Laura Garber has been a farmer for 20 years in the Bitterroot Valley in Southwestern Montana. She is one of the owners of Homestead Organics, a diversified educational farm. Laura was one of five farm partners collaborating with OSA on a Montana Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant focused on seed economics. The result of that project is this Seed Economics Toolkit. This article is based on an interview between OSA and Laura following the conclusion of that project.
Homestead Organics is a fourteen-acre certified organic farm near Hamilton, Montana. Their produce includes a variety of vegetables, poultry, seeds and hemp. For the past five years, the farm has primarily been committed to spreading agricultural knowledge and skills to local youth. The fields and pastures of Homestead Organics serve as the classroom for Cultivating Connections, an educational non-profit that provides paid service-learning internships for students from the local high school. As Laura Garber, farm owner, explained: “The end product is education, and the byproduct is food.”
Laura is the Director of Cultivating Connections and works alongside teens to grow produce for Homestead Organics’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. As they grow vegetables for their community’s consumption, Cultivating Connections interns learn about homesteading and farm business within a diversified framework. In addition to the CSA, the produce from Cultivating Connections is donated weekly to Meals on Wheels to create soups and salads for their county’s elderly residents.
In response to this spring’s increased national interest in gardening and food security, Cultivating Connections crafted ready to transplant garden kits called May Day gardens. These kits included all of the plant starts needed to fill a 200 square foot garden bed, mostly grown from seed saved on the farm. “We’re giving it to people because they’ll be successful,” Laura explained. She hopes that gardeners will go on to save the seed from the vegetable varieties that she has found to be tried and true for their region.
Seed saving is one of the many skills that interns are exposed to through Cultivating Connections. Homestead Organics grows seed for on-farm use and to sell through Triple Divide Organic Seed Cooperative. This enterprise creates an opportunity for the students to learn about the regionality of seed. “They are able to see from the beginning what seeds we can grow here and what seeds we have to buy,” said Laura.
On a combined half-acre, Homestead Organics grows carrots, onions, beets, brassicas, beans, herbs, tomatoes, peppers and calendula for seed.
Laura credits her initial interest in seed stewardship to her relationship with Garden City Seed, a company in Hamilton that is no longer in operation. “The first spark was living in a town where there was a seed company. I didn’t realize that was a really rare thing,” she mused.
Laura’s interest in growing seed was also strengthened by relationships with other farmers. Approximately a decade ago, she travelled with a group of Montana growers and seed enthusiasts to Organic Seed Alliance’s Organic Seed Growers Conference, a biennial event that brings together seed growers, seed companies, plant breeders, and other seed advocates. That same year, the farmer group also attended a seed saving workshop in Missoula offered by Native Seeds/SEARCH.
The enthusiasm generated at the trainings catalyzed Garber and the other Montana growers to create the Triple Divide Organic Seed Cooperative. Reflecting upon this time in her development as a farmer, Laura described the experience as involving “multiple feedback loops that supported the idea and supported each of us as growers.”
Since that time, Triple Divide has grown into a thriving collective of growers dedicated to the resilience and availability of organic, open-pollinated seed for the Intermountain West. The co-op owns and shares seed cleaning equipment and manages final cleaning, packing, storage and sales. Vending through Triple Divide has the additional benefit of receiving a per packet sales price, which is often higher than the per pound price offered by seed companies. But, as Laura says, “The goal of the co-op isn’t to get rich, it’s to make this work for all of us.”
Making seed production work at Homestead Organics is achieved through systems that integrate dual purpose use of bed space for seed and produce. For example, Laura strategically harvests radishes for the CSA to create space to harvest seed from mature plants later in the season. Laura refers to this finessed approach as “expanding the farmer brain.”
“Farming is not always cognitively challenging, it’s physically challenging. It’s really fun to be challenged intellectually,” Laura said.
A variety of note grown at Homestead Organics is the “Brigadier Golden Sweet Fodder” beet. This German yellow beet is harvested at an early stage for human consumption, or at full size for winter animal food. These beets help feed Homestead Organics’ herd of broilers, layers, heritage turkeys, pot belly pigs and goats when the ground forage is covered in feet of snow.
Speaking on the ways seed saving has enhanced her experience of farming, Laura explained that it affords her a freedom to experiment that is otherwise cost prohibitive.
“Since we have the seed, we’re happy to use it,” she shared. “We get to learn about each species and the best time, place and way to plant it. We’re not bound by having paid for the seed. If it doesn’t work, it’s okay and we’ll be better at it next year.”
Laura touts that selling vegetables grown from farm-saved seed creates a deeper relationship for the eater.
She says it creates conversation and raises awareness among her customers. “People have more of a connection and more buy-in,” she said. “They think: This is a plant for me in the Bitterroot Valley.”
Despite the many benefits of seed stewardship, Laura illuminated a specific deterrent facing small-scale vegetable operations: hybrid seed. Most hybrid seeds on the market are the result of two homozygous (highly inbred) parents within the same species. While hybrids are almost always fertile, if the parents that produced the cross were very different looking, the seed you save from hybrids will produce a wide array of different looking plants – great if you want to start a breeding project, not so great if you want to save the seed to grow plants that look the same as they did the year before.
That’s why seed savers typically prefer open-pollinated (OP) varieties, because the seed produced by OP plants is reliably similar to the parent material, and is responsive to breeding selection from one generation to the next. This means that farmers can improve varieties to be better suited to their farm conditions each year (or every other year for biennial species).
As Laura looks around her farmers’ market, she presumes that many of the growers are using mostly hybrids based on the size of their produce. She asked, “Where is the impetus to grow an open- pollinated seed? And how do farmers see the value in it when they are driven by the profit that the hybrid produces?”
Laura acknowledged that hybrids are often more conducive to growing on a production scale. For example, one year a farmer purchased seed for Dark Star zucchini grown by Homestead Organics. Although they found the variety to be productive, it didn’t have the open growth habit and spineless stems that the grower had experienced with hybrid varieties. “[Dark Star] doesn’t fit within a system of growing 300 plants,” Laura conceded.
Additionally, a production farmer would be highly unlikely to grow any zucchini for seed, because cross-pollination and isolation requirements place limitations on the number of varieties that can be grown. “There are all sorts of amazing traits that are being overlooked because of the production scale economics lens,” Laura said.
Considering that it may not be appropriate for all farm systems to produce seed, Laura feels that it is especially important to educate and support new growers that are enthusiastic about seed, which is precisely what she is hoping to accomplish at Cultivating Connections.
Laura’s advice for aspiring seed growers?
“Just try it! Start simple,” she shared. “Let yourself be captivated by it. There’s so much to the story and there’s so much more depth and connection as a grower that comes from saving seed. It doesn’t have to be everything, just one thing. Think like your great grandma. What would your great grandma find to be important?”