The Organic Seed Alliance is an organization which is deeply rooted in providing resources to those in the organic agriculture sector to strengthen the organic seed system across the country. The organization was founded in 2003 in Port Townsend, Wash., but has offices in Arcata, Calif.; Madison, Wis. and Missoula, Mont.
Kitt Healy is an OSA research and education associate for the Midwest. What is OSA’s purpose? “It’s a national organization that tries to make sure organic farmers have seed to make them successful,” Healy said.
That desire to ensure organic producers have the resources to provide them the greatest opportunity to succeed includes the first-ever Upper Midwest Seed Summit, held in Madison, Wis. in October. The goal of the Summit was to grow the Midwest regional organic seed system. Healy reported the 55 attendees included farmers, on-farm plant breeders, researchers and regional seed company representatives. With the great turnout for the event, Healy plans on continuing to cultivate this network of seed folks.
Healy applied for and received a $40,000 grant from the North Central Region Sustainable Research and Education Program for the project “Building Farmer Capacity to Produce and Market Vegetable Seed in Minnesota through Seed Production Trials and Education.”
The grant funds an agricultural professional who has the opportunity to work with a group of growers to try something new and work with each other. “We do seed production education and provide resources,” Healy said.
“The organic seed industry has definitely been growing in the last 20 years. A lot of the certified organic seed has not been bred in an organic environment,” Healy said. This project helps the farmers hone the skills necessary to produce vegetable seed in Minnesota.
This grant allows OSC to work with four small-scale organic vegetable producers from all over Minnesota. The four producers raise tomatoes, butternut squash, kale, potatoes and carrots. They will be involved in an assessment of their operations, which is both antidotal and observational. This will lead to a creation of a preliminary enterprise budget based on the information gathered from the producers.
“Our goal is to have more farmers producing seed in the state,” Healy said. This entails providing resources to farmers who are interested in seed production as well as working with producers who are already involved in organic seed production in the Minnesota.
“I’m really inspired by the diversity of people and crops.” Healy said. “Farming is a really difficult job. It’s a courageous line of work.”
Healy believes this project will add stability to organic seed production in the long term. “I think people are brought into regional seed production for ethical and community reasons,” she said. Healy believes the organic community has had some struggles due to seed being dropped from seed catalogs. More producers are now taking matters into their own hands and getting involved in seed production to ensure the seeds that are valuable to their operation are available to them.
As the organic industry grows every year, so too does the demand for quality organic seed.
Healy believes seed selection should be based on those seeds with disease resistances and hardiness.
One of the producers Healy is working with for the NCR-SARE grant project is Zach Paige from Vergas, Minn. He has a sustainably-grown seed company called North Circle Seeds.
Paige began his farming career in Vermont in 2011. An opportunity to work with the White Earth Land Recovery Project brought him to Minnesota. That led to farming and seed saving work. “I wondered why more farmers didn’t save seeds,” Paige said.
Working with different ethnic groups has been at the heart of North Circle Seeds. According to the website, “North Circle Seeds is committed to creating an ecologically diverse, equitable and inclusive food system.”
NCS works with growers who produce seed adapted for the region, utilizing sustainable and organic practices. For example, Paige is collaborating with a Latino farmer to produce blue corn for tortillas that can be grown in Minnesota. “It’s important to share your seed stories,” Paige said. That drive to have conversations about seed saving, led to Paige creating a podcast series called Seed Stories.
Being part of the grant project for Paige allows him and the other participants the access to experts in the field. The networking that is being done provides the opportunity to learn from peers in the industry. The project has a webinar component which gets into the more complex parts of seed saving. “We’re getting a little more stage two for people that already know how to save seed,” Paige said.
For Paige, the best part of being involved with this project is the chance to be among his peers in the seed saving sector. “Working with the growers together, networking,” Paige said.
The ideals of the project, coupled with the desire of the participants to get the most out the experience, is providing the unique opportunity to gain the tools which are necessary to have local seed from local producers available all across the state.