The 22nd annual MOSES Organic Farming Conference, held February 24th-26th in LaCrosse, was a smashing success with almost 3,000 attendees. It is the largest organic farming conference in the U.S. and is organized by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES). It is an extraordinary, farmer-centered event with over 70 informative workshops, 150+ exhibitors, locally-sourced organic food, live entertainment and inspirational keynote speakers, and is celebrated as the foremost educational and networking event in the organic farming community. This year, Willy Street Co-op sent six staff members. Each wrote a brief article based on things they learned at the conference. We’ll include more of these articles in the next issue or two.
by Dawn Matlak, Cooperative Services Assistant–West
At the MOSES conference in February, I was drawn to a workshop called “Urgency in Organic Seed” facilitated by Matthew Dillon (cofounder of Organic Seed Alliance) and Michael Sligh (Director of Sustainable USA). After learning more about seed-saving efforts during my recent trip to Seed Savers Exchange (and subsequent Producer Profile in the February 2011 issue of the Reader), I’ve been eager to explore seed-saving and propagation, particularly of organic varieties.
My experience working with certified and non-certified organic farmers has led me to believe that the organic seed industry is relatively small and underdeveloped. This point was reiterated many times throughout this workshop at MOSES, and I found myself both curious and concerned about the limitations of varietal availability in commercially sold organic seed. It amazes me to realize that despite the rapid growth of the organic industry as a whole, the organic seed sector has not caught up with the demand.
According to USDA Organic certification guidelines, “The National Organic Standards provides that nonorganically produced, untreated seeds may be used to produce an organic crop when an equivalent organically produced variety is not commercially available.” This means that certified organic farms must seek out organic seed first, but if unable to find it, must show “written evidence of efforts to locate and source organic seed by contacting at least three suppliers of organic seed…[which] may include letters, faxes, e-mail correspondence, and phone logs.” Organic farmers are not permitted to knowingly use genetically modified seeds, although organic seed (particularly alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, soybeans, and sugar beets) increasingly contains levels of genetically modified material. Yet there are no federal protections in place for organic farmers whose crops are contaminated by GMOs. This clearly weakens the credibility of an organic standard.
Specifically, when organic farmers are selecting seed, they should not be expected to choose organic seed that performs poorly or costs astronomically more than the seed’s non-organic counterpart. The seeds themselves should be bred specifically for organic growing conditions, which have “different weed pressures, fertility practices, and pest and disease complexes than conventional fields,” according to the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF). The choices of hybrid and/or open-pollinated seed varieties also fit into this framework. Organic hybrid seeds have value within the organic seed movement, yet the OFRF points out that “the breeding process and proprietary nature of hybrids does not lend them to farmer/breeder cooperative efforts, nor is the end product suited for subsequent on-farm selections or regional adaptation.” An alternative to hybrid seed would be the breeding of open-pollinated varieties, where seeds can be saved by the grower or plant breeder, “and the genetic elasticity inherent in OP (open pollination) breeding allows selection for changing environmental conditions such as diseases, heat, cold, drought, soil type or other localized stresses.”
A significant trend that contributes to the lack of organic seed availability stems from the shifting of genetic plant knowledge, which is moving away from a common public sphere and towards private corporate intellectual property ownership. This control restricts and constrains germplasm, which limits the efforts to develop and increase access to organic seed varieties.
Yet, it is this basic reminder that continues to be overlooked: seeds initiate, activate, and set in motion. They are the critical beginning links in the process of growing clean, normal food. As outlined articulately by the Organic Seed Alliance, “Organic seed that is appropriate to regional agronomic challenges, market needs, regulations, and social and ecological values of organic agriculture is therefore fundamental to the success of organic farmers and the food system they supply.”
by Gavin Eagan, Produce Stocker–East
Soil is magical and so are cover crops. Actually the micro-organisms living within the food web of the healthy soil of your garden are the most magical. My motivation for gardening is not just providing myself and my friends with the produce that I have grown, but also experimenting with a variety of methods in order to achieve a bountiful harvest. One method begins at or a bit below ground level by finding new ways to feed the micro-organisms that live there. In turn they help create soil that holds water well in our urban environment, is well-aerated, and is able support your wonderful tomatoes, basil or beets, etc.
Some people believe that the “no- till” method creates the best environment for both the micro-organisms and your crops. In late August, if one plants some amazing hairy vetch (a legume that does not winter kill with great root structure and the ability to naturally fix nitrogen from the air back into the soil), then one can crimp their cover crop mid- to late-April creating a natural mulch which can be added to through out the summer. A small crimper can be assembled from scrap or new lumber, a piece of angle iron, screws, and two eyehooks. The idea being that you screw the angle iron to the flat of the wood, insert the eye hooks into the ends and run some bailing twine through the eye hooks and angle iron to guide your crimping. Use your weight with the metal side down to flatten your crops. According to the Rodale Institute, people make crop circles with this tool. You can see a picture of it and larger crimpers at their website here: newfarm.rodaleinstitute.org/depts/notill/roller_gallery/index.shtml. After crimping you can plant into your nitrogen-replenished soil that already has a layer of mulch down. Your earthworms will love you, too.
Some gardeners have to deal with an infestation of vineweed that roots itself in the ground and interlaces their topsoil with its extensive root system. Crimping cover crops in a no-till fashion may or may not work in this situation. There is something satisfying about flipping over a plot and eradicating an extensive network of weeds via soil sifting, but the same might be done by selecting the right cover crop to compete for nutrients and suppress the vineweed in its own fantastic way. That is what makes sowing tillage radish or red clover or winter wheat so spectacula—each has their own special abilities, and all of them reduce erosion and eutrophication (the “bloom” or great increase of phytoplankton) of our lakes. Some winter kill; others don’t. Some you can mow and plow back into the earth like green manure; none leave your soil bare for an extended amount of time. So when you are hibernating though sub-zero temperatures, your cover crop will still be gardening and you will be happy to see them come spring.
Please find out what works for you by researching in your yard and using the following resources online at:
Rodale Institute: rodaleinstitute.org/
Tillage Radish: www.tillageradish.com/index.php