It is a delight to be the spouse of a hard working, joy-filled, dedicated man.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Opinion On Seeds: "Heirloom" Versus Hybrid

I am by no means an expert, as I have pointed out numerous times and in my profile. I have, in the past, studied widely on this subject and others involving farming from all aspects and angles. I’ve practiced gardening and farming on a microscopic scale for nearly forty straight years, in town, on balconies, in the burbs, and out here in the tooleys, not necessarily in that order. And of course, I have been here, on this farm we dubbed Victory Farm and Gardens, for twenty three full growing seasons, growing fruit, vegetables and meat for our family table, extended family and others and even grew dry beans, not an easy task in the PNW.

There is a lot of controversy swirling about the issue of hybrid seed verses “heritage”/"heirloom" or open pollinated seed. Both sides play with the truth a bit to gain others to their side, some from both sides do it because they are attempting to build their particular industry up and others just because they like people on their side. Very few are immune to marketing ploys so very few resist using them. I'm no different. But I am rather stuck in the middle, or at least that's the way I see it.

The hybridizing industry is not just working for agribiz. There are hybridizers out there doing their “thing” for the home gardener and small truck farm, not just the mechanical corporate farms and of course keeping the fickle taste buds of the consumer in mind. Knowing the changing tides that taste buds and technology can bring, it greatly behooves hybridizers to keep a wide range of viable parentage. In order for a hybridization to work well the parentage must be impeccably pure, far purer than your basic backyard grandma saving seed.

So, as much as some overly zealous greeners condemn the hybridizing industry, we may find that the “evil hybridizers” may actually be in possession of true parentage of a particular “lost” seed if we should ever find ourselves out of a particular strain for some catastrophic reason. Catastrophe is always right around the corner, isn’t it? I’m rather young, historically speaking, but there have been several horrifying catastrophes predicted in my life time, some that caused great consternation and a fatalistic doomed feeling in impressionable youth, but I suppose much like other paranoia, just because they’re predicted doesn’t mean they won’t happen, I suppose.

Just because a seed is open pollinated doesn’t mean it isn’t new so it could hardly be called heirloom. New strains that are open pollinated and therefore seed save-able are developed all the time my favorite peas were developed at Oregon State University by Jim Baggett. But there is a difference between hybridized and new strains. And the reverse is true also, what exactly is heirloom or heritage, my daughters may consider a lot of things I did when first married as old-fashioned and heirloom, that then would make some of my favorite corn and cauliflower seed “heirloom” eh?

Hybrid isn’t a weak thing. But random cross pollination may very well be. There is something in livestock that really sets the concept, hybrid vigor, but you can quickly go from hybrid vigor to just a mutt, not at all more vigorous than the parentage just very unreliable it what they will deliver. A breeder can’t just throw any two parents together and get hybrid vigor and a product that produces what the consumer wants and needs.

I appreciate the work of the hybridizers and though I don’t believe they will go out of business depending on my purchase, I like to see a good conscientious hybridizer and when they make an awesome cauliflower, a tender tasteful parsnip or superb bean I like to thank them by buying their product. Yes, some heirlooms and new open pollinates are very tasty but there are some vegetables I wouldn’t bother with if it wasn’t for the work of hybridizers.

At Vicktory Farm and Gardens (and in most of my forty years as a practicing gardener) I have chosen to use both, both have their place in my garden for various reasons. I have tasted some pretty bland nasty "heirloom" vegetables from my garden and others or planted them only to have them succumb rapidly to a disease. I have also tasted some mighty taste-bud blowing hybrid vegetables that could not be achieved in places like coastal Washington if it were not for some carefully hybridized seed.

Much of what is said by the proponents of “heirloom” is true if you consider only certain hybridizers that have the specific focus of corporate mega farming, which in itself is a good thing actually. I'm not sure I would like to see the population be attempted to be fed on the produce of truck farmers or backyard producers, at the rate that they are producing at the present or even in the foreseeable future. The population of this country and the others around the world that our hard working nation would go hungry indeed, if the corporate farmers were shut down immediately as some fanatic political groups desire and push for. This would result in more people going hungry for political reasons, not because people in concert with the earth can’t feed people. People eat a lot! I believe it is necessary to have carrots and tomatoes, broccoli and brussel sprouts that are easily harvestable with a good shelf life to feed the masses especially if we continue to put in empty strip malls on “wasted space.”

This is not the same as saying that some practices don’t need to be modified or eventually dropped for the benefit of the environment or the population it currently attempts to serve. In the past year I read in the regional farm newspaper that wheat farmers in Washington and Oregon are adopting a no-till method and are finding benefits not only to the environment but to their spread sheet as well, some of these methods were discussed at the Second International Permaculture Conference that my brother and I participated in back in 1986. That seems like so long ago but on the other hand like yesterday.

For certain, true to type, clean OP seeds are mighty important for planning for the future, especially for the home grower, if we think that transportation and other things will come to a screeching halt, or just an incredibly expensive option. And yes, it is true that stock seed is a very good thing to have, you run the risk of not getting hybridized seed if you don't think so.

But some of history’s biggest famine tragedies didn’t happen because of hybridization, they happened because of increasing the narrowness of parentage due to the likes and dislikes of the consumer, a good hybridizer in for the long haul capitalistically speaking would guard against that just as much as any logically minded biodiversity advocate.

A more important concern for guarding against future food shortages and tragedy for the neighbor, political advocate and voter is the preservation and wide distribution of farm and garden land along with small low tech farming and personal food producing gardening skills in the hands of a great number of individuals. Similar to home economics, cooking, sewing and home maintenance skills; safe, rational, food producing skills will be hard to regain in a timely fashion within a needy population. Good seed stock won’t matter a wit if few people know the proper things to do to soil and seed to produce viable edible or wearable product at a reasonable price that will actually feed friends, neighbors and hungry enemies.


Lisa @ Life with 4! said...

you have a point... there could be acres and acres of soil, but if people don't know how to use it productively, it's of no use.
Me personally, have wondered about the difference in hybrid and heirloom.

I just want to be able to provide a reasonable amount of home-grown produce for my children, and trying to steer clear of sprayed, chemicalized, waxed stuff from the store.

I think it's a great learning experience for kids and adults, to witness the miracle of a garden growing and thriving.
We should know where our food comes from.
wow, i'm wordy tonight!
just some things i've been thinking on.

Tipper said...

Lanny-super interesting post-I learned a lot!