety maturing over a longer period of time.
The farmer manages a continuous supply of broccoli in a different way than the gardener: with multiple plantings, such as planting a quarter-acre every two weeks, for instance. So hybrids help them manage that need for uniformity differently from most open-pollinated varieties.
We’re serving a diverse customer base who has an interest in both, including hybrids, and I share the passion for heirloom varieties, and for open-pollinated varieties, and especially for new open-pollinated varieties.
Q. Those last ones might be thought of as heirlooms-to-be, or modern heirlooms, yes?
A. Yes. Whether hybrid or OP, breeding is as much art as a science, but most companies have not done much work with breeding OPs. As soon as [breeders] figured out how to hybridize them, the attention going to OPs waned. So holding up hybrids next to OPs, the hybrids in many cases look a lot better. Often that’s true–but in many cases you just need to pay attention to breeding and selecting the OPs, and you’re in business.
Q. So with a grower’s watchful attention, the OPs reach their best potential. On that note: Last week we spoke with Lia Babitch of Turtle Tree Seed, and part of our conversation was about “building a better Butternut squash.” I see in your catalog for 2014 that you have one–and it’s a hybrid, or F1, called ‘Tiana.’ Tell us about it—why is that a breakthrough?
A. ‘Tiana’ [above] is actually the first organically available hybrid Butternut in the world. If you look at what most farmers are growing our there for Butternut, it’s hybrids. So organic farmers who have gotten used to building their [farming] system around the uniformity of hybrids—they are not using the organic seed because they didn’t have the option. Now that we have the option of a hybrid organic Butternut, it’s going to be something that a lot of organic farmers want to try.
At the same time, though, we have three other outstanding Butternut here at the farm. One was developed here, one in a partnership with Cornell, and another is an old standard heirloom variety.
So of the four Butternuts that we have: one’s a hybrid, one’s an heirloom, and two are modern OPs. That represents really nicely the kind of mix of our full selection at High Mowing.
Q. What are some of the open-pollinated seed projects under way there?
A. Jodi Lew-Smith [top photo, leading a tour in the hoophouse] does all of the breeding here, and Katie Traub, our seed-production manager, and her crew oversee the breeding plot and do a lot of the crossing.
Here on our farm we do breeding of tomatoes, melons, summer and winter squash and pumpkins. In collaboration with universities, we tap into programs on corn with the University of Wisconsin, there are cucumbers with Cornell, and a range of things from lots of different such places.
A. There are so many different types of tomatoes–but for instance we’ve put a cherry out there called ‘Bing,’ that’s a red cherry tomato [above] with totally incredible tropical fruity flavor like you get from ‘Sun Gold.’
One of the tricky things with cherry tomatoes: the sweeter they are, the more tendency they have to split and crack. The sugar creates an unstable structure, so when it absorbs a lot of water, it has that issue. You also have really thin skins on a cherry tomato because you’re just popping the thing in your mouth and chewing it up, and you don’t want to be left with that thick skin.
So there’s this balance—and in breeding, you never get something for nothing. You’re always balancing these things. For instance: “Let’s make this sweet enough, but not have cracking problems. Let’s make the skin thick enough to handle that, but not so thick it’s lingering in your mouth.”
So we’re crossing varieties that have those traits, for example.
With the field tomatoes, disease resistance is huge. That means early blight, late blight, fusarium and septoria—diseases that affect farmers and gardeners. So we work with Cornell and with Oregon State University and with North Carolina State programs for tomato breeding.
Q. How does your location help you—Zone 4B is pretty extreme as a location for a seed company, isn’t it?
A. Most seed companies are traditionally in the North, but you’re right: we are way up here.
One of the things that this climate does for us up here: It really puts things to the test. Everybody, even growers in very different climates, wants something that is a shorter-season variety.
Let’s say you’re in the South. The benefits of having a short-season variety down there, is not because it’s going to get cold, like it would up here, but because it will get too hot—which will cause other problems.
Let’s say a variety is 70 days instead of 100 days for it being mature. That’s 30 less days it’s exposed to disease pressure, insect pressure, issues related to extreme weather conditions such as hail, etc.
So shorter-season varieties excel in all sorts of climates. Our northerly climate gives us a chance to test those. Plus we have trials all over the country, and customers in all 50 states to give us feedback. You’re got to listen and ask a lot, to make sure you’re serving people well.
Q. Looking at the “new” things in your 2014 catalog, for instance, you mention that open-pollinated ‘Butterflay’ spinach [above] “stole the show among OP and hybrid” spinach in your trials. Tell us about it.
A. This one comes to us from a new partner in Switzerland, an organic seed company there that does a lot of their own breeding.
For spinach, we are really looking for a lot of different spinach varieties—everyone loves growing it, and it has huge nutrient density, and it’s very cold-hardy.
Even here, we can grow it in an unheated hoophouse in the winter; it’s 25 degrees here today and snowing, and we have spinach growing that way.
One thing we noticed about ‘Butterflay’ was how vigorous its growth was in our fall trials. When we grow spinach varieties in a trial, we might plant each spinach three, four, five different times. Different varieties excel at different times: Some do better in cooler weather that’s getting warmer in spring, or warmer weather that’s getting cooler in fall.
And then there’s daylength—think of it, in April-May there’s one amount of light, and in October there is a very different amount of light, especially up here in the North.
‘Butterflay’ was a winner not just in fall but across all those other times, too.
- order a High Mowing Organic Seeds print catalog
- visit the High Mowing website
- a blog post on hybrids compared to heirlooms, from the High Mowing site
enter to win some high mowing seeds
Do you grow hybrids, heirlooms, other open-pollinated varieties (even if they’re not old enough to be called “heirloom yet!) or all of the above in your garden?
My answer: All of the above! Like Tom Stearns, I love the OPs but also see a role for some hybrids.
Don’t worry if you have no answer, or are feeling shy. Just say “count me in” or something like that, and I will count your entry.
Two winners will be chosen at random after entries close at midnight Thursday, December 26th, and the winners notified by email. Good luck to all!
miss other posts and podcasts in the seed series so far?
(all photos courtesy of High Mowing Organic Seeds)