Seeds – Heirlooms, Open-Pollinated, Hybrids & GMOs
I wanted to write a post about seeds for all of you who grow gardens or are curious about the origins of the crops we grow on our farm. In many ways, seed companies are like the beating heart that feeds the network of small organic farms that are part of this movement of ecological farming.
In this post I cover:
- Where we order seeds
- Why high quality seeds matter
- The difference between heirlooms, open-pollinated, hybrid and GM crops
- The arguments for and against hybrids
1. Where we order seeds
We order most of our seeds from three companies: Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine, High Mowing Organic Seeds in Vermont, and William Dam Seeds in Ontario. All three of these companies grow specifically for farmers like us, looking for and developing varieties that meet our needs for high quality, high yielding and great tasting crops. Most importantly, I trust them. I know that when I order seeds from them, I won’t be let down by poor germination rates or poor performance.
Johnny’s also has really great online resources for growers if you’re interested in growing yourself. You can basically learn to farm using the Johnny’s website.
2. Why high quality seeds matter
When I first started farming, I made a lot of mistakes. One mistake I made was being cheap on my seed ordering, then scratching my head when my crops didn’t perform as well as the next guy’s. After doing the math, no matter how expensive our seeds are, they are still a relatively tiny fraction of our overall growing expenses, yet they make all the difference in our yield and quality. Even the most expensive seeds are only 5% of the gross revenue, a relatively small investment… and totally worth it.
If you’re growing a small garden, you may wonder if spending money on high quality seed is worth it. Here’s the way I look at it: small or big, you’re putting a lot of energy and time into growing. If your crops don’t work out through no fault of your own, was it worth the energy and time at all? Every square foot matters whether you’re growing a 5’x5’ garden or 5 acres, and high quality seed will maximize that space by giving you good, consistent yields of delicious food. Don’t throw your money and your time into the garbage! Invest in good seeds (many of which will last for years) and watch your bounty unfold.
3. Heirlooms, open-pollinated and hybrid seeds
When we are selling our tomato plants at the farmers’ market, we often get asked about heirloom vs. hybrid seeds. On our farm we grow both, and we think they are both important to a sustainable agricultural system. We do NOT grow any GM crops.
What’s the difference?
I’ll start with open-pollinated. This is just basically a normal variety of plant, like a Labrador Retriever or a Poodle is a normal variety of dog. Basically, nature takes care of sexual reproduction, with a bit of help from us to make sure the varieties don’t cross.
Heirlooms are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated varieties are heirlooms. Heirlooms specifically refer to an old variety or breed that’s been passed down from generation to generation. Open-pollinated varieties continue to be developed by plant breeders and new varieties are being released every year that you could save seed from.
A hybrid is like a Labradoodle: two varieties (of the same species) bred together. For whatever reason, F1 hybrids (the first generation) generally perform better than their parents. We see this in our pigs too: if we breed a Berkshire to a Tamworth, their babies grow much faster and are much healthier thanks to hybrid vigour. There’s nothing unnatural about it – but the cross was done intentionally. Technically you could breed vegetables of different species (like a Tiger and Lion COULD make a Liger or a Tigress), but generally most hybrid vegetables are just a simple matter of cross-pollination within a species.
Hybridization happens in nature on its own. In fact, if you don’t keep your open-pollinated crops isolated by adequate time or distance – your varieties will cross-pollinate and create a hybrid. Seed savers try to avoid this for consistency – if they sell you a purple carrot, they want you to grow it out and get a purple carrot.
Hybrids aren’t created in a lab, either. But they are created in a controlled growing environment where the delicate process of plant breeding can be performed. This takes infrastructure and labour, hence the higher cost of seed. Hybrid seeds are accepted under organic certification, and many hybrid seeds are certified organic themselves (meaning the farmers grew the plants that produced the seeds organically).
Are hybrids GMOs?
No. If a hybrid is like a Labradoodle, GMOs are like teenage mutant ninja turtles. Genetically Modified Organisms have had genes from completely different domains (DOMAINS! THAT’S HIGHER THAN A KINGDOM!!!) inserted into their genetic code in a laboratory, like DNA from fish and bacteria inserted into plant DNA. Because of this, some GMO crops actually produce insecticide and are poisonous to insects that eat them. GM herbicide-resistant crops can soak up a ton of herbicide—poison that kills all other plant life—and not die. There is nothing natural about this and it is in no way related to traditional plant breeding. GM crops are not acceptable under organic certification.
There are only about 28 or so GM crops approved for sale, you can find the list here: http://www.isaaa.org/gmapprovaldatabase/cropslist/
4. The argument for or against Hybrids
Hybrids tend to be much more vigorous, higher quality and yield more (though not always). Because hybrids tend to outperform open-pollinated crops, the yield and efficiency per square foot is much higher. Greater efficiency means a lower environmental footprint and lower cost of production (resulting in sustainable prices). It also means less food is wasted due to disease or unsaleable produce, again lowering the overall cost and increasing the profitability and sustainability of the farm. Basically, if I can produce higher quality produce on half the land, this can mean the difference between a sustainable farm and one that goes under.
The argument against hybrids has to do with seed saving. Armed with some botanical knowledge, anyone can save seeds from open-pollinated crops. Many hybrids are much more difficult to produce and puts the farmer in a position of reliance on the seed producer. In fact, the history of hybrid seed production started with a capitalist motive. However, we do not save our own seeds due to the constraints of isolation distances, space, intensive crop turnover, etc. In fact, I prefer to leave seed production to the experts so I can focus on our goal: growing oodles of delicious food.
Preserving heirlooms and developing new open-pollinated varieties is very important for the preservation of our food supply and the continued evolution of our crops in the face of climate change, and it is very important work. However, I don’t think every person who wants to grow a couple of tomato plants has to take on the responsibility for this important work, especially if you don’t intend to save seeds yourself. If you are interested in supporting the continuation and preservation of heirloom seeds by growing them or saving seed, check out exchange.seedsavers.org to join the movement.
To summarize, there is nothing wrong with hybrids except that they might take away from growing out heirlooms and open-pollinated crops, the cultivation and development of which is important. But if your goal isn’t seed sovereignty, but growing oodles of good food organically, then hybrids are a good way to go. That said, there are some great open-pollinated and even heirloom varieties that rival hybrids in yield and performance – the heirloom tomato Moskvich being one that springs to mind.
We want to feed the world
Our motivation for farming organically isn’t to fulfill a niche market at boutique prices. We are part of a movement that is proving that this way of farming can and will feed the world. High quality seeds are part of this system (both open-pollinated and hybrids), and part of why we can produce so much food per acre while minimizing labour, inputs and fossil fuels. Seed companies like Johnny’s and High Mowing are the beating heart of this movement, supplying a network of farmers like us the stuff we need to do our job and transform our agriculture one acre at a time.
Now it’s your turn…
I hope you learned something new and interesting! What I’m interested in is how you feel about heirloom, open-pollinated and hybrid seeds. Is growing heirlooms important to you? Will you be looking for heirloom tomato plants at our seedling sales or will you opt for the higher yielding and higher quality hybrids? Let me know by commenting below, on our facebook or by shooting us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.