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Wednesday, 02 March 2011 20:55

Planting the seeds for sustainability

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A few weeks ago, as part of a magazine assignment, I visited Sow True Seed in Asheville.

Carol Koury and Peter Wakiewicz, cofounders of the two-year-old company, took time from their busy schedule — and I do mean busy, this is the time of year that makes or breaks a seed company — to give me a tour of the business and chat for a while.

Sow True Seed is located in a small, undistinguished building on Church Street near downtown Asheville. The company specializes in untreated, non-hybrid, open-pollinated seed.

In plain language, this is what that means: you, too, can save seed after growing plants using Koury and Wakiewicz’s seed. Hybrid seed, in contrast to open-pollinated, does not grow true: the next generation of plants grown from hybrid seed might be wonderful, it might be terrible. There is only one certainty when you save seed from plants that were grown from hybrid seed — variability.

Why? Because the parents of hybrid varieties are from distinct lines that have been combined for very specific reasons. Perhaps plant breeders have discovered this particular combination, say type A and type B, produces progeny with three favorable characteristics. We’ll designate this hybrid result as being type C. Type C is resistant to disease, it’s productive and it tastes reasonably good.

Here’s the problem. If you buy a pack of type C, grow the plants out, and then save the seed, you will not get type C when you grow them out the ensuing year — type C only occurs as the first generation result of crossing type A and type B.

Instead, you’ll get something we’ll call type X. There is no predicting what qualities type X will exhibit. As emphasized a few paragraphs ago, type X might be the best-tasting vegetable you’ve ever had the pleasure of sinking your pearly whites into. Or, more likely, type X tastes terrible, or perhaps it is prone to certain diseases and produces poorly.

Hybrid seed isn’t inherently evil; open-pollinated seed isn’t inherently good. They both serve certain purposes. Hybrids can give farmers an edge when it comes to productivity, or shipping (some are bred to be tougher in transport). Open-pollinated varieties do have a reputation for tasting better than hybrids. But, in reality, any loss of taste is simply a variable and is not, by definition, what makes a hybrid — breeders emphasized the selection of certain other traits, perhaps, over that of good taste.

Super sweet corn, for instance, is a classic example of selective breeding. Many people prefer the taste of really sweet corn. Not me, but this is America and people should be able to eat sugary, icky corn-candy if they want to, shouldn’t they? Give thanks to hybrids, then.

Genetically modified seed, which people sometimes confuse with hybrid seed, is an entirely different matter. I won’t go so far as to assert GMOs are actually evil, but the verdict is still out in my opinion — and on the companies producing them. GMOs are varieties that scientists have genetically tinkered with. My personal opinion is there are entirely too many unknowns regarding GMOs, our health and the overall wellbeing of our world. That, however, is a subject for another day.

Be all this as it may, seed saving is fun. And, if you are even the slightest bit interested in sustainability and self-reliance, it’s a must-have skill. Which brings me back to Sow True Seed, and the potential importance of this company to gardeners and farmers here in the Southeast.

First, plants adapt to conditions over time. Garlic is famous for this — you start with a variety that thrives (I’m personally having good success with Russian Red), and after a few years of saving and replanting cloves, your garlic actually adapts to the specific conditions of your garden. It improves in size and quality. Other vegetables aren’t as obvious, but adaptability still occurs over time, just much more subtly. Sow True Seed is selecting from plants that do well here. If the company does this season after season, eventually it will create and own a bank of seed specifically geared to perform well in this region. That has not happened before — many of us order from companies located in Maine, California or other far-flung places. The seed we get might be great, but it isn’t specifically adapted to our growing conditions.

Second, Sow True Seed is working on preserving older varieties. The company doesn’t have a lot of these yet, but flipping through the catalogue reveals greasy beans, sorghum, creasy greens and some older tomato varieties. Here’s hoping local gardeners and farmers provide the company additional tried-and-true favorites — the more people who cultivate these garden treasures, the better chance they stand of surviving.

Third, Sow True Seed is local. To the best of my knowledge, there is no other seed company of this size anywhere in the region (meaning WNC and the piedmont, north Georgia, east Tennessee, upstate South Carolina). I’m a little hesitant to over-hype buying local, because it has turned into such a buzzword and my tendency (probably a genetic trait specifically adapted to the conditions I was grown in) is contrarian. But I happen to truly believe that buying from small, local companies is critical to this region’s sustainability.

(Quintin Ellison is a Smoky Mountain News staff writer and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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