Will Oddie has been looking for organic seed for 26 years. In some cases, he finds it. Other times, it is not so easy. As a long-time organic farmer, Will takes a holistic perspective to seed-sourcing for his Saskatchewan grain farm. To Will, choosing non-organic seed when organic seed is readily available “is missing the point of organics—that, in every part of it, we do what we do because in our minds it is a better system than the alternative. And if we want folks to buy our product so we can continue our organic enterprise, we must in turn buy organic when possible—to do our part.”
Barriers to Sourcing Organic Seed
Even the very first step—identifying an organic seed source—can be onerous. There is currently no central clearinghouse for information on organic seed sources in Saskatchewan. The weekly prairie farm paper The Western Producer classified ads provide some leads, but there are few listings for organic seed. Will relies heavily on contacts with organic farmers in his region, especially the local chapter of his certifying body, when seeking out seed sources. He has been able to source seed for certain crops from an organic farm 20 miles from his, but needs to look farther afield for others.
With organic farms far-flung across the province, distances to suitable seed sources can be prohibitively long, raising questions about what “commercially available” actually means. Last year, Will travelled three and a half hours each way to pick up organic lentil seed. This type of trip is manageable occasionally, at least for small quantities of seed intended to be grown on a small number of acres to produce seed for future years. In most cases, however, travelling such distances to get seed is simply not feasible.
Buying seed from small organic farms, even if they are nearby, presents its own set of logistical challenges. Some farms may sell “bin-run” seed—grain harvested from last year’s crop and stored on the farm, weed seeds and all. Buying bin-run seed means having to get it cleaned, an extra step that costs time and money.
Even the seemingly simple task of verifying the amount of seed purchased can be difficult. In Will’s experience, “Most organic farmers do not have a scale with which to weigh a truck, so it is hard to determine exactly how much seed you have loaded, and when it is as pricey as is organic seed, one wants to be accurate.”
With so many hurdles in the seed-sourcing process, it can be tempting to buy enough seed at once to last for several years. However, a small farm implementing a diverse crop rotation and adapting to variable weather patterns may not grow every crop every year. As the years pass, seed quality of certain crops deteriorates, rendering that old seed unfit for use.
In his searches for organically produced seed of a particular crop or variety, Will has frequently come up empty-handed. New crop varieties are often available only from conventional growers. Crops grown by only a few organic farmers might be an extraordinary distance away. And even if an organic grower of a particular crop or variety is found, they may not be selling any of their crop for seed, perhaps because of needing to meet a production contract, not having the capacity to clean the product, or simply not wanting the hassle.
Faced with the dilemma of either planting a different variety or resorting to conventional seed, Will may switch to another variety, but is more likely to move to a conventional source. “I am often wanting to try a new variety because it may have potentially advantageous attributes such as better disease resistance or weathering capacity or yield potential.” In many cases, the characteristics of the new variety make it worth sourcing conventionally.
Using conventional seed adds to the paperwork required for organic certification. Organic farmers must first make an effort to find organic seed, documenting each attempt to find every type of seed used on the farm. If organic seed cannot be found, then conventional seed may be used, but only with a signed affidavit from the supplier indicating that the seed is not genetically engineered.
Growing His Own
To get around these seed-sourcing issues, Will often saves his own seed when he expects to plant a particular variety for the next few years. But even this presents its own set of challenges, especially on a small farm. Sometimes it makes sense to use the last bit of grain to fill up an outgoing tractor-trailer. Or, if some grain is kept for seed, that small amount still occupies a bin, which can complicate storage of other crops. And again, there is the issue of losing seed quality during storage.
Using farm-saved seed also requires cleaning out the weed seeds before planting, an operation for which many small farms, like Will’s, are not equipped. Off-farm cleaning is possible but adds the cost and hassle of transporting grain, often long distances, to certified organic cleaning facilities and back to the farm afterwards.
A Compromise and a Hope
The high cost of organic seed can be tough to swallow, but it’s a price Will is prepared to pay. He is able to buy at least some of the seed he needs from an organic grower who has grain cleaning equipment to remove weed seeds and a weigh scale to ensure accurate billing. Although the organic seed he buys is not “blue-label” certified seed, he has never had a problem with poor quality in a seed lot. Meanwhile, he will also continue to buy some conventional seed.
In the future, Will hopes to see a mechanism for organic producers to share information on seed sources, potentially through the provincial organic umbrella group, SaskOrganics. He also hopes that the organic standards maintain reasonable options to make organic production practical for smaller producers. “While it might be a more perfect system to have nothing but organic seed each and every planting, there is a thing called good reason, and the certification as it now exists thankfully recognizes that.”