Home brewing antics can now be found at my other blog; http://gettinggrist.blogspot.com/

Friday, 5 February 2010

The Importance Of Open Pollinated Seed

This is the really boring bit. But, like so much stuff that you might prefer to skip over and ignore, it’s actually quite important. Well, at least to me, at any rate.

I don’t like being dictated to. No by anyone, least of all by multi-million pound companies. It’s part of the reason I decided to work for myself. I’d had enough of being pushed around by employers, shouldering more responsibility, for little personal gain.

Why does it seem as if the decisions in the workplace are made by drunken lemurs? Because decisions are made by people with time, not by people who have talent. Why are all the talented people so busy? Because they’re fixing problems made by the people who have time. (Thanks Dilbert)

Anyhow, I decided to do my own thing, so I could control how much work and pressure was put on my shoulders. It meant a reduction in income, but that was offset by less stress and having more time for the family. We may not be able to buy all the things we would like, but we are happy. Most of the time.

I’m getting sidetracked. What I should be talking about is seed. Vegetable seed.

A lot of the vegetable seed available to buy, is basically a result of what has been developed for farmers that have been pressurised by the giant supermarkets.

The supermarkets want their vegetable produce to be all uniform in shape, a certain size, and bred to last on the shelves without spoiling. Farmers need to adhere to their request and also want the fruits to ripen at the same time, so they can harvest all at once to maximise efficiency.

Plus, they’re bred to be tasty. Ah, sorry, that’s my mistake. Taste doesn’t feature.

These Hybrid (F1) plants are a cross of two parent plants that have been heavily inbred. Only the seed company know the parents, so only they can produce the seed.

But, I hear you ask. Once you grow from their seed, can’t you save some for next time? The answer is no. These massively inbred hybrids often produce sterile seed, or those that do germinate often provide a poor yield. So you have no option but to go back to the seed companies to purchase more seed. Mmm, you can see where this is going.

And as for pollination, I believe that most of this is done by chemical sprays. So when you buy your seed from the seed companies, you’re purchasing mass produced, chemically pollinated seed that’s been heavily inbred to produce a fruit to suit the farmer/supermarket. Nice.

There is another way. It’s the way I, and hopefully many other small growers, prefer to grow. With open-pollinated seed.

These are often heirloom varieties – proper plants that have been growing for years and are pollinated naturally by insects. The seeds from these plants can be saved and will continue to provide you with decent yields.

So why are they so unpopular with the big companies? Depending on the type of plant involved, they may be less compact in habit – so they take up a bit more land, whereas you could cram in a few more hybrids on the same plot and push up production. The plants may have more spines which makes harvesting less attractive for crop pickers. Just a couple of points, but you get the gist.

It also takes more manpower to harvest ‘real’ seed, so the seed companies are happy to let the old varieties die away and it’s a triumph for modern marketing the big seed companies get away with so much.

For advertising promsing ‘nicely uniform fruit’ read ‘bred for the supermarket shelves, heavily inbred with a narrow genetic base’.
‘Straight long shanks’ on your leek seed can be taken for ‘bred to fit the industrial packing machine’.
‘Good for freezing’ read 'bred to ripen all at once for commercial harvesting’ and you’ll get a glut.
There was even a breed of ‘leafless’ pea – ‘easier to find the pods’. Yeah right. Translate that to, ‘lower yields, but at least we can harvest them by combine now’.

In summary, hybrid seed can have advantages for the industrial-chemical farmer who wants to harvest all at once. But for the small home grower who wants a good yield over a long period, traditional varieties are usually more productive. You can find small seed companies offering real, non hybrid seed, and this is my preferred choice. I’ll get off my soapbox now.

Having said all that, Sweetcorn has traditionally been difficult to grow in this country without the use of hybrids. I have used F1 seed the last 2 years but, in 2010 I will be using a non-hybrid and I’ll be interested to see how it does.

Likewise, I’ve struggled to get a traditional variety of Butternut Squash to ripen fully in the short British summers. This year I will be trying a hybrid variety for the first time, to see how it compares. But, wherever possible, I'll be using real seed, for real plants, with real flavour.

Phew, that took longer than I thought. Thank you for bearing with me.

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