Monday, January 27, 2014

Not all Open Pollinated Heirloom Seeds are Created Equal

The great thing about heirloom seeds is their proven performance. They’re also generally widely adapted and have great market acceptance and recognition. Growers all over the world have been saving seed from these open pollinated varieties.  The question is where should you source your seed? 

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It really depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.  It’s nice to imagine saving seed year after year and having pride and legacy develop on your farm or homestead, but how do you know if you’re getting the same high quality tomato that was first planted one, five, or even 25 years ago? Do you remember when your favorite tomato variety seemed to have more pronounced shoulders, a rounder shape, or a more upright plant habit?  

The truth is, not all seed savers, or seed production companies are created equal. Seed quality and performance can vary greatly from stock to stock. Let me help explain this, by presenting two examples below:

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Company A contracts a farmer to grow heirloom tomatoes. Since they’re desperate to ensure a seed source and their inventory is getting low, they provide the farmer with the remainder of their seed stock, which is leftover seed from a previous years’ production. The seed is in poor shape and the farmer struggles with low germination and poor plant vigor. Half of the transplants don’t make it to the field. To meet his contract, the farmer delivers seed from every tomato produced, regardless of the quality. This includes the fat ones, the skinny ones, the seed from the fruits that have some purple blotches, as well as seeds from the purple fruit with some red blotches. The farmer saves seeds from the plants that barely set fruit, the diseased plants, and the ones that might have cross pollinated with his own tomatoes.  Compound this seed saving process over a few productions and the tomato’s original great characteristics start to fade away.

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On the other hand, Company B contracts with several well-established and seasoned seed growers. The seed company provides disease-free, high germinating, true-to-type seeds to farmers geographically located in an area where common tomato disease and pest pressure for that crop are low. The farmer isolates the production crop from his crops of the same plant family on the farm.  The seed company frequently visits the growers and walks the production. Together, they select fruits that are healthy and disease free. They grade the plants and fruit on their health and for being the best possible match to the characteristics of the variety’s lineage.  They identify any off types, or lower quality plants and quickly remove them from the production. Upon harvest, the seed is lab tested to ensure high germination, and vigor. Grow-outs are performed to test seed quality prior to being released to consumers. The process is repeated next year using these “true-to-type” seeds.

Brandywine tomato
These scenarios happen every year in the seed production industry.  Don’t believe it? Try growing the same exact heirloom varieties from three different seed suppliers. Grade each one based on uniformity, plant health, and being true-to-type. 

Johnny’s knows that as a grower, you’re proud of your product. We know you may not always be the only one to market with a Brandywine tomato, but we can help you have the best looking one there, by ensuring our seed production is held to a high standard that we are proud of.  We also rely on our seed growers to return to us the type of seed they would be proud to buy. One of the reasons we are able to offer our customers such great quality seed is due to the specialized seed growers we work with.  They are the ones that walk countless times during the season to make sure Johnny’s gets a product they are willing to put their name behind. 


Please do not hesitate to ask me any questions about seed saving, our seed production or anything else you might be curious about.
Randy Cummings
Territory Sales Representative
South Central U.S 

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