Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Myth About Seed Choice

I recently had a twitter conversation on a topic that seemed to perpetuate an urban myth - that farmers do not have a choice when it comes to planting seed or that seed companies "impose" their seeds on farmers, as if it is a dictatorship... Last time I checked, America was a pretty free country. Most people are able to make choices on what they buy at the store... So why would that be different for farmers?

As a family farm, we grow both GMO (we don't actually use this term but for the sake of this blog, am using it for the reader for whom it may be a descriptor) and non-GMO crops and choose our seed produced from a variety of different seed companies, buying directly from our neighbors, which frankly, is the whole point of the fabric of rural America. We support one another.



So far, we have received about a dozen seed catalogs, and I don't mean Burpee-type gardening catalogs. I mean commercial seed for farmers. Some are large seed companies, others are small regional seed companies. None of them "impose" their seeds on us. We have 100% freedom of choice. My husband and brother in law make those choices based on our own farm's performance records, recommendations by our seed dealers, data provided by companies who do research plots on our farm and in our region, and conversations with farmer friends. No corporation influences these choices. No pressure is applied from any company to secure our business. Absolutely no one "imposes" seed on our family farm. We have hundreds of seed choices in each of our crops- corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, tomatoes, hay, and green beans. We have 100% control over what gets purchased and planted.

So we have technology agreements? Absolutely. Both our GMO and non-GMO seeds have either technology agreements or proprietary restrictions from saving seed.  As Rob Wallbridge shares in his blog An Organic Farmer Walks Into Monsanto, even organic seed has proprietary rights and cannot be saved. Seed is not unlike publications that can be copyrighted to protect the author's work. There would be far fewer food choices. Regardless of the methods of seed development, we have many, many more choices as consumers as a result of plant breeding. It is not surprising or for that matter unusual for people outside of agriculture to protect the rights to their work, why should it be different for agriculture?

The seeds and varieties we choose to plant are based on the demand we have for the markets in our area. In our tomato crop, the cannery wants specific varieties for specific products so one Roma variety is grown for stewed tomatoes while another Roma variety is grown for tomato sauce. We grow for the needs of the cannery. Likewise for our tofu customers, they tell us which soybeans they prefer and we grown to meet their needs. Likewise for our winery customers, we grow the grapes they want to process into wine.

We are also "seed" growers meaning we grow specific varieties for companies that will be then sold as seed. Farmers who can grow seed-quality seed get paid a premium for growing this level of purity. These seeds need to be "IP" Identity Preserved - genetically consistent and true to their traits, of highest quality meaning they are uniform in size, shape, color, free of weed seed and contamination.

We also grow "public domain" seed which are seeds that can be saved. These are seeds developed mainly by Universities, which are dwindling in size and support for agricultural research.  These varieties need to be tested for vigor and germination in order to determine if they are viable for the next cropping year or if they should be used for livestock feed. We use public varieties of both wheat and barley for both the commodity market and our winter cover crops.

The bottom line is we as farmers have choice - what seed we buy, from which company, and what traits those seeds have. The only time we don't have choice is when we sit on our thumbs and don't order seed in time and end up with 2nd or 3rd choices.

11 comments:

  1. I hadn't heard many talk about lack of choice for seed. I'm glad that I haven't come across anyone perpetuating that myth. On a different note, I love what you said about buying directly from your neighbors and that being the fabric of rural America. So true and the way life should be. I've always found it a little amusing that though people live much further apart in the country, they know those around them much better than those in the city.

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    1. It does seem that the sparse population is "closer" in relationship than the suburbs/urban population. We rely on each other and all run family businesses that are integral to each other's success. We rely on the local diesel repair shop, welder, electrician, tire repair, tractor repair, auto supply, etc,,, they need us & we need them. Life in the country.

