Wednesday, 21 August 2013

A Visit to Hawthorn Farm Organic Seeds

On a bit of whim I contacted Hawthorn Farm, wondering if I could stop by for a visit. The answer came back: I certainly could. In fact, they were doing a tour for members of Seeds of Diversity on August 10th, and I could sign up for that, if I wanted. Well I did! Mr. Ferdzy and I are members, and were very happy to join the tour.

About 30 of us started out in Kim Delaney's office and seed storage space, where she described some of the basics about saving seeds, including whether plants are inbreeders or outbreeders, the numbers of plants required for good genetic diversity, and distances required to isolate certain plants to prevent crossbreeding.

She showed us two nifty devices for sorting seeds from their chaff, both of which use a balance of gravity and vacuum pull, supplied by a shop-vac. They got the plans for the larger, flat metal seed cleaner from Real Seeds, a company in the UK which put out a YouTube video about making their own. Kim's husband is a tool maker, so he was able to make a very effective all-metal version. The other one is even simpler, made of assorted plumbing pipes also hooked up to a shop-vac.

These are for dry seeds, of course. She deals with wet seed (tomatoes, squash, melons, etc) the same way as everyone else: the fruits are opened, the seeds rinsed and mixed with water, and sometimes fermented, then rinsed again and dried.

Next we walked out to see the gardens. Here's the quarters for the on-site crew.

Vegetables are spaced much more widely than they would be if grown for eating. This allows the plants to be examined for health and being true to type.

The plant Kim is pointing to here is Cherry Vanilla quinoa. She gets the seed she sells for it from another company, as she cannot keep hers from crossing with Lamb's Quarters, which is apparently the exact same species! I didn't know that! So it seems I'm growing lots of "quinoa" already...

I was a bit amused to see that Kims purple orach looks like all the purple orach I've ever grown - just a few red stems and stubs of leaves. Apparently it tastes good, but I wouldn't know. So far the rabbits and deer have always gotten to it before me. There is a dog, but one dog can only do so much patrolling.

Hawthorn Farm is in some ways a typical Ontario farm, consisting of about 100 acres. In other ways though, it's quite atypical. Only about 10 acres are in use one way or another, and the seed growing takes up just 2 acres. The rest of the farm is being allowed and encouraged to return to a much more wild state. In some places, native prairie forbs and grasses have been planted.

Kim and her partner bought the farm in the 1980's, quite inexpensively. The terrain is too uneven, with a river flowing through it, to be suited to the type of industrial farming done on all the other farms around it. Consequently, no chemical fertilizers or pesticides have been used on it since the 1960's. Kim's background is in restoration ecology, so she is well able to steer the process of return to more natural state. The farm also contains 2 protected wetland areas.

A hedge of marshmallow screens the tour as it enters the next field. There are 3 fields, separated by short walks, to allow for the separation needed between varieties to keep them from crossing with each other. Throughout the fields, you will see a row of this, then a row of that, then a row of some other thing, with closely related plants kept as far apart as possible.

Kim talks about some of the supports and materials needed to help keep varieties separate. Peppers are under row-covers, as they will self-pollinate if the insects can be kept away from them. The bundles of drying plants at the far right of the picture are peas. Growing them on the very loosely woven jute cloth draped from pole to pole was an experiment this year; unfortunately, one which did not really work out. The peas detached themselves from it in the first strong wind, and ended up in exactly the kind of tangled heap that it was supposed to prevent, adding a lot of work to cleaning and processing the seed. Next year, back to chicken wire.

It was a perfect day for a tour, sunny but not too hot. About half of the people on the tour were interns or apprentices at various farms and agricultural institutions. The rest were a mix of local farmers, home gardeners, wannabe farmers, and even a couple from another seed company.

Kim talked about the specific requirements of specific plants, cultural techniques, collection methods, how they water the plants - they had 5 1/2 weeks without rain last summer (tellmeaboutit) - using a pond which was behind me as I took this picture, and various pest problems.

Each row of vegetables, flowers or herbs is marked with a flag, indicating the field name (letter) and row number. Everything is very carefully charted with distances carefully calculated before being planted.

Kim also contracts with a number of other growers, and purchases some of her seed wholesale. Spacing will only take you so far... corn, for instance, must be 5 miles from any other corn that is pollinating at the same time, or it will cross. That means she can grow exactly one variety, and that one only by careful consultation with her neighbours, all of whom grow GMO corns. Fortunately, they all put in late corn this year, which meant she was able to get hers in and flowering before theirs started. Furthermore, just to be safe any of her plants that did not flower promptly were rogued out (removed).

There are 3 species of squash commonly grown in Ontario, so Kim can grow 3 varieties. Unfortunately, cucurbita pepo includes all the summer squash, most of the pumpkins, and a good selection of winter squash. You need 80 plants of each variety to maintain good genetic diversity, and they need to be half a mile from any other squash of the same species. Brassicas? She gets to grow ONE, because they all cross - cabbages, kales, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, rapini, mustards; the lot.

Kim talks about some of her specific varieties. This is Merlot lettuce, a customer favourite. It has not yet even flowered at this point. (Lettuce is a pain. You carefully prevent it from bolting for as long as you can. Then once it starts bolting, it decides it has all the time in the world and is very slow to flower and set seed.) Apparently the best way to collect lettuce seed it to just bend over the top of the plants and shake the seeds into a paper bag. That hasn't really worked for me; I find it easier to pinch the buds as they start to go white (like dandelions, to which lettuce is related) and drop them into said paper bag. Carefully labelled, of course.

These are Marvel of Venice beans. Kim talked about how selection has improved these beans over the last number of years she has grown them. Originally, there were a fair number of these beans that stayed green and never turned yellow. Now, green beans are rare for her; she has succeeded in roguing out most of the off-types. She also mentioned how the incidence of blossom-end rot in tomatoes has been greatly reduced through selection.

Onions, beans, tomatoes, sunflowers, poppies (I think?), lettuce, even edible chrysanthemums are still growing, even though some earlier finishing plants have been removed.

Seeds from Hawthorn Farm are packed by weight, although a seed count is put on the package as that's more convenient for gardeners. Each batch has to be recalculated so that the weight is correct to give the right seed count, or better, a few more, as seed size can vary considerably from batch to batch.

I noted before, that for a small seed company Hawthorn farm has great packaging - it includes the date and results of germination tests in addition to the seed counts.

Aabir Dey, the Ontario Regional Program Co-ordinator for the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, which sponsored the tour, thanks Kim and all the participants in the tour for their efforts. Thank you too! It was an interesting and informative event, and it was great to see where some of my seeds come from.

At the end of the tour we had a chance to have a drink, a snack and chat on Kims patio, and ask Kim any questions that might have gone unanswered on the tour.

Then we walked back to where we  had parked our car. That's not a back road in the picture, that's (part of!) Kims driveway - helping to keep those seeds isolated.

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