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Seven Seeds cyclic systems

Seven Seeds: a whole systems approach to farming

By Erin Volheim

Seven Seeds is a living demonstration that the whole systems approach to farming works. Don Tipping is practicing a melding of biodynamics and permaculture, yielding a system that is ecologically sound and financially viable.

A central aspect of biodynamics is that the farm in its entirety is seen as a living organism. What you will see at Seven Seeds is a place full of life where each diverse component is working together to form the greater whole. On this 100-year-old homestead, there are five acres of edibles; half in annuals and the rest in perennials, along with ducks, geese, chickens and sheep with a forest under restoration in the periphery. The fields are bisected by gently sloping swales which are orchard strips and hedgerows to encourage native pollinators. In addition, the swales help direct winter floods which could damage the over-wintering biennial seed crops and perennials.

By growing seed, the farm retains most of the carbon they produce, because they are only exporting a small amount of the biomass. The poultry feeds from seed crop residues, low quality seed and discarded fruits like tomatoes, squash and melons. The sheep are on a long-term pasture rotation and assist with not only grazing down the cover crops prior to the seed crop, but also the stalks left behind after seed harvest. Don and Kimberly work to support these living elements in the spirit of interdependence. They in turn support their family.

Don has lived solely off of farming for the past 12 years and has been a seed producer for the last 10 of those. He is one of the originators of the Siskiyou Seeds Co-op that he hopes will grow into a network of farmers and seed producers who coordinate isolation plots and share equipment.

The first seed crops they grew were Chinese cabbage and lemon cucumbers. “Brassicas in particular,” Don notes, “are super easy as a seed crop.” He recommends them for the beginner (except biennial cauliflower which needs specific growing conditions). In comparison, cucumbers are more difficult. That first year they had a pile of lemon cucumbers four feet high, ten feet wide, and fifty feet long. It took hours of labor to cut them open, scoop-out the seeds, ferment, clean and dry the seeds.

Along the way, they have learned which crops suit their situation more. Beans take up a lot of land, and required many labor hours for weeding. Beans are, however, easy to process.

Seeds of Change is the first seed company he started with. They are unique because they have 45 different small seed producers growing for them, whereas other companies like Territorial and Johnny’s grow some of their own, and then fill in the blanks from larger seed companies.

During their second year of seed production, Seven Seeds started growing for Abundant Life, then later Fedco, Renee’s, and Turtle Tree. Now they have as many contracts as they can handle. As a result, they have found ways to sub-contract with other farmers, sowing the seeds of economic viability in the Applegate valley.

Don’s reputation allows him to start the year with financial backing through many of his contracts. Much like a CSA, Don has their support for most situations and has limited risk for natural “disasters,” but no liability for seed trials that fail. The greatest risk is a seed crop that doesn’t pass a certain germination standard. Sometimes the crop can be harvested, but if not, then it was grown at a loss.

In the spring of 2005, when Monsanto bought Seminis – the world’s largest developer, grower and marketer of vegetable and fruit seeds – a giant biotech shadow was cast across the land. Although, some of the seed companies still buy from them, the FEDCO seed cooperative dropped Seminis as a source. I asked Don whether he felt the buy-out of Seeds of Change by M & M/Mars had in turn affected its quality. He felt that their organic standards and ethics were still high, and in some ways the extra financial support has enabled them to do more “in-the-ground-research” of new varieties which he finds engaging.

“Seed growing is one way which allows the land to express its individuality. Over succeeding generations of growing seed, the plants become tuned into our climate, pests, soils, rainfall, winds, and pollinators, to reveal their greatest potential. We are there to help coax them through selection, roguing or intention crossing.

“I have lots of personal breeding projects, like an intermating Rainbow Chard ‘grex’ (diverse stable hybrid) and a purple tatsoi, and a purple, wire worm resistant French Breakfast radish. These are ways to uncover the mystery of interplay between genetics, soils, farmer, pollinators and market preferences.”

Since organic seed growing is a burgeoning niche, Don thinks it has resulted in a great feedback loop between company representatives and the grower. “One year, we grew a variety of cherry tomato and a Roma. In the end, we found that cherry tomatoes produced an exponentially greater amount of seed than the Roma. So we made bank on the cherry, but a loss on the Roma.” They mentioned this, and the next year the company changed the pricing differential.

Despite the responsive communication, Don finds seed production a little impersonal, “UPS comes and takes it away. I would almost never have to leave the farm.” That’s why like any diverse living system, they are not only feeding themselves and the farm animals, but also growing for the Siskiyou Cooperative CSA and local farmer’s markets. “I like the one-on-one I get when someone buys some fresh raspberries or strawberries from us,” he remarked.

To avoid being burdened with work at the end of the year, the farm takes a seasonal approach, timing maturation so everything doesn’t happen at once. Radishes go to seed early, then brassicas will seed in mid-summer when it’s a slower time on the farm. Crops like winter squash are ready in early fall before the fall rains.

A well-thought out approach has allowed him to keep the same-size work-force throughout the season instead of everyone being slammed in the fall. Don prefers crops like Alliums because they are timed just right for a Southern Oregon climate. Alliums are planted in the late fall when the rains come, and are usually ready for harvest when the rain ends.

Another key aspect to his success is multiple harvesting for different uses. For example, with calendula the first harvest of flowers is used for medicine and the subsequent one for seed.

Don feels that seed production is more secure. “When you plant 3,000 heads of lettuce for market you aren’t guaranteed a definite income, because many won’t be market quality, maybe 80 percent will make it to pack-out, even though you can eat them at home. Whereas with a seed crop all are success, and they’ll even pay 10 percent more if you improve the seed quality by selecting out poor performing plants.” Other benefits are allowing your friends to come and pick a bunch of tomatoes to can, that is if they scoop-out and leave the seeds behind.

The big learning curve on the farm has been mechanization. Through the Siskiyou Seed Co-op, Don cooperatively owns an Allis Chamlers All-Crop 60, which is actually a combine that they run as a stationary threshing machine. This machine makes a difference on crops like chicory which are hard to crush by hand, but with the All-crop you just toss it in with a pitchfork and it reveals the seed. Still it doesn’t mean he can just throw it in and leave the scene, it requires interaction for quality control.

Seed saving was once a natural priority for survival. Archaeobotanical studies in the last decade have shown that seed saving started actually before people started living in villages, not after.

Times have certainly changed and organic seed production of heirloom varieties and other local standards hold an even greater importance for preserving our food’s genetic heritage. Seed production and saving for any farmer can diversify that farm’s income and put seed variety control back in the hands of regional farmers. Fortunately, Don Tipping is one of many small organic farmers reviving this ancient tradition, one seed at a time.

Erin Volheim lives and writes in the Little Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon.

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