Welcome to our new blog series, Meet Your Seed Grower, where you’ll meet the farmers who grow the seed that feeds us. This month we begin with three Montana growers who are fostering local food systems beginning with seed that was produced in and for their region. They are part of a growing movement to create decentralized, farmer-oriented seed production networks across the U.S.
Judy Owsowitz has operated Terrapin Farm, a highly diversified certified organic vegetable operation in Whitefish, Montana, for more than 20 years. She started saving seed in the 1980s in an effort to restore the ‘Karlo’ pepper, a variety that did well in her cool, short-season climate in northwestern Montana but that had inadvertently crossed with a hotter pepper. The original type was no longer available. She was eventually successful in restoring this variety true to its type and still grows it for seed today.
Years later, Owsowitz further expanded seed production on her farm following Monsanto’s purchase of the preeminent vegetable seed company, Seminis. Seminis carried many varieties that Owsowitz had come to rely (about 20 percent of her operation at the time) but she found herself in an ethical quandary: Does she continue purchasing varieties she had relied on for years, now owned by a multinational biotech giant, or does she scramble to find alternatives that work as well, if not better, on her farm? She chose to abandon Seminis varieties, citing Monsanto’s commitment to genetic engineering and lack of regard for organic agriculture.
“The biggest losses,” she says, “were varieties that have a short growing season and traits for cold tolerance and cold soil emergence. Alternative varieties I had come across did nothing for Montana’s organic farmers.”
“That’s why I’m selecting seed for certain traits from my own fields,” Owsowitz says. She is developing vegetable varieties on her farm that survive Montana’s short growing season and cool temperatures. Each year she selects seed – most notably from spinach, pumpkin and pepper plants – that demonstrate desirable traits in her organic system. Each year she sees more advantages.
Owsowitz is now hooked on seed, you could say, and grows a wide diversity for on-farm use and to sell commercially as a founding member of Triple Divide Organic Seeds. The 10-member cooperative sells seed packets in stores around the state as well as online. The co-op members are also collaborating with OSA on research, education and enterprise development through two projects funded by the Montana Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Block Grant program. The long-term goal of both projects is to ensure that Montana grown seeds are available for farmers and gardeners across the Intermountain West.
Last year OSA partnered with eight Triple Divide growers, including Owsowitz, to coordinate on-farm variety trials and deliver trainings on seed production. This coming year Owsowitz is helping OSA develop enterprise budgeting tools for seed growers and launch an equipment-sharing program to enable the co-op members to scale up and improve the efficiency of their seed operations.
Growers like Owsowitz are important partners in conducting research and fostering local food systems that begin with regionally grown seed. Read more about our work in the Intermountain West here.