In the fall of 2014 local farmer John LaBoyteux and I had sent commercial bakers samples of ten different wheat varieties we had grown. The results were in. Some of the varieties made bread that was too flat, or too pale. However, a few stood out, including ‘Canus’, an old Canadian wheat with hard, red seeds, and tall enough to compete with weeds. Unfortunately, it was also susceptible to becoming infected with strip rust, a problematic disease for wheat in our damp climate. The search for the perfect variety would continue with new trials.
Finding the right varieties is critical for success in Humboldt, especially for crops not typically grown here, like wheat and quinoa. But why bother with trials? Don’t seed companies and universities already research and report the best varieties? While agriculture is a major part of our local economy, it is a miscrocosm compared to the state or the country. Our climate is unlike many of the major agricultural regions. Therefore, neither seed companies or universities are likely to have results relevant to us.
To address this issue, Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), a non-profit focused on ensuring farmers have access to the seeds they need, partnering with local farmers to find the best varieties for our area. In addition to wheat, we’ve been testing quinoa, silage corn, sweet corn, and other crops.
Quinoa is a crop that has become more and more important in Humboldt County. A relative of beets and spinach, quinoa produces edible seeds with high levels of protein. It requires cool summers to produce good yields, and unlike almost anywhere else in the U.S., the coast of Humboldt County has summers that are cool enough to successfully produce quinoa.
This is important because recent increases in international demand for quinoa have resulted in increaded exports, prices and shortages in the mountainous regions of South America where it is traditionally grown.
Blake Richard of Wild Rose Farm has been growing an increasing amount of quinoa for the past decade,improving the genetics of his own ‘Rainbow’ quinoa through seed-saving. He approached OSA last year to help him develop new varieties, and testing continues, as well as increasing seed to make the best new varieties more widely available.
Silage corn is an important local crop despite being just a small part of the dairy cow diet. Local production has some challenges. In addition to there being few varieties that are able to mature in cool coastal Humboldt County, the major corn breeding companies have for the past decade or more focused on varieties released with genetically engineered (GE) traits. OSA has been conducting silage corn trials in 2014 and 2015 with local farmers Paul Guintoli and Andy Titus to provide coastal dairy farmers with better information about silage corn variety choices.
OSA is also working with local vegetable farmers. This year, OSA partnered with the College of the Redwoods and farmer John LaBoyetaux to conduct trials of 143 kinds of sweet corn. In 2012 and 2013, OSA worked with local farmer Eddie Tanner to conduct trials of green beans, cucumbers, carrots, and broccoli. One of the standout green beans was an old variety that hadn’t been sold commercially for decades. It yielded incredibly well, had the best flavor, and resisted the molds that affected some beans in our cool damp climate. Local seed producer Bill Reynolds began producing seed of this green bean. He rechristened it ‘OSU Blues’ and it is now being sold nationally.
Finding and developing the best varieties for our area is a key part of strengthening our local agricultural systems, and everyone can play a part. Complete trial results are available from www.seedalliance.org. If you are interested in conducting your own trials, download our guide to conducting variety trials. Contact [email protected] for more information.