The Tale of Two Seeds- Heirloom vs Hybrid Seed Production
Two of the most important ingredients in growing food are healthy, fertile soil and good quality seed. As gardeners and growers, there is often an arc in the quality of both that directly corresponds to the arc of knowledge and experience of the grower. At first, most home gardeners will start out buying seeds from almost anywhere, without the realization that all seeds are not the same in terms of quality, but also germination and vigor in production. As time goes on, experience and knowledge are earned, and the grower becomes increasingly particular in selecting the seeds that they want to grow from. They usually get to know a company and the performance of their seeds, either through a friend or by experience. We all know the definition of experience, right? Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want!
This is a type of question that we receive a lot- how are your seeds grown? are they organic? are they well-suited to my climate? do you grow your own seeds, or buy them? Most of the time, the real question is- What is the quality and performance of your seeds? How do I know that I am getting the best possible quality at a reasonable price? Most gardeners and growers that have some years of growing behind them realize that the best, “guaranteed lowest” price is often not at all. Paying $2.00 for a packet of seeds vs. $3.50 a packet may seem like a good deal, but there is more than just the price that must be looked at. If that $2.00 packet has 10-15 seeds and the $3.50 one has 45 seeds for a tomato or pepper, and knowing that high quality tomato seeds will last at least 2-3 years in good storage conditions, then the “more expensive” packet is a much better buy, as it is half the price, when comparing equal amounts of seeds. Or when comparing prices, there are 2 to 3 times more seeds at the same cost. Plant what you need this year, share some with friends and neighbors and you’ll still have enough to plant with next year, maybe the year after that. This is good economy. Long ago, Cindy and I realized that we would never be wealthy enough to afford to buy cheap quality. Let me elaborate. Boots that cost twice as much new, but will last 3 times as long and can then be rebuilt for another service life is money well spent, over saving some dollars today, but being forced to buy the same boots 3-5 times over the same time period. Another benefit of quality is … quality. The better quality will be more enjoyable to use, work better, or grow better with more flavor, nutrition, resistance to pests and diseases or weird weather patterns.
We have just returned from visiting two of our growers in California, and have some good photos that illustrate the differences between high volume, mass-produced seeds and how ours are grown, harvested and cleaned. One of our growers is also a mentor to us; a highly respected traditional plant breeder, introducing the Chocolate and Green Pear tomatoes last year; and an acknowledged expert in seed saving and seed purity. We turn to this grower to identify and correct problems that show up with heirlooms. The other grower is a larger seed grower that we contract with; we are a small portion of their total seed production. Yet they take the time to get to know us and their quality control processes, ensuring that their seed meets our quality criteria.
Let’s look first at commercial, conventional seed production. We will use tomatoes as the example, as they are in season right now, and show the amount of work required to produce the quality needed for heirloom seeds.
Large tracts of land are planted by machine (usually with hybrid varieties) and grown until ready for harvest. There is too much acreage under growth for any hand work, so periodic spot inspections are carried out throughout the season. When it is time for harvest, a large tomato combine machine is pulled by a tractor down the rows to harvest the tomatoes. All of them, regardless if they are fully ripe or not, or if they are smaller or under-developed. The plants are separated from the fruit by a huge vacuum, then the tomatoes are transferred to a gondola bed pulled alongside, to be hooked to a semi truck and transported to the processing facility. Above you can see the double gondolas pulled by a tractor. If you look closely, you can see the people in the cabs to get a sense of how big the equipment is. The transfer spout of the combine can just be seen over the top front of the lead gondola.
This is a rear view of the same combine/gondola. The tomatoes are falling into the gondola, and the remains of the tomato plants are left behind the combine. From here the tomatoes will go to a large crusher to separate the seeds from the rest of the tomato. The seeds will be washed and fermented to remove the gelatin coat, washed again, dried and packaged for shipment to the seed company. The tomato remains might be used for animal feed, or composted.
