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Gardening Articles: Care :: Seeds & Propagation

Inside the Seed Business (page 3 of 4)

by Warren Schultz

Hybrid vs. Open-pollinated Varieties

"A seed is not [just] a seed," Shepherd says. "There can be a huge difference in quality, especially in open-pollinated varieties."

Hybrids have virtually no genetic variability. 'Celebrity' tomato seed from one company should be identical to 'Celebrity' seed from any other company, so when you're buying hybrids the only real difference is freshness and germination. That's not always the case with open-pollinated varieties. The quality of the plant that emerges from the seed can vary from one packet to another.

By nature, open-pollinated lines are subject to change due to random cross-pollination, and inferior plants can creep in. Every year, off-types may sprout in the field and must be weeded (rogued) out and removed, or they will produce bad seed. It's up to the seed grower (not the retailer) to ensure that line stays pure. That takes a lot of knowledge, effort, and dedication, as well as a good eye and a ruthless hand.

That's one of the reasons why Tom Johns, president of Territorial Seed Co. in Oregon, has taken the unusual step of growing some of the seed that he offers.

"When we're raising our own seed," he says, "we're better able to control the quality. Say we're raising a field of broccoli for seed; if we see too many off-types, we'll rogue them out." To his mind, that's safer than trusting a small unproven contract grower or distributor to do the dirty work. Territorial currently grows about 12 percent of the seed it sells. Most of the rest comes from large distributors and breeders. Johns says it's easier to trust them. "In my experience, the major companies are reliable," he says. "They have good quality control; 99.9 percent of the time you get exactly what you ordered."

Even so, when Territorial buys open-pollinated seeds, it regularly grows them in trial grounds and rates them on a 1-to-5 scale. "We do trials from five or six different sources," he says. "Whichever one produces best is the one we buy, even if it costs more." The difference between the first and the fifth is one you may not be able to tell unless you grow the five varieties side by side.

Larger companies may test-grow a variety before offering it in the catalog, but they often don't test the same seed variety from different distributors. In fact, some companies, large and small, don't have any trials at all. However, most do, though trials may range from minimal to extensive.

The Chemical Factor

Seeds of Change, a small, aggressively organic company owned by the candy giant Mars, Inc., shuns large seed distributors, because the company believes that there's another important factor in seed production--the environmental one. So it sells only organically raised seed. Howard Shapiro, vice president of agriculture and purchasing at Seeds of Change, is critical of the way conventional seed farms operate. "They need the seed-production area to be free of all other plants, so they use chemicals to eradicate them. When people say they want to garden organically, but then buy conventional seeds, it seems disingenuous to us." So Seeds of Change forsook high-tech experience for hands-on organics and uses only open-pollinated seed.

In 1991, the company began contacting organic farmers to find out if they wanted to grow seed for the company. After determining the best conditions for different crop, they made compacts with the farmers to become contract growers.

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