Local Begins with Seed

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Adaptive Seeds recognizes seed as the foundation of the food system.



In mid-July, everything is in full bloom at Open Oak Farm — even the lettuce. “This the best our farm has ever looked,” Sarah Kleeger jokes. Then she points to a heap of brittle kale waiting to be threshed, perhaps a more accurate visual of seed farming. “Most of our dry crops, we harvest and put on this fabric. It’s porous, in case it rains. It lets the bugs leave. Then, I usually drive on it with the truck.”

Her partner, Andrew Still, adds: “You could dance on them for a couple of hours, but driving back and forth with the pickup takes about two minutes.” Andrew pulls out a pickling cucumber that’s now lemon-colored, and slices it open. Inside, it’s thick with seeds—nearly ready for harvest.

Sarah, 37, and Andrew, 36, started Adaptive Seeds on Open Oak Farm in Sweet Home, Oregon, in 2009. They grow and breed open-pollinated, organic seeds, with a focus on diverse, resilient, and rare varieties adapted for northern climates. By breeding plants in an organic environment, Sarah and Andrew are able to select varieties that will thrive on other organic farms in our unique regional climate—dry in the summer, wet in the winter, host to our own distinctive mix of pests, rusts, mildews, funguses, and diseases.

Andrew Still, a philosophy major, started saving seeds in his first year of farming.

Andrew, a philosophy major, started saving seeds their first year of farming, in 2003, in Northern California. “The seed catalog was always the part I found the most exciting,” he says. He started reading seed-saving books and asked the farmers he worked for why they selected specific varieties.

When Andrew and Sarah moved north to Oregon in 2004 to apprentice at Horton Road Organics, Andrew became the on-farm liaison with Seeds of Change, an organic seed company, and assisted with evaluations of the on-farm variety trials. Micaela Colley, now program director at the Organic Seed Alliance, “saