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Envisioning An Organic Seed Growers Co-op  

Frank Morton

How would a federated cooperative of organic seed producers benefit farmers and rural life?

Our organic community has the jazz to self-create a system of seed production based upon our own values, our own human and intellectual resources, and our own farms. Given a template to replicate, I can envision a web formation of seed growers linked by common workshop experience, a common business plan for cooperative seed marketing, shared services for seed testing, packaging and printing, and a common catalog of varietal products.

I’m not alone in thinking about this. This year, our allies at Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) in conjunction with the Northwest Cooperative Development Center began the process of implementing our long-simmering vision for such a cooperative effort on behalf of small independent organic seed growers. We see this as a national organization, producing and marketing seed much like we do it at Wild Garden Seed, both with contracts to seed companies, and through a catalog to buyers like you and me. The co-op would be organized by regional hubs comprised of district nodes represented by grower groups that share expertise and equipment on a local level.

By linking these regional hubs together in a collective catalog, a varietal diversity of organic seed for crops with wide ranges of adaptation would be available for the US from an organic source. The role of OSA will be to steward these growers to a high standard of seed production expertise, regardless of their scale, and then to provide them with services to assure uniformly high standards of seed testing and quality. One of the functions of the co-op will be to find the proper farmer for a crop contract, and to find the proper crop contract for a farmer.

One way to do this is to engage organic farmers and plant breeders in the field, creating the seeds we need from the ground up through an ongoing Participatory Plant Breeding (PPB) program. The Organic Seed Growers Co-op will be genetic innovators, not just a "multiplier company," by virtue of using PPB to constantly innovate new varieties and upgrade old ones into modern commercial standards for organic producers. This will create intelligent rural work, and will add value to the work we do on our organic farms. It will also allow farmers to regain the role we once played as seed keepers and crop innovators.

At present, farmers are so removed from our seed stewardship as to be beggars of industry for most of our planting stock. If industry provides hybrids, we get hybrids. If industry puts Utility Patents on new plants, we cannot legally grow them to seed. If farmers do not keep any seeds alive in the public domain of open pollinated varieties, we may be the last farmers in a long chain of seed stewards. Like the last wild salmon, or the last migratory bison, this is almost too much to contemplate. What world is that?

The seed industry at large here and abroad is secretive, proprietary, and self-interested to the extent that nothing is more admired than a market locked down through a lattice of rules, lists, laws, licensing, and patents. Organic growers want quality seed with good, diverse genetics, and they would like a good variety to stick around and just get better, not be replaced by something new and unproven. This is what a seed production co-op of organic farmers might be prepared to deliver, that private and corporate interests may not.

Printed in the 2008 WIld Garden Seed Catalog.

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