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  2. I agree with the above commenter, I hadn't ever heard that farmer's don't have a "choice" in seeds. I think, though, as a family farm, you are growing with what in mind is best for your consumers. I think some of the big factory farmers are always looking at what is most profitable. They might switch to a different brand of corn to be able to get a bigger output or use more pesticides to get a bigger output, because in the end, the corn is going into animal feed, or processed cereal, so the buyer doesn't really care either. That's where our country has gone wrong, IMO. The more small, local, sustainable agriculture we can produce with family farmers who care deeply about what they are growing, the better off we will be.

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    1. Thanks Samantha, we probably meet your definition of "factory farm" due to our size of 2000 acres, and USDA defines us as "very large" based on sales. Yet, the farm consists of me, my husband, his brother, one full time employee, and seasonal help for the grapes and tomatoes. If we were "small" we would all have to hold jobs off the farm to make ends meet. As it is, most family farms have a spouse who works off the farm to get health benefits. Some guys take on seed sales, seed cleaning, trucking, or other custom work to earn off farm income in addition to farming. There are not a lot of farmers whose entire family is able to rely solely on income from the farm. We do because we are diversified, which again, is another set of parameters that some farms cannot do for a variety of reasons. Size doesn't dictate quality, sustainability, or ethos of any sort. Integrity does and most family farms I know regardless of size hold their integrity of highest value.

      http://www.nifa.usda.gov/nea/ag_systems/in_focus/familyfarm_if_overview.html

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  3. I think using the term "factory farm" isn't the very positive representation of agriculture. However, I do very much agree that there needs to be more local agriculture, if nothing more than just for economic reasons

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    1. Thanks Colby, some of my reply above fits with your comments. I love local but it not an economic engine for the vast majority of farmers except in season. Many of them cannot work full time on the farm and rely on off farm jobs "to support their farming habit" (actual quote from a friend in that position) I blogged about local vs global food here. http://thefoodiefarmer.blogspot.com/2011/12/know-your-farmer-locavore-or-globavore.html

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  4. The issue I've heard is not that seed choices are imposed, but rather that if Monsanto seeds show up on your farm accidently (are blown in from a neighboring farm or off a passing truck transporting seeds) and are unwanted, this is treated as patent infringement and royalties are then due to Monsanto even though no Monsanto seeds were desired. One could argue this should be treated as Continuation where Monsanto is required to "clean up".

    I'm curious for a farmers input on this.

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    1. I would consider that to be an exaggeration. The lawsuits I have read about are not accidental but intentional. There would be no substantial legal standing or real benefit for any of the seed companies to sue a farmer over accidental presence on their property. Contamination doesn't "just happen". We grew organic, biotech, and conventional crops simultaneously and never had contamination issues in our fields, our equipment, or our grain tanks. Its simply a matter of management, attention to detail, and stewardship. The whole "seed" issue for us a multi-system farmers, is a non-issue.

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  5. Could be treated as contamination.....

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  6. I see these claims all the time. Here's an example I just got across my twitter feed:

    RT @joelamport: ...my understanding is that farmers would have to buy seeds every year from the same seed company. true?

    https://twitter.com/joelamport/status/435573832695287808

    People seem to think it's some kind of indentured servitude. So of course I used this post to illustrate that's not the case.

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  7. What a wonderful and eye opening blog. I love foodie and farming blogs, particularly homestead-y type pursuits as my young family and I are working towards developing my father's vineyards and winery property into something more diverse (Barossa Valley, South Australia).

    You hear so much about the scary state of agriculture in the States... enormous abbatoirs, seas of corn and soy and loss of feild biodiversity and I have found your blog to be a wonderful perspective, that it is not all doom and gloom! Lord knows we have our own problems here, with 2 big supermarket chains only that are choking life out of producers with agressive discounting and cheap foreign imports. I love to hear about family farms and good land stewardship, and the perspective of yourself who seems less 'crunchy and organic' than probably my own standing is refreshing in that it shows that the more conventional models of agriculture don't have to be 'land rape', that most farmers love their land and work to make it healthier and more productive no matter their philosophsy on GMO, organic, conventional etc. Thank you :)

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