Wood Prairie Farm Seed Piece Newsletter
February 2006

Save over $21! Order Wood Prairie Farm's "Garden in a Tin" - 16 Packets of Organic Garden Seed and Gift Card in a Holiday Tin for $39.95 ($61.15 value). FREE SHIPPING! Guaranteed to arrive by Valentine's Day (2/14/06) if you order by 2 PM (Eastern) the day before (2/13). Includes Organic Tavera Bean, Organic Scooter Beet, Organic Red Cored Chantenay and Scarlet Nantes Carrots, Organic Cardinale Lettuce, Organic Flashy Trout Back Lettuce, Organice Wild Garden Spring Mix and Wild Garden Summer Mix, Organic Rossa di Milano Onion, Organic Plum Purple Radish, Organic Winter Bloomsdale Spinach, Organic Black Zucchini, Organic Delicata Zeppelin Squash, Organic Latah Tomato and Organic Una Hartsock Tomato.
Offer expires 2 PM (Eastern) 02/13/06. Please refer to Code XXXXX.

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In line with this month's special of a "Garden in a Tin", February is a month to begin planning Spring gardens; from containers to backyard plots to market gardens. Our Organic Garden Seed Collection contains great varieties that have been bred and selected by family-scale seed operations like Frank and Karen Morton's in Philomath, Oregon.

Organic seed breeding is the life work of February's interviewee Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seeds. Frank is passionate about his work and this month's 'Conversations With...Frank Morton' section contain depth, breadth and original thought you won't find elsewhere. Make a pot of tea, sit by the fire, curl up and don't miss it!

Also in this month's newsletter, check out Rose Gold as our highlighted potato variety. Try this customer favorite out in the recipe in 'Megan's Kitchen' or as part of the February Wood Prairie Potato Sampler of the Month to help drive away those mid-winter blues. - Jim and Megan


  A Rose of a Potato
Because of its unsurpassed taste, Rose Gold is a consistent choice for our Wood Prairie Farm customers and one of the most popular varieties among our co-workers. A mildly dry potato with rosy red skin and yellow flesh it is a favorite baked or roasted.


  Q&A - Planting Potatoes in Beds
Q: I am planting Butte and Elba in beds that total 100 sq feet. How much seed do I need? - KW Purcellville, VA

A: You have two options: Intensive and Traditional. For intensive planting plant those varieties 1 foot apart both ways and mulching heavily with straw after potato plant emergence to protect the developing tubers.

Here's the math: potatoes planted 1 foot apart need 1 square foot. So 100 sq feet of bed will need 100 plants. Aim for an average seed piece weight of 1 1/2 ounce. This will give you 10 seed pieces per pound. So
you will need a total of 10 pounds of seed, or 5 pounds each of Butte and Elba. If at harvest time the tubers in the bed center are noticeably smaller than those at the borders it's a hint that light and nutrients were limited and it would be best next year to spread things out a few inches wider.

The traditional method involves planting twin rows (say 3 foot apart in a 4 foot wide bed) and hilling with soil or straw mulch. This method will use about half as much as seed as the intensive method. - Jim


  The Potato Bin
For the second year in a row Wood Prairie Farm was awarded the Mailorder Gardening Association's "Green Thumb Award" at the MGA winter conference held in Chicago in January. This year's winner is the "Organic Potato Blossom Festival" - a unique collection of gourmet potato varieties chosen for their exceptional blossom beauty and fragrance. The ten winners of the 2006 MGA Green Thumb Awards recognize outstanding new garden products available by mail or online. The awards are sponsored by the Mailorder Gardening Association, the world's largest nonprofit association of companies that sell garden products directly to consumers. For more information visit the MGA website at www.mailordergardening.com.

To check out the Wood Prairie "Organic Potato Blossom Special" Click: https://www.woodprairie.com/catalog/detail.html?source=&edit
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Most instances of genetically modified crops contaminating organic crops have been documented in the US and Canada. Now, an organic farmer in Spain recently discovered GMO contamination in his red corn, ruining its premium value and the grower's 15 years of careful breeding. Spain is the only European Union country where GM corn is grown. The Spanish government is establishing 'coexistence' laws but the proposed rules have been opposed by farmers. GMO contamination incidents are on the rise, particularly in North America, as the number of acres of GMO crops increase. Source: The Non-GMO Report, December 2005

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Hans Rudolf Herren, the Swiss agricultural specialist, believes that hunger can be overcome if sustainable farming, not the adoption of genetically modified crops, is practiced in impoverished countries. Addressing the needs of farmers, and finding solutions to help and attain sustainable agricultural production should be the goal. Herren has had first-hand experience to back up his claim: he won the World Food Prize in 1995 for helping to save cassava crops in sub-Saharan Africa. Source: The Non-GMO Report, December 2005

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This week's Slow Food "Take Action" portion of their website (www.slowfoodusa.org) highlights a Jan. 16 Associated Press article on a report of botched biotech crop trials. In the report, released just before Christmas, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's investigative arm disclosed that the department failed to properly monitor thousands of acres of experimental biotechnology or GMO crops.

