Thursday, March 19, 2020

Seeds, Seeds, Seeds!

By Amy Peterson

Amy, "Maven of the Seeds"
Some of you may have met me at our fall harvest party, but I’m sure many of you are wondering, “Who’s this writing in my newsletter?”  Please allow me to introduce myself: my name is Amy, and I’m the newest member of the Harmony Valley Farm crew and a first time Harmony Valley CSA member.   I started working on the farm this past June after moving from Denver, CO to Viroqua, WI.  This is my first foray into the world of commercial farming, although I’ve been a long-time gardener and supporter of all things organic.  The sheer scale of the operation here at Harmony Valley has definitely taken some getting used to—I’ve learned so much in these last 10 months, and there is still so much more to learn!   My job here on the farm is officially called “packing shed support”, and in practice this means I take care of many behind-the-scenes tasks and also step in to help wherever I am needed.  My job is filled with variety, and there are many roles that I fulfill throughout the year.  However, my hands-down favorite role is "maven of the seeds."  As spring unfolds all around us it seems very appropriate to pay homage to these tiny but mighty building blocks of the farm—seeds!

Our meticulously organized walk-in seed storage cooler
My interest in farming stems from a life-long love of gardening, and anyone with a home garden (which I suspect includes many of you) has experienced the end-of-winter thrill of opening the seed catalogs and planning for next summer’s bounty.  For me this time has always been a beacon of hope after the long cold darkness of winter, and having this experience for the first time on the farm did not disappoint!  The excitement was palpable as the seed catalogs began to arrive in the mail.  My days quickly became filled with seed orders and preparations for the influx of seed to come.  Home gardeners may have a box where seeds are stored, or perhaps a shelf in a cabinet, and you simply push back last year’s seed packets to make room for the new.  We have an entire walk-in cooler devoted entirely to seeds, and even at the end of the growing season there are pounds upon pounds of seeds stored in there.  Preparing for the new year’s seeds to arrive is much more complicated at this scale!  After a full inventory of the seeds for every crop group with all of their corresponding varieties, we temporarily remove all the containers and do our annual cleaning of the cooler.  Floor to ceiling, every surface is washed and sterilized before we return our carry over inventory and start receiving new seeds for the upcoming growing season.  By the end of this process I was finally able to navigate the seed cooler with confidence, no longer overwhelmed by the sheer volume of seed stored in this magical cooler.

Organized carrot seeds packed into one of our totes.
What kind of volume are we talking about, you may wonder. Let’s look at some of the numbers to paint a picture.  From Arugula to Watermelon, our seed cooler currently contains about 70 different crop groups.  We use large plastic tubs, 5 gallon buckets and lots of shelving to store the seed by crop groups.  Organization is key when dealing with this many options in one space!  Within each crop group there are a wide range of varieties and seed lots.  For example, we have 3 different lots for the Burdock crop group, but when it comes to sweet peppers we have 90 different lots!  Some other heavy hitters are the melons (40 lots), and winter squash (30 lots), just to name a few.  There is also a wide range in the weight and number of seeds for each crop group.  Some seed like, broccoli and cauliflower, are measured by the number of seeds per packet and are relatively light. We have about 200,000 broccoli seeds at the moment, but they weigh less than 2 pounds total.  Compare that to our stock of edamame seed which weighs in at just under 1,000 pounds!  Cilantro is a very important crop group since we plant cilantro seed weekly throughout the entire growing season, and we currently have over 11,000,000 (yes, 11 million!) cilantro seeds weighing about 240 pounds.  One last number that I’d like to use to describe the seed collection here is value.  At this point in the year our seed cooler houses around $80,000 worth of seed!  This seed is what makes all those beautiful and delicious CSA boxes possible, so I would say that it is definitely money well spent.

The tedious job of counting out and labeling
seeds for germination tests.
Knowing how valuable these seeds are gives me cause to be very careful while working with them.  It has come in very handy that I have been making beaded jewelry most of my life, because the same techniques that I use for carefully handling my bead collection can be applied to handling seeds. I pour and weigh my beads in the same way that I pour and weigh seed, so my past mistakes that resulted in spilled beads can now be avoided when handling seed! Some crops are prone to certain diseases and insects, so another way that I help protect the seed collection is through seed sterilization.  We have developed our own hot-water seed treatment which is an organic method for mitigating these diseases and pests, and this falls under my job description as well. Also, using proper storage techniques and monitoring the cooler for proper temperature and humidity are some other ways that I do my part to make sure this valuable investment remains viable.

Planting peas for germination tests (left) and
Beet seedlings ready to be counted (right)
Keeping this impressive seed collection in working order is a large part of my job year-round.  We keep a digital database of our entire seed inventory which I update as new seeds arrive, as well as when seeds go out for planting.  This database is a very important tool in determining which seeds will be planted at which times, so it’s imperative that it is maintained accurately so that Andrea and Richard can make the most well-informed decisions when it comes time for purchasing seeds and planting them.  Each seed lot has a unique lot number and seed count per pound that is essentially the fingerprint for that seed.  The seed count is also a valuable tool in determining how many seeds should be planted per foot.  Another important piece of data recorded in the seed inventory is the germination rates for each particular variety.  It would be ideal if every seed that we planted resulted in a corresponding plant, but unfortunately nature is not perfect.  Some especially vivacious varieties of seed have close to a 100% germination rate, but the majority of seed coming onto the farm have between 85% - 95% germination rate as reported by the seed manufacturers.  This number is so important to making planting decisions that we conduct our own germination tests before planting any crop for the year.  As spring has crept in I have begun the process of germ testing our seed collection.  To come up with a germination rate I plant a very specific number of seeds for a certain seed lot (anywhere from 20 to 200 seeds, depending on the variety), and then later I count how many of those seeds result in a seedling.  It’s an easy enough concept, but it takes quite a bit of time to keep the seed organized, labeled and neatly planted so that the information provided by these tests is accurate. Mixing up a label during this germ testing phase could lead to a poor performing field later in the season, so I do my best to be organized and accurate while gathering this important data.  It’s such an uplifting sign of spring to see these trays of seed sprouting and declaring their viability for all to see.

As the year progresses, more and more of my time on the farm will be spent gathering seeds for planting.  For me, this is a really fun part of the whole process.  Every time I open up the storage bin for a particular crop I am flooded with sensory information. The first thing I will notice is the unique smell of each seed type.  Since we use all organic and untreated seed the smell of these seeds is especially aromatic.  My favorite are the carrot seeds—they have a delightful sweet aroma that is very uplifting and does not smell at all like a full grown carrot.  However, cilantro seeds smell exactly like a bunch of full grown cilantro. Fennel seeds smell strongly of anise, which tickles my senses every time! The next sense to be flooded is my visual field.  Each crop variety has a unique looking seed.  Although there is diversity between the seeds of different varieties of a crop, there are always some visual characteristics that remain the same within a crop group.  There may be some color differences or slightly different textures between the varieties, but the basic seed will be recognizable for that crop group.  All lettuce seeds are lightweight, paper thin tiny little pointy-ended ovals, but some are light brown in color, some dark brown. Beet seeds are such an interestingly peculiar shape that I can only describe as a little burr, but with very little visual distinction between varieties.  An interesting side note, these little beet “burrs” are unique in that they each house a group of individual seeds, which means multiple plants can grow from each burr that is planted.  One visual cue that I hope not to find when opening a new bag of seed is an unnatural fluorescent color.  All of the seed we plant is free of chemical treatment, so if I see unnaturally bright colored seed (or a list of long chemical names on the label) I know that we were sent the wrong lot and it must be returned to the manufacturer.  Thankfully, this rarely happens.  Each crop group has its own auditory signature as well.  As I pour out the seed into the proper container for planting I can hear the specific note which that seed plays.  Some seeds create a cascade of seed   All of these observations took me quite by surprise when I first started working here, as I had never before handled seed in the quantity that allows you to notice all of these sensory delights. Now I look forward to my time spent pulling and measuring the seed for all of these reasons, and I’m always on the lookout for new observations of my tiny little friends.

French Breakfast Radishes growing in the field
Once these seeds have left my care and are planted in the soil they will expand exponentially.  It boggles the mind to think of how much growth potential is stored in each of those little seeds.  The 10 pounds of radish seed that I send out into the field will come back as thousands of bunches of beautiful red radishes. A few pounds of turnip seed will come back from the field as literal tons of delicious roots that will provide nutrition all winter long.  Each one of the millions (maybe billions?) of seeds in my care has the potential to become a nutritious and delicious organic masterpiece.  The seeds that I weigh out in pounds will return to the packing shed in tons, which will then end their journey on your tables all season long. To me this is nothing short of a miracle of nature.

I don’t think I will ever tire of handling the bountiful Harmony Valley seed collection, and I hope these insights have passed along some of my enthusiasm for these tiny powerhouses. As spring marches ever forwards, take a moment to appreciate that the bounty which is just beginning to unfold all around us started with these unique and amazing little packages we call seeds.  And the next time you find yourself opening a package of carrot seeds, take a little sniff for me—I promise you will not be disappointed!