Thursday, March 29, 2012

Interviews with Great Gardeners:
Farming seed to seed with Joseph

Over the years, I've grown to respect Joseph's bold and interesting approach to developing his own seed strains - adaptivar landraces - which enhances genetic diversity along with yield and taste to provide his family and CSA with great fruit and vegetables. There is a lesson in good seed stewardship for all of us.

Where do you farm and when did you start?


I started farming as a toddler in Paradise Utah, a small village in a mountain valley. Cold air from the surrounding mountains settles into the valley, so the growing season is short and cold. Due to the low humidity during the summer, we get bright sunlight during the day and intense radiant cooling at night. I am still farming in Paradise.


I grew up on the farm that was settled by my 3rd great grandmother. We raised a huge vegetable garden to feed the family. The rest of the farm was in pasture, wheat, alfalfa, woodlot, or fallow where the mountains are too steep. My primary responsibility was to milk the cow once a day, every day, year after year after year. I love the intimacy of milking, and the gentle rhythm of it, but it ties you down something fierce.

We raised or hunted just about everything that we ate: pigs, sheep, cows, vegetables, chickens, deer, eggs, milk, fish, etc. We bought bread and noodles. We canned, froze, and dried lots of food. We had a root cellar, and a pantry.


We kept a couple of ponies that we rode all over everywhere when I was young. They were named Sunshine and Stormy, after the weather when they were born, which just happened to match their temperaments after they grew up. I usually rode bareback.

Tell us about adpativar landraces and your seed to seed practices.

I had always bought my seeds from The Company. Some years ago I was looking for a more exciting sweet corn, something with a bit of color to it. I read about the pedigree of a variety called "Astronomy Domine" which was being grown by Homegrown Goodness in Pekin Indiana. It contained the offspring of many dozens of varieties all jumbled up and inter-pollinating each other.

Astronomy Domine

That got me wondering about whether I was harming my garden by planting the highly inbred varieties that the seed companies were offering. So I started doing some plant breeding experiments with cantaloupe. The first year I had only harvested a few fruits before the garden was killed by frost, but I saved the seeds and replanted, and added about 60 varieties as a trial planting. Most of the varieties did extremely poorly, failing to produce seeds or even to germinate in my cold soil. The second year I harvested about two bushel of cantaloupes. There were a few plants from my saved seed that grew vigorously and were highly productive: One plant produced more fruit than an entire row of store bought seeds. So I saved the seeds from the best, and from anything that produced fruit and replanted. The third year I harvested around 15 bushels of ripe fruit. Wow!!! I could finally grow cantaloupe in my cold short season garden.

Mal-adapted cantaloupe

Well-adapted cantaloupe

The fruit of his labour: cantaloupe!

After seeing how successful the cantaloupe experiments were, I decided that I would grow all of my own seeds for my garden, and that I would grow landrace varieties. An adaptivar landrace is a food crop lots of genetic diversity which tends to produce stable yields under marginal growing conditions. Landrace crops are adaptively selected for reliability in tough conditions. In the case of mostly self-pollinating plants like peppers, tomatoes, beans, wheat, and peas a land-race may be thought of as many distinct varieties growing side by side. In the case of out-crossing plants like cantaloupe, squash, or corn, a land-race can be thought of as an open pollinated population with tremendous genetic diversity.

I have had great success with other varieties. For example, I planted every variety of moschata/butternut squash that I could get my hands on and allowed them to freely cross-pollinate. 75% of the varieties didn't produce offspring in the 88 day frost-free growing season that year, and of those that did survive, some of them only produced one fruit per seed packet. But I saved the seeds from the survivors and had a tremendous harvest the following year.

How do your clients react to the diversity of your vegetables?

Judy told me that I am a "bad farmer" for letting colored pollen from the Indian corn get into Astronomy Domine... But for the most part people are pragmatic. My brightly colored and genetically diverse vegetables taste better than the bland grocery store offerings, and so I am readily forgiven if one melon in a basket has a funky smell. If diversity is the price that has to be paid in order to harvest ripe melons in our valley then it's an easy bargain to make. And if I get the chance to share my belief that brighter colors equals higher nutrition and better taste, then people are nearly always willing to entertain the notion. When word of Astronomy Domine sweet corn got around, a local newspaper sent a reporter out to do a story about it.

Any project on the go that you'd like to share with us?

I am currently working on turning every species I grow into reliable landrace varieties for my garden, but the species that I am most excited about is watermelon. I was able to harvest 5 fruits from the 600 seeds that I planted last spring. That is great odds for a breeding program! I am collaborating with two other growers in similarly cold short-season gardens, and with one grower in a warmer climate. We are all growing each others seed and sharing seeds from the survivors with each other.

Mal-adapated watermelon

Well-adapted watermelon

The fruit of his labours: watermelon!

What advice would you give to young farmer's beginning a CSA or other local food farm?

Farm because you love to farm, not because you think it would be a lucrative career. I estimate that I make around $2 per hour. That figure is slightly misleading, because I also eat from the garden, and I have much lower expenses because I grow my own seeds, and because I have developed varieties that thrive without pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, weed-mats, etc. Farm-gate sales are much easier on the main highway than from a back-field somewhere. You can develop your own clientèle and your own way of doing things, regardless of the traditions of the other farmers in your area.

Read more at Homegrown Goodness


miss m said...

Another great interview, OG. Nice work. And hats off to Joseph.

(If you get oodles of copies of my comment, sorry, but each time I submit, it comes back saying word verification doesn't match. It's hard to tell if it's going through or not).

Ottawa Gardener said...

Just one comment. Wonder why it was giving you a hard time. I'll have a speak with the robot moderation thingy.

I agree Jospeh's work is really interesting. He's sent me a couple of his landraces which I grew out last year. Next year, we'll see how they do.

RheLynn said...

Amazing. I am still staring at the picture of the corn!

Lynne said...

Thanks so much for sharing this interview! I feel a bit better now that I accidentally killed off most of my cilantro seedlings and three of my four tomatoes *sigh* (granted, this is my first try - ever!)