The report by the department's inspector general said the USDA didn't thoroughly evaluate applications to grow experimental crops, didn't ensure the genetically engineered plants were destroyed after experiments and in some cases were not even aware of the location of the field trials.

The report said the inspection service "lacks basic information about the field test sites it approves and is responsible for monitoring, including where and how the crops are being grown, and what becomes of them at the end of the field test."

Read more on the Slow Food USA website.

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A Norwegian mountainside has been carved into a "doomsday vault" for the storage and protection of millions of seeds in case of a cataclysmic event. Most seed banks are threatened by fires, earthquakes, and war - such as the destroying of seed collections in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Norwegian facility will be located about 1000km from the North Pole with airlock doors for temperature control and security systems to prevent the gene bank being raided. Source: www.hearldsun.news.com, Feb 2, 2006

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Our 'Maine Speak' section is to help unlock the quirks of the Maine vernacular to those from away.

"Fellers" (n.)
Definition: Maine version of "fellah", guy comrade or mate. Genderless, frequently preceded by "you".

Example: "Alright you fellers! That'll be enough throwing potatoes. Now get back to work!"

        The Potato Bin

  Recipe: Pan Fried Rose Gold Potatoes with Paprika
Smoked Spanish paprika is perfect with this dish. Use a pan large enough to hold the potatoes in one layer so they don't steam in their own moisture.

1 1/2 lbs. Wood Prairie Farm Rose Gold potatoes (3-4 medium)
5 T extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 tsp kosher salt; more to taste
1 tsp paprika, Spanish smoked or Hungarian sweet
Freshly ground black pepper
Cut the potatoes in half, then cut them in thick slices lengthwise, 1/2 to 3/4 inch wide. Stack the slices and cut them in half lengthwise, then cut crosswise to get 3/4 inch wide pieces.
Heat 4 T of the oil in a large (11 to 12 inch) skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the potatoes and stir immediately to coat them with the oil. Sprinkle with the 3/4 tsp salt and stir again. Fry the potatoes, stirring frequently, until they're tender in the center and nicely browned on the outside, 25 to 30 minutes. (If the potatoes seem to be browning too fast, reduce the heat to medium or medium-low).
Turn off the heat. Push the potatoes to one side of the pan and pour the remaining tablespoon of oil into the empty space in the pan. Stir the paprika into the oil and let sizzle for about 5 seconds. Stir the potatoes into the paprika oil until well coated. Stir in several grinds of pepper. Taste for salt. Serve hot.
Serves four to six.
Source: Fine Cooking, March 2006


  Conversations With...Frank Morton
Frank Morton is a self-described old time salad grower gone to seed. He and wife Karen sold their Wild Garden Salad Greens to great restaurants on both coasts from 1983 to 2001. They now operate Wild Garden Seed in partnership with their friends at Gathering Together Farm in Philomath, Oregon, selling only the organic seed they grow themselves. A large portion of their 125 varieties were originally bred by Frank and Karen during their "salad days", and have now made their way into most of the commercial catalogs (including Wood Prairie Farm) that serve organic growers. Frank learned breeding in the garden under the influence of his farm's ecology and other organic breeders--the likes of Alan Kapular, Carol Deppe, Raoule Robinson, and especially his good friend, Dr. John Navazio. Morton enjoys a BS in Psychology, which he uses every day.

WOOD PRAIRIE FARM: Your great organic background as a lettuce grower and long dedication to organic seed breeding separates you from most breeders. What are your goals in your breeding work?

FRANK MORTON: Let's be honest--though it makes the answer more complex; our goals have changed over time, and have become more sophisticated as we learned more about breeding, and as agroecologists have learned more about interactions between plants, insects, pathogens, and one another.

Back in the 80's I was still learning, and the goal was to create genetic diversity for the salad biz. It was a time of studying the heirlooms and commercial standards to see what they offered, and what happened when you shuffled their genetics. The more beauty the better--the more genetic diversity the better--it all made good salad like nobody else's and that made marketing easy and that kept money coming in until we paid for the farm. At the heart of the matter, that was the goal, so I guess it worked out.

I also realized that I was creating the foundation for a breeding program based on genetic resistance to typical stresses of organic growing. Lots of natural selection took place in the first decade of our natural experimentation, so by the time of our second seed catalog in 1995, selection for cold hardiness and general resistance to stress were on top of our selection goals. Pigment enhancement was part of that, and we often found the darkest reds and purples were the most cold hardy, and sometimes more disease resistant. We were purposely maintaining genetic diversity, and we were constantly pooling back together the healthiest plants. My mental construct was to create gene pools that had all the good traits--pigments and their "intensifiers", interesting leaf shapes and textures, vigorous growth, resistance to whatever diseases were around. I was trying to emulate natural populations and their natural diversity and resilience. I'm still trying to do that. John Novazio introduced me to several important concepts that have matured my techniques and my goals since the latter-90's, including the critical importance to organic growers of breeding for pest and disease resistance using "horizontal resistance breeding" as a model. The essence of the method is selection for multiple suites of genes that together create "a healthy constitution" for the final variety. This is different from pedigree resistance breeding in process and results. The dominant pedigree method is the addition of single genes (usually derived from wild crop relatives) that effectively stop specific pathogens from infecting the crop. In nearly every instance where this approach has been applied, the pathogen rapidly evolves a genetic antidote to the single resistance gene that once protected the plant variety. At this point, the previously resistant variety is as vulnerable as any other. In contrast, horizontal resistance has a complex of interacting genes underpinning it's effect. These genes may be functioning in various rolls for the plant--shaping the stomata, thickening cell walls, making the leaves fuzzier, or more waxy... By improving calcium transport, or increasing the effectiveness of the peroxide output by a plant's immune system, the "horizontal breeder" might be solving a downy mildew problem. This is not the sort of thing that a pathogen can readily evolve around, certainly not with a single mutation, and so it is said that "horizontal resistance is persistant resistance." That is the kind of resistance that makes sense for organics. It's how the forests and the meadows work--it makes ecological sense--so my goal is to integrate this approach into all my longterm breeding projects.

All that said, the first goal remains the same--keep the income coming so we can raise up the main crop--that is, our sons. In pursuit of that, the breeding projects still have to be beautiful, and taste good, and be easy to grow, and be marketable all the way down the line...and that involves breeding varieties that resist all the seasonal insults from the world, and that make a crop without babying. Breeding for diversity and novelty are key in the organic seed world--we organic farmers are experimentalists, and thrive on fitting new crops into our farm and market niches. My goal in that regard is to provide some outlandish options for farmers to play with. I expect them to find uses and niches I never considered. Some things I have thought about are technicolor broccoli with edible leaves, winter hardy lettuces, splendidly edible weeds, new colors for everything eaten raw, fluffy margins for leaves that are too flat to be forked up from a salad plate...the goals are as endless as problems.

WPF: Explain the philosophy. Why is good organic seed great for organic growers?

FM: Plant genetics function by subtle means. Conventional seed is produced by conventional means. This usually implies that seed strains maintained and selected within conventional systems are living a chemically sheltered life, which is not the world they will find on an organic farm. If the seed variety is maintained in an organically managed environment, then losses due to stress and antagonists, and the roguing eye of the organic seed grower, are actually genetic improvements in the varietal population. Crop strains that have been selected in organic systems and that do well on the organic seed farm are in a better selective position to do well on an organic vegetable farm. They do well on a compost/covercrop soil-food diet, in the natural environment without fungicidal protection. They have a selective history that creates subtle changes in population genetics: better root systems, more responsive immune systems, better weed competition due to seedling vigor or plant architecture...things that are difficult to see with the eye, but result in a better adapted crop in the organically managed environment. Seed quality, of course, is a huge component. It is my experience that seed from our fields is larger than the same variety from commercial sources. There might be a hundred reasons why, but this is what I see time and again. Fat seeds have more stored food for the emerging seedling--I consider that an observable benefit if you can get it.

The other aspect of this question is agrosocietal. If we buy good organic seed from other farmers like ourselves, we are strengthening the organic web (infrastructure), and ultimately improving our self-sufficiency and independence from corporate interests that are at odds with our own. This is good in itself. Remember when organic produce looked bad next to conventional? Not anymore. That's because someone bought a little sad produce in the beginning, and gave us enough practice to get good. And now we are very good. Organic seed is following the same trajectory. I think we are past the sad sack period--quality, availability, and price are all moving in the sustainable direction. We couldn't say that in 1999.

WPF: What are some of your tricks for growing great lettuce?

