If you’ve ever looked through a seed catalog you’ll know just what a dizzying amount of options there are for the seeds. Most of us don't necessarily think about what ‘variety’ of vegetables we are eating, but almost all of us have heard the term “heirloom seeds” or even the infamous term “GMO seeds”-- which are both descriptions of seed varieties. Let’s look at tomatoes for example: there are many types of tomatoes - slicing tomatoes, paste tomatoes, cherry tomatoes. But even a type- like cherry tomatoes - has countless varieties or specific cultivars (like Sungold) that have unique flavors, disease resistances, and regional adaptations.
So how does a farmer decide which varieties to grow for its customers? I’m so glad you asked!
I really believe that seeds are one of the most powerful pieces of technology we farmers have to decrease our environmental footprint and increase yields. And yes, you read that correctly… I’m saying that seeds are technology.
Ye olde Webster defines technology as “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry”. Plant breeding is one of our earliest applications of scientific knowledge for practical purposes… So, YES!, I absolutely consider seeds technology.
If I have access to a seed variety that is resistant to a plant disease, I don’t ever need to spray or worry about that disease. If a variety is better yielding, growing more fruit per square foot, I could very well increase the profitability of my farm just by choosing that variety. As a farmer I spend a lot of time assessing crops and choosing new and improved seed varieties. What seed varieties work well for my Central Texas farm are likely very different that what would work well for a different growing region.
Before I tell you some stories about some of my favorite varieties we grow at VRDNT, here’s a refresher on the plant variety and breeding jargon:
Plant Breeding: Ever since the advent of agriculture, we have been selecting seeds with desirable characteristics for human cultivation.
Traditional Breeding: Crossing plants with relevant characteristics, and selecting the offspring with the desired combination of characteristics. This was the only type of breeding until transgenic technology.
GMO or Transgenic Breeding: Adding a new gene or genes to the genome of a crop plant.
**To be clear, I would never knowingly grow GMO plants at VRDNT, but it’s helpful to know what the term actually means. If you are worried about GMOs, you may be pleased to know that the only vegetables that even have transgenic varieties available are potatoes and summer squash. Regardless of a vegetable’s label as organic or not, most vegetables are not GMO/ transgenic :-).
Underneath the umbrella of Traditional Breeding there are two means of developing new varieties:
Open Pollinated Breeding: Varieties produce seeds true to type if they are allowed to cross-pollinate only with other plants of the same variety.
Hybrid Breeding: Traditional breeding technique which crosses two inbred parent lines to produce a more uniform/ vigorous offspring.
If you want a robust description of the differences between open pollinated and hybrid breeding, Wikipedia has a good article. For the sake of your attention span (we’re nerding out, we know!), we’ll keep this part brief.
The biggest practical difference between these breeding techniques is that open pollinated seeds can be saved and replanted and hybrid seeds need special conditions to be produced, and therefore cannot be saved. The advantage to hybrids is that new disease resistances can be imparted more easily. Usually, hybrids produce more vigorous plants. Open pollinated seeds can be likened to open-source software, whereas hybrids are patented and proprietary.
Heirloom Varieties: Open pollinated varieties that have been saved 50+ years. Basically antique open-source varieties.
I LOVE Heirloom varieties. Heirloom seeds are like tiny time capsules from the specific culture and time when they were bred. One heirloom variety that we grow is the Red Meat radish. If you’re a CSA member, you’re eating this heirloom variety now! This is an heirloom variety of watermelon radish, and a stalwart in VRDNT’s fall crop plan. This variety came from China. There are many varieties of watermelon radish, but I grow Red Meat every year because I love its deep red color, supreme juiciness, and thin skin.
A great example of an open pollinated but very “high tech” new variety is called Salanova Lettuce. These are lettuce heads that have been specifically bred to be become a lettuce mix. With just one slice at the bottom of the plant, the head falls into many tiny leaves. This is a popular variety with many small farmers and hydroponic growers because it greatly simplifies growing lettuce mix. It’s also gorgeous.
My last example of a hybrid variety that you may be currently eating is our fennel. We grow Orazio fennel which is a hybrid. I grew several open pollinated varieties of fennel, but everyone was slow to mature and quick to bolt (or flower). The Orazio variety is delicious, and produces heavy, uniform bulbs.
Is your head swimming yet? Good! Agriculture is complicated and nuanced. As your farmer, I want to help you understand and feel more connected to it.
Questions? E-mail me. I could talk bout seed varieties ALL DAY.
Best, Farmer Becky