Back in the spring I wrote a newsletter about our confused onions that went to seed instead of making edible bulbs for us to harvest. While we were initially disappointed, our attitude changed when we found out seed for that the onion variety, the Early Red Burger, was no longer available for us (or anyone else) to buy. We now had an opportunity to save the seeds ourselves for our own use, as well as to sell to other farmers.
People ask me all the time if we save seeds at Terra Firma. They generally seem surprised and disappointed when I respond that we do not. But growing and saving seed is a very different enterprise than growing vegetables and fruit, for several reasons. Most crops require expensive special equipment to harvest and process the seed. Making matters more complicated, many of the varieties of vegetables we grow are hybrids rather than open pollinated. Hybrid varieties are actually patented, making it illegal to save the seed without paying the owner of the patent. But the bigger problem is that growing hybrid seeds is a complicated process that is virtually impossible to do without the trade secrets that the owners use to produce them.
Then there is the fact that our farm is a terrible place to grow seed. In order to produce seeds that are “true to type”, you need to isolate the crop to keep other varieties from cross-pollinating with it. Because we grow so many different varieties of so many crops, preserving this “genetic purity” presents a challenge.
With the onions, the 2nd and 3rd problems were not really a factor. The Early Red Burger variety is open-pollinated variety with no patents to worry about. And while we do grow other varieties of onions, it is relatively simple to control cross pollination in onions: the flowers grow on large and obvious stems that are relatively easy to cut off mechanically. Any flowers that popped up in our other onions were quickly destroyed.
And what about the complicated equipment required? Well, harvesting onion seed is done the same way we harvest many of our vegetables: by hand. You simply cut the fluffy round flowers off the stems and throw them in a bin. The critical step is drying the flowers in the shade in a shallow layer on a dropcloth, making sure to fluff and flip them to keep them from getting moldy on the bottom.
Once the flowers are dry, though, special machines are needed to process the seed. Happily, Yolo County is a center of onion-seed production — more acres of onion are grown for seed here than for food. So we were able to have the flowers processed locally.
Several steps are involved in removing the seed from the flowers and then cleaning it, and each of them requires expensive and complicated machinery. Suffice it to say that by the time our small batch of onion seed is finally ready to plant, it will have traveled hundreds of miles and shrank in volume multiple times. What started out as several thousand pounds of flowers will end up as just a hundred pounds of seed — but that’s enough to plant a hundred acres. Far more than we need for ourselves.
Once the seed is ready, we will still have to test-grow a small batch for a year to make sure it is “true to type”. If it makes the cut, we will finally be able to grow our favorite onion variety again, as well as sell it to all the other farmers who have grown it for years.
And, when people ask me if we save our own seeds, I will finally be able to say “Yes”.