FM: The big one is matching variety to season. This is largely a matter of paying close attention to how varieties perform from different sowing dates in your location. Everything matters in varietal performance--soil type, day length, day/night temperature changes, under sky or under plastic, local downy mildew pathotypes...so there is really nothing to do but trial your choices at different times and pay attention.

As for soil amendments, I think calcium and potassium are important for good crop health, shelf life, and full flavor. This along with steady soil moisture will help avoid tip burn and bitterness. Too much nitrogen has several downsides--more foliar disease, watery taste and texture, and poor shipping/post-harvest quality.

Our technique for harvest was essential for our salad's quality, and though never a secret, most people still find it surprising in an age of industrial scale salad production. I only know a few folks who do salad this way. We transplanted seedlings at an equidistant 8" spacing on wide beds, and began harvest once the plants had a full rosette of leaves, leaving one whorl of the outer-most leaves on the plant to feed the roots and take the cosmetic brunt of nightly slug munching. Harvest proceeded for 4-8 weeks, leaving any cosmetically damaged leaves to feed the plant, while perfect sized salad leaves went for sale. This harvest process exposes the maturing heart leaves to light, moving air and temperature changes. The result is a salad with incredible pigmentation, broad crisp midribs, toothsome texture, and full flavor. Try it. You heard it here first.

WPF: Where do you see the organic seed business heading in 5 years? Ten years? Will family-scale organic seed producers and suppliers be crushed under the wave of corporate consolidation witnessed throughout agriculture and the rest of the economy?

FM: In 5 years organic farmers will have way more choices from the industry--OG hybrids are coming on now. When farmers buy them there will be more. I think our good ol' OP varieties are going to be reselected by folks like us, and will reappear in reinvigorated versions that will give those hybrids a run for their reputation. By reinvigoration, I mean reselection using "repooled" germplasm from different sources, screening it to remove off-types, allowing remixing of long separated genetic diversity, and then reselecting to the proper type from the most vigorous portion of the population. This will provide some good work to commercial scale farmers who want to reconstitute their favorite OP carrot, cabbage, or kohlrabi just because it can be had no other way. This is what Northwest farmer Nash Huber has done for himself, and he has saved several varieties from disappearance and saved himself a lot of money avoiding the hybrid alternatives. Some very good heads are getting interested in the particular opportunities that OG seed research and development provides--I mean university breeders and extension researchers, forward-looking mainline seed corporations like Bejo in The Netherlands, and little upstarts like us...not to mention the well-established regional seed companies that are supportive of organics and us little upstarts. At this point the organic seed community is very education oriented, and we tease our friends who try to keep secrets... secrets are the Other Way to compete...in our community, openness is rewarded by openness, and this symbiosis saves us all energy, time, and resources. This could change as the movement evolves into an industry, and I'll personally be sorry about that.

In 10 years the real fun will begin. We will have resolved our infrastructure and quality shortcomings, alliances will strengthen into stable economic relationships, and we will have an experienced crop of educated organic plant breeders among us, with Ph.D.s and university affiliations. A synergy of soil ecology, microbiology, and seed technology will provide farmers with pelleted seed pre-innoculated with beneficial bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi, and this will give us opportunities to select for varieties that are particularly good at forming and benefiting from such symbiotic relationships...think of it as somewhat similar to breeding beans for types that are really adept at forming nitrogen-fixing nodules in relationship with Rhizobia bacteria, and thereby increase yield. We presently know of several instances where plant-fungal symbiosis conveys pest, pathogen and drought resistance to the plant. As we learn more about this, I expect the awareness to be incorporated into symbiotic breeding programs that will eventually allow farmers to plant not just a seed, but a wee symbiotic community that supports the health of the crop against seed-, soil-, and wind-borne pathogens and pests. I think the potential of symbiotic breeding will vastly overtake the potential of gene-jockeying single gene traits into crops by the GMO model. The ecological truth is staring the Round-Up Ready model in the face--resistance is arising in weeds wherever RR crops are regularly grown--and it will not stand once the stock investors smell the truth. I have never met an entomologist that believed Bt-corn is a sound idea, considering the nature of ecology and all...resistance will arise there as well.

But your real question was about the seed business, and whether the little guys will be crushed by the big guys. There are, as the Pentagon likes to say, a lot of moving parts to this. Little guys will have to do good work, and will need to think in commercial quality standards to keep their place, which is where our seed community mutual education workshops come in. As the demand for seed by organic processors and mainline organic producers increases, the need for 1/2 acre and 1 acre seed lots will increase significantly. Niches will be formed and filled, and some of the best small guys will formally hitch up with better capitalized growing companies that need their field and farm experience. New young seedheads with new ideas will emerge to shake up the greybeards. It has been ever thus.

I think family-scale seed producers have a bright future in organic seed for the foreseeable future. The reason is our need for varietal diversity in regional organics. No single mega-crop by a mega-corporation can threaten OG seed growers, because we deal in many small lots to fulfill our clientel’s diverse needs. The big guys aren't interested in one acre or 1/10th acre seed lots, but that is as much as organics can absorb at this point in specialty vegetable crops. The organic model is very good at stitching together sustainable incomes from complex cropping schemes, and bringing OG seedlines to market in quantity, with variety and quality, will test that ability. Skilled growers who can juggle will have a lot of work afforded them soon. The big guys can't really work at the present market scale, which gives us little guys a chance to get smart and get in. In some ways, we are too small and pliable to crush with bigness.

WPF: Monsanto has been playing it's agro-GMO technology as "Earth-friendly"--a way to reduce pesticide use and efficiently breed wonder crops that will be nutritionally superior and more resource-conserving than classically bred crops. And, maybe they want a chance to market GMO's in the organic marketplace? How do you respond to this bid for a GMO-greencard in the interest of "scientific" organics?

FM: There is more to say about this than anyone can stand to hear in one sitting, but I will try to be concise. There is nothing Earth-friendly about trying to hold a monopoly over food or seed supply, publicly funded intellectual pursuit, or the use of earthly genetics. There is nothing in genetic engineering that does the farm-based breeder any good, since we are not allowed to adapt GMO seeds to our own farming regions, to our local diseases, or our creative insights, even if we wanted to. Intellectual property laws have so constrained the flow of knowledge and resources relating to genetic engineering, that you need an army of legal staff to orchestrate a simple single gene transaction between the holders of IP. The twisting of patent law to suit biotech lawyering has created havoc for public breeding efforts, and for plant breeders in general who now fear sharing germplasm least it be "stolen" from them by patent claims on "traits", a recent case being a claim on "heat tolerance in broccoli". In 1980, such a claim would have been beyond frivolous. Now, largely due to efforts by biotech to develop a mechanism to lay patent claims on scientific discovery (as opposed to invention), we have a legal minefield to creep through as we try to continue on agriculture's 10,000-year mission to "evolutionize" us humans into a symbiotic relationship with the world.

There is science, and then there is the reckless application of technology--made worse by bad social policy. Regardless of the scientific promise that Monsanto claims ownership to, if the promise is put to ends that consolidate wealth, ownership, and power over the global food supply, it's a bad deal and people do not and will not want it. I say the intellectual property considerations alone make agro-biotech socially inappropriate for an organic food supply system, or even an American food supply system. The legal status of GMO seed make them (legally) dead in the hands of organic farmer-breeders, regardless of what benefit they may have been "engineered" to deliver.

That aside, I think the entire biotech model for breeding plants is flawed. It is the single gene pedigree model carried to an extreme. Whatever promise biotech might have, it is not using it's silver bullets very well by inserting Bt and Round-Up resistance into everything. As I said, such simple genetic strategies will not hold up in the real world very long. Also, it is often overlooked that corn or soybean in their Round-Up Ready versions are no better than the variety that the RR-gene was inserted into. If that variety fails due to disease, drought, a glutted market, or poor milling qualities, the expensive technology that allowed herbicide application wasn't important to the farmer or the consumer...it served only the stockholders of the IP-owning corporation, who certainly get their money up front in the farming game.

At this point, agro-biotech is irrelevant to organics except as a contamination threat in the food supply and in OG seed crops. Because GMO's represent a threat to the crop value of organic growers, I think we should press for restraints to keep GMO crops and pollen out of organic production fields, probably with laws that clearly state that genetic pollution is the responsibility of the offending pollen source and its legal owner--which would be Monsanto. GMO seed isn't really the property of the farmer who pays for, sows, and grows it. By virtue of opening the bag, a GMO growing farmer has agreed that he has "leased the patented technology delivery system (the seed) to grow a crop" that will be sold as a commodity, and never replanted. I say let the polluter pay the damages, and the polluter is the owner.

Whatever single-gene toting jockeys can do, classical breeders can do better, cheaper, and more democratically. And there is a lot of good work to do that is not at all high tech--we can all do it in our gardens and our fields. Selection is an intuitive process, even ants do it in their underground fungi farms. I say we just do our work and ignore the hypesters, while defending our environment for the use of all beings to continue our coevolving destiny. For humans, agriculture is an essential part of that, and it needs to stay in the hands of humans with a little humus under the nails.

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(c) Jim and Megan Gerritsen, Wood Prairie Farm, 49 Kinney Road, Bridgewater, Maine 04735

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