Farm News

Systems Thinking: A Family of Good Children

photo of peppers on the plant and in a bucket

Bucket after bountiful bucket. Seven, eight, nine (!) from a single plant. Thick-walled, glossy skinned, lipstick red or glowing orange, yes– to us every one is a Gatherer’s Gold. The late August sun broils on high. Our backs talk loudly to us. I bruise my knee on a sharp piece of metal. No matter. Without pause, Brad and I kneel and bend to the real life version of Success. We pick and pick and pick.

photo of peppers in a row on the plantsIn December, when the work has fallen into a momentary pause, and the glossy catalogs are piled in a stack, we turn page after page after page. Our backs rested, our hands too clean, our eagerness growing into a strong and thick-willed desire, we read one varietal description after another, fueling the long-range dream of Gatherer’s Gold. Bucket after bountiful bucket.

An outstanding harvest, followed by a new crop of seed catalogs, perused in the Persephone months by a warm, crackling fire—now that is sure way to germinate a vigorous dose of Farmer’s Amnesia. Farmer’s Amnesia is a state of mind in which one remembers disproportionately the ease of a successful, abundant harvest. That microcosm which represents only the fair weather elements of agrarian life. Farmer’s Amnesia is a common affliction, powered by a diet of enticing full color photographs of produce and varietal descriptions soaking with saccharinely cloying phrases like, ‘highly ornamental plants with mouth-watering flavor’ or ‘gardener’s all time favorite’, ‘rich and aromatic’, or ‘sure to be a winner’.

Let me set the record straight. Not to disparage the wonder of mid-winter dreaming, but nothing in this profession—ever—is ‘sure to be a winner.’

Crop failure. The burden every farmer has at one time borne. Spoken in soft words, like a funeral procession for a dearly beloved. Pity. A quiet, wringing, heart ache– feeling low. Nothing to do, glossy eyes, empty hands. Thick-wooded feelings, a restless sadness. Bucket after bucket after empty, empty bucket.

Crop failure certainly motivates a farmer to become deft at reading between the lines of seed catalog descriptions. When the authors wax glowingly over the physical uniformity of a varietal, mentioning its ‘storability’ but not its flavor, that’s red flag. Or when they discuss how delicious the ‘cute’ fruit is but fail to include its average yields, I proceed with caution, knowing that most likely means a scant harvest of tiny things.

The problem with most seed catalogs is that they don’t tell the whole story, and the whole story is a disproportionally large part of what determines our success. The whole story includes the stewardship of generation after generation of seed. The whole story is the root of systems thinking.

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So many seed varieties and have come and gone at my farm over the last ten years. But year after year, Gatherer’s Gold and Jolene’s remain. These are the names of the sweet pepper varieties within whose seeds are the story —the system—that I am steadfastly devoted to.

Willamette Valley farmers Frank and Karen Morton have been breeding exclusively open-pollinated seed varieties for organic farming systems for nearly forty years, and their seed stewardship efforts are second to none. No one likes parting with his or her money, but I can tell you this: the Wild Garden Seed Catalog is at the top of our winter reading stack, and it never feels wrong when I send my money on down to P.O. Box 1509, Philomath, Oregon. I know that whatever good I might do with it, The Mortons will surely find a way to leverage those funds in triplicate. There are very few color photographs in the Wild Garden Seed Catalog. It’s not thick or showy. But the philosophy with which they approach their work, and the honesty found within each variety description is a reassuring pleasure I can take to the bank.

And amidst erratic weather and pest issues, I need reassurance. The environmental pressures on my crops are never exactly the same, and from one year to the next they are also entirely unpredictable. Will there be a steady deluge all through June? A gusty windstorm in August? 100 degree heat in May? Every growing season presents its own unique challenges. For farmers like me, open pollinated seeds represent the best hope we have to overcome un-foreseen environmental challenges. This is because open pollinated seeds safeguard the largest pool of genetic diversity possible. A bigger toolbox can hold more tools, tools that my plants desperately need to fend off what may come. There’s no shortcut to achieving hale and hardy seeds. It takes time- years and years.

Every one of Wild Garden’s open pollinated seeds are cultivated for longevity- i.e. resilience and tenacity to overcome adverse growing conditions. Furthermore, Frank and Karen use the pages of their catalog to educate, not simply to sell seed.

One Distinction between Hybrids and Open Pollinated (OP) Seeds: Breeding OPs involves ongoing improvement of the progeny. Breeding hybrids is a lot of work on perfecting parents in hopes of creating a single generation of perfect offspring. In the end, with OPs, you are left with a family of good children, rather than the memory of good parents. There are no heirloom hybrids.

These are farmers truly devoted to the integrity of ecological and agrarian systems. Their varietals have been specifically adapted to both our region and to our semi-wild, diversified organic production system. Frank and Karen’s seeds haven’t been mollycoddled, spoon-fed refined fertilizers and grown in artificial, climate controlled (wind and weatherless) environments. These are robust, tough, healthy seeds ready to jump out of the ground and get to growing. These are seeds ready to take on the world – and that’s what I depend on to ensure you go home with healthy, well grown produce- bucket after bountiful bucket.

“[Frank] Morton’s proudest accomplishment is not any particular variety, but the acceptance of several of his genetically diverse gene pools into the garden seed trade. As he has written, “Exposing gardeners to the idea that the ‘genetically uncleansed’ can be exciting, beautiful, useful…is a small step toward accepting diversity as an asset.” He’ll feel doubly rewarded if some gardeners are moved to select their favorite forms from these gene pools so that “new varieties or landraces appear in diverse climates around the country as a result of this aesthetic impulse.”

Morton has moved beyond the preservation of heirlooms to the creation of composite populations formed by crossing several heirloom varieties. These may exhibit the same degree of vigor expressed by hybrids, but with a much broader base of genetic diversity. “Heirloom varieties are not the end of the line–they are the beginning of new lines.” — Source: Fedco Seeds

This week’s harvest of Sweet Italian Frying Peppers is a testament to Frank and Karen’s ongoing stewardship. Since the beginning of my farm, I have been sowing and harvesting Jolene’s and Gatherer’s Gold. Every year, I eagerly anticipate the new members of Frank and Karen’s ‘family of good children’. This Saturday, you’ll get the opportunity to take home two siblings: Early Perfect Italian and Karma.

Which is one more reason I am a fierce supporter of Wild Garden Seed. Karen and Frank see their work not in terms of perfection but as a process of continuous improvement. Their work is not stagnant or repetitive, but by necessity dynamic and evolving. Therein lies the challenge, and the joy, the hardship and the rewards. Karen and Frank continue to reflect and refine, just as I do here at the farm. This is not easy.

Being devoted to open pollinated seed is dedicating yourself to honoring a natural system that has functioned effectively for thousands of years, instead of shortsightedly circumventing it to make a quick buck. Seed stewardship is unglamorous work, requiring patience, and diligence and trust—year after year after year.

All in the hopes, but never the guarantee, of producing bucket after bucket of overflowing, absolutely gorgeous, intensely healthy food. The goal is not hyper-uniformity – but solid, reliable diversity. I want every pepper I harvest to be a little different, because that means a lot more tools in my toolbox.

So as you can see, the whole story, before back aches and bruised knees, includes the stewardship of generations of seeds, and generations of diversity. The whole story inspires in a way that’s more lasting than any case of Farmer’s Amnesia. The whole story motivates us to align our actions with our beliefs. That is to say, the whole story awakens us to the power of being a systems thinker.

Oh, and one more thing. The Mortons aren’t even most well known for their sweet pepper breeding, but instead for their brilliant and astounding assortment of lettuce varieties. Their allegiance to diversity isn’t just one crop deep, but also many plant families wide. Year in and year out, Wild Garden Seed’s sweet frying peppers, parsley, lettuces, greens, basil, beets, chard, celery, collards, fennel, cilantro, winter squash, spinach, onions, and kale have fed our CSA community. Frank and Karen’s dedication inspires and enlivens my dinner table, my work table and the table of my soul.

photo of flats of picked sweet red peppers

I revel in all of our bountiful harvests, but there is an unmatchable, indescribable pleasure I experience when I set out crates of ‘Gatherer’s Gold’ for my CSA Community to carry home. It feels like the coronation of the beautiful, fruitful, healthy system I deeply desire for our world. The Morton’s breeding work fuels our farm’s stewardship and stability; our farm’s success fuels the stability of the Morton’s breeding work. And you, dear CSA member, are an integral part of the equation. Your choices support this incrementally improving, dynamic, deeply community-minded system. Seeded, grown, nourished, and loved: all within a one hundred and twenty mile radius of your kitchen. Now that, that is a whole story which celebrates what is truly, unimaginably, possible. ~AJ

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