The challenge from a quality standpoint is that there is no selection possible in the field, it must be done at the processing facility- probably from a conveyor belt with people on both sides, looking for rotten tomatoes and debris. They won’t select for the largest and best of the variety, the ripest and tastiest, as there are simply thousands of tomatoes rolling past fairly quickly. They won’t be able to feel the tomatoes, picking out the ripest and most ready. Nobody will taste the tomatoes to check for flavor and ensure that it holds to the standard for that variety. No one will inspect them for the visual characteristics that make that specific variety unique and valued. The goal is to capture all of the seeds possible, as that is how the grower is paid- by the weight or volume of seeds.
This is in direct contrast to how our seed growers operate. They have smaller plot sizes that enable them to better control various factors and observe growth, flowering and fruit set patterns often and make needed changes during the season. The smaller plots also allow better isolation by time, distance and/or physical barriers to prevent cross pollination that would result in hybridization. This is one of the key factors in ensuring the highest quality seed possible.
Our growers inspect the growth of the tomato plants frequently, and remove any that are stunted, or show abnormal growth. This is done several times throughout the growing season, as flowering happens, and again during fruit set. This technique is a process of specific selection of traits or characteristics throughout the growing process- growth patterns, flower color, fruit size, color, shape and taste. It is labor intensive and requires a lot of handwork and hours in the field, but results in a superior seed. The tomatoes are harvested by hand with the fruit selected for the largest, best characteristics of the variety, best flavor and production right there in the field. The tomatoes are either processed in small batches by hand, or in larger batches by machine- depending on the grower and the volume of production that they do. Either way, there are more hands and eyes on the tomatoes than commercial processing, as there are significantly fewer fruits in the workflow. After separating the seeds from the tomato, the seeds are fermented to remove the gel coat, screened, washed, dried and inspected one last time before being packed for shipping to us.
Production growing for seed only happens after trials to determine viability, suitability and quality of that variety. Some of the trials take a couple of years before seed production begins. We don’t want to offer an heirloom that does not offer superior flavor, growth and resilience characteristics. In all of the selection processes, flavor and taste are at the forefront of the decision process. We have had a couple of instances when our grower called and said that we shouldn’t offer the variety because the flavor was not remarkable enough to qualify as an heirloom, or did not exhibit the flavor profile that it was known for. That means an entire growing season is lost, and the trouble-shooting begins, but it is better to lose a year or more than to offer an inferior quality variety. All of our seed production is focused on home gardeners and small scale growers such as Farmer’s Market and CSA growers.
Now that you have the answer to the questions above – What is the quality and performance of your seeds? How do I know that I am getting the best possible quality at a reasonable price?- you understand more of our processes and commitment to the quality of our seeds that we offer to you, our customer.
Thanks for a very thorough and informative article! Now I really appreciate the difference in seed production and selection, and the effort you make to assure the highest quality. Much appreciated!
Thanks Gay! We really appreciate the kind words.
I so appreciate the time you put in to help educate people, that is crucial to all concerned. Thank you so much. I am anxious to learn more. What we don’t know can hurt us eventually. Thank You for the gift knowledge. Ms. VonnieRae
Thanks for your kind words, VonnieRae! It does take a lot of time, but we feel that educating folks on growing their own food is very important today.
I always knew that heirloom and open-pollinated seeds were labor intensive. I did not know how labor intensive. Having purchased your seeds when I lived in Seattle, I am so glad that I came across your catalog on a site for heirloom catalogs!
You are right! Quality certainly makes a difference.
Thank you for your hard work and maintaining quality through your growers.
Thanks, it is a lot of work, but we feel that it is worth it, especially when we have multi year repeat customers!
What an informative article. I really appreciate the heirlooms that I grow even more now. I have a new insight into the pricing now.
Thanks again for a very educational article!
Thanks for your comments, we saw the need for this article based on questions and comments from our customers. Many folks just don’t realize that there really is a difference in seeds, not just between heirloom and hybrids, but in heirlooms as well. If a seed company is buying from a large warehouse or seed brokerage firm, they really don’t have any control over the quality or growing process, and can sometimes get caught with lesser quality seed that can damage their reputation.