GoFarm Hawaii Windward staff members Jay Bost and Nora Rodli attended the meeting (along with a robust contingent of GoFarm Hawaii 'ohana - including Rob Barreca of Counter Culture Food and Ferments, Daniella Dutra-Elliot and Alina Harris of Leeward Community College, Nick Reppun of Kako'o Oiwi, Glenn Teves of CTAHR Extension Molokai, Lyn Howe of Hawaii Public Seed Initiative, Sequoya of Hoku Hawaiian Seeds, and mainland defector, banana guru Gabe Sachter-Smith).
The conference gathers farmers, seed growers, university researchers, and organic seed industry representatives to discuss the past, present, and future of organic seed, with the underlying assumption being the that the varieties needed in sustainably managed systems often have differing nutrient, disease and pest resistance, and quality traits than the varieties that are bred for and in "conventional" agricultural systems. This year around 500 people attended the conference and some 350 attended some sessions via webinar at eOrganic. Some recorded sessions are (or soon will be) available at http://articles.extension.org/pages/73464/organic-seed-growers-conference-2016-live-broadcast-feb-5-6
One of the key takeaways from the conference for me was that variety trials by CTAHR researchers, GoFarm Hawaii, the Hawaii Public Seed Initiative, and collaborating farmers will be key to the continued development of sustainable agriculture in Hawaii. The diverse conditions that farmers face in Hawaii are obviously very different from those faced by temperate farmers, yet much of our annual vegetable seed comes from either the mainland, Europe, Japan, or Taiwan. While there are jewels that DO succeed in Hawaii, there are also many duds. Seed catalog blurbs are not the best guide for aspiring and existing Hawaiian farmers to chose new varieties. The Hawaii Public Seed Initiative is working to develop the Seed Variety Selection Tool (http://kohalacenter.org/hpsi/svst) as a place that information about varieties that perform well in specific climatic zones of the Islands can be collated and searched. A related, inspiring project that could be interesting for Hawaii to be part of creating in the future would be a larger tropically oriented trialing network (perhaps to include Guam, Samoa, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, etc) modeled along the lines of the successful NOVIC project (Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative - http://eorganic.info/novic/about) about which there were numerous talks at the Organic Seed Growers Conference.
In some cases temperate varieties may have some characteristics that are desirable for Hawaiian growers but lack other important characteristics (often heat tolerance and/or pest and disease resistance). As such, some temperate material may be useful as part of Hawaiian based breeding projects. Such locally-oriented based breeding projects were another big theme of the conference, with some depressing news, such as the decline of the number, size, and funds for land grant based breeding programs. On the positive side, TPSS has a new breeder in the faculty, Dr. Michael Kantar (http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/tpssgraduate/faculty.html) and the number of breeding programs in the US with a focus on breeding for organic agricultural systems in growing, in part to the support of efforts like those of Seed Matters, a philanthropic effort of Clif Bar, to financially support graduate students working on breeding for organic agricultural systems and to support faculty positions at land grant universities (http://seedmatters.org/about-us/programs/seed-matters-graduate-fellowships/). Also uplifting were talks by breeders encouraging farmers and gardeners to become amateur breeders, developing new varieties for their needs and tastes, using knowledge now easily obtained through groups like Organic Seed Alliance and recently published books.
Organic Seed Alliance discussed some of the results of their 2nd State of Organic Seed Report (soon available at http://seedalliance.org/main_menu_header-2/advocacy/state_of_organic_seed). This report surveys over a thousand certified organic farmers from around the US to get a snap shot of how much organic seed these farmers are using and what issues with quality and availability of organic seed may be, so that research and education can be directed at addressing such issues. The use of organically certified seed is required by the National Organic Program which regulates organic certification, yet because there was not enough organic seed available when the rules went into effect, the rules allowed for some loop holes. The latest report from 2015 shows that in comparison to 2011 more organic seed is being utilized by farmers and that in general farmers are feeling satisfied with the seed AND excited to be involved in the development and improvement of the organic seed sector. While at present very little vegetable seed is produced in Hawaii (with exception of some of the UH seed lab varieties) there may be future financially attractive options for some farmers in Hawaii to focus at least part of their agricultural enterprises on seed production for local (and/or national use), both in conventional and organic systems.
The keynote talk at the conference was given by Cary Fowler, former executive director of the Crop Trust (https://www.croptrust.org/) and the father of the Svalbard Global Seed Bank (https://www.croptrust.org/what-we-do/svalbard-global-seed-vault/). He presented a sobering story of the climatic uncertainties that agriculture faces in the coming decades and a convincing argument that one of the chief ways that we will have to address this is with crop genetic diversity. Through the work of him and many others, much of the diversity of our food supply is now safely backed up in the Svalbard Global Seed Bank so that when unfortunate incidences such as the war in Aleppo, Syria (former site of the seed bank of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Area) or floods (and then fire) in the Phlippines National seed bank occur, seeds can be retrieved from Svalbard Global Seed Bank for reproduction. The seeds of ICARDA were safely backed up and then retrieved (http://www.icarda.org/update/icarda%E2%80%99s-seed-retrieval-mission-svalbard-seed-vault#sthash.O72zx0LH.dpbs) whereas those of the Phillipines were not (https://www.grain.org/article/entries/4203-a-genebank-in-tatters).
One of the most fun and delicious events of the conference was the tasting put on the Culinary Breeding Network (https://culinarybreedingnetwork.wordpress.com/) which works to promote collaboration between breeders, farmers, and chefs over crop development. Conference participants were treated to tastings (along with modest data sheets to fill out) of cabbage (raw and as sauerkraut), chicory/raddichio, barley, and winter squash (both raw and baked). Click here for an interview about the Culinary Breeding Network and report on the tasting (http://heritageradionetwork.org/podcast/bridging-the-gap-from-plant-breeders-to-eaters/). Hawaii needs its own Culinary Breeding Network! Interested chefs let us know who you are!!
A gathering of seed geeks is not complete without a seed swap and so on Saturday night an enormous seed swap was held. We held back in general, yet were excited to share some corn and squash with the exciting Virginia based seed company Commonwealth Seed (http://commonwealthseeds.com/) which focuses much of its work on downy mildew resistant Cucurbits (squash, gourds, cucumbers), a disease which is hard on growers here in Hawaii. Four new squash varieties from Commonwealth are germinating presently!
All of us left the conference inspired and full of ideas. Just days later many of us met to divide up the bean seeds that are part of an Oahu wide dry bean trial, funded by a USDA Specialty Crops Block Grant received by GoFarm Hawaii alum, Rob Barreca of Counter Culture Foods and Ferment and the man behind Farm Link Hawaii, an on-line produce market platform that many GoFarm Hawaii AgIncubator's use to sell some of their products (https://hawaii.localorbit.com/users/sign_in).
The last seed of an idea that I will share was the inspiration from Hudson Valley Seed Library (http://www.seedlibrary.org/art-packs.html) which combines offering interesting heirloom vegetable varieties with amazing art. Each variety they sell is packaged in a unique package decorated with commissioned art that somehow tells part of the story of the variety. For example, the Troutback Lettuce below:
This got me to thinking that having such a project in Hawaii, based on local vegetable varieties and in particular Hawaiian Kalo varieties would be a beautiful way to celebrate and promote the crop diversity that we all enjoy and should enjoy more in Hawaii!
Which brings me to one last thing, Hawaiian lettuce is getting sexy on the mainland!!!!!
See: https://www.wildgardenseed.com/product_info.php?cPath=43_74&products_id=271, https://www.wildgardenseed.com/product_info.php?cPath=43_74&products_id=194, https://www.wildgardenseed.com/product_info.php?products_id=354, https://www.wildgardenseed.com/product_info.php?products_id=356
GoFarm Hawai'i - University of Hawai'i