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A Q&A with CR Lawn

CR Lawn Photo Credit Jo JosephsonIn advance of our Winter Conference in January with Fedco Seeds Founder CR Lawn as our keynote speaker, we thought it would be enlightening to make this into a Q&A blog. He answered with his usual fascinating, insightful, and practical--answers. We hope you find them interesting and helpful.

Question 1: How did you discover your passion for seeds?

My parents did not wish to raise their children-to-come in New York City so in 1940 they put down a $20 deposit and purchased a 25-acre farm in Vermont complete with an 1820s cape and a large barn, for the princely sum of $1,000, and made their big rural move shortly after my birth in 1946. As a 3-year-old I enjoyed foraging peas in their market garden. That memory must have resonated because in 1972, not long out of law school, I eschewed the law, choosing instead to buy the back forty on a discontinued town road in very rural Maine for a mere $4,000, one of the last great Maine homesteading deals. I grew my first over-sized garden there in 1973. Very active in the new wave food co-op movement, and tired of long isolated Maine winters in a home-built cabin with no amenities, I made the Maine Federation of Co-operatives an offer they could not refuse. For $90 per month and a warehouse bunk during December, January and February, I would come work on special projects. One of the first was organizing a statewide co-operative garden seed order. I had thumbed through my 1979 Harris Seed catalog and discovered we could purchase 5 lb. of beet seeds for $3.15 per lb. I did the math and learned we could break down each lb. into 90 good-sized packets costing us less than 4¢ apiece, resell them for 15¢, and still have a profit after paying ourselves. The seed order took off like wildfire, crossing state boundaries with impunity, and Fedco Seeds was born. My adventure with seeds had begun; I had found my life work.

Question 2: In your many years in the seed industry, how have things changed since you first started?

In my 39 years in the seed business many regional seed companies folded, bought out by giant national or multinational corporations, with an accompanying loss of geographically adapted regional varieties. Simultaneously, classical public breeding programs in the land-grant universities declined or disappeared, replaced by genetic engineering research. Most public research no
longer focuses on benefiting growers, instead aiming to maximize profits for the participating institutions and their corporate partners. Seed, no longer seen as a commons accessible to all, increasingly is regarded as proprietary intellectual property protected by a tangled skein of licenses, patents and other restrictions. The entire seed system is less collegial, more competitive; less
public, more private, much more secretive. Especially in the large agronomic crops such as feed corn and soybeans, farmers' choices and available varietal diversity have declined. Utility patenting threatens to extend the same trends into vegetable crops such as lettuce. Seed prices have increased faster than the consumer price index, more like the cost increases in our out-of-control health care system. In reaction, a legion of small and medium-sized alternative seed companies arose, often with regional and ethical focus, mostly tied to or part of the burgeoning organic seed network, with an emphasis on diverse crops and regional trials.

 

Question 3: How can we best work to retain our seed diversity?
Question 4: With corporate mega-merges like Monsanto and Bayer, what can we do to retain some control of our seeds?

Questions 3 and 4 are so inter-related that I have one answer for both:

The $66 billion buyout of Monsanto by Bayer, combined with ChemChina's $43 billion takeover of Syngenta and the merger of DuPont and Dow would give three mega-corporations nearly a 60% share of the global seed trade, a clear threat to seed security. To protect diversity and retain at least some control over our seeds I suggest strategies of:

  • Transparency. Ask your seed suppliers to identify which of their varieties come from Bayer/Monsanto, ChemChina/Syngenta etc. If they refuse, choose different seed sources.
  • Farm for Knowledge. If it would constitute an economic hardship for your farm to give up Bayer/Monsanto and ChemChina/Syngenta varieties immediately, devote 3-10% of your plots to trial for potential replacements. Each year explore 1 or 2 seed sources new to you.
  • Small is Beautiful. Whenever possible support small regional seed companies rather than large multinationals with your business.
  • Terminate your seed addictions. Don't buy Bayer/Monsanto seeds. Consider boycotting ChemChina/Syngenta varieties as well. Remember that Bayer and Syngenta are also the major manufacturers and patent holders of neonicotinoids that are implicated in bee die-offs.
  • Select or breed your favored varieties for greater adaptation to your climatic conditions and farming needs. Growers such as Bryan O'Hara in Connecticut and Brett Grohsgal in Maryland have  improved their varieties so much (for disease resistance, winter hardiness, resilience and diverse textures) that they have become integral to their farms' economic success.
  • Encourage your suppliers to identify all their offerings that carry intellectual property (IP) restrictions that could limit your use of their seeds. Such restrictions include utility and trait patents, plant variety protection (PVP), contractual limitations, bag tag agreements or licenses. These might prevent you from legally saving seeds from them even for your own use, exchanging or selling seeds from them, or using the seeds to select or breed new varieties.
  • Avoid purchasing such IP-protected seeds wherever possible.
  • Instead purchase OSSI-pledged varieties that will remain forever an unrestricted part of the seed commons (see osseeds.org).
  • Trial OSSI-pledged varieties for suitability on your farm.
  • Purchase and use open-pollinated seeds rather than F-1 hybrids whenever possible. F-1 hybrid seed does not come true-to-type if you try to save it.

Question 5: What are your strategy suggestions for farmers and gardeners in light of the results of climate change that we’re already experiencing?

Strategies for dealing with climate change:

  • Select your varieties and save seed to adapt to your specific microclimate.
  • If global warming continues, study farms one zone south to explore your additional possibilities.
  • Warming has expanded possibilities for longer-season crops in the northeast such as yams, peanuts, later maturing watermelons, muskmelons and winter squashes, yard long beans and more.
  • It also extends potential windows for successions of summer squash, pole beans, sweet corn, etc.
  • Consider growing neglected staple crops such as heritage wheat, rice, quinoa or grain amaranth.
  • Take advantage of our longer and more temperate autumns. Fall harvests may give
    better results than fighting fickle spring weather, summer heat waves and drought.
  • Trial varieties outside of their usual time frames–you might be surprised!
  • Moderate the effects of extreme weather by making a pond, using shade cloth, drip irrigation and other mechanical means.
  • Study phenology, comparing evolving dates for such natural events as 1st spring peepers, 1st robin sighting, lilac and apple bloom dates. These provide clues as to how the climate is changing and what it implies for our agriculture.
  • Extend your season with devices such as greenhouses, hoop houses, high & low
    tunnels, caterpillars. These mitigate extreme weather events and can protect from late blight.
  • Cultivate your own inner resilience to cope with extreme weather events, and the occasional farming heartbreak.
  • As the ultimate shared commons, climate is a political issue. Support public
    policies that will ameliorate human impact on climate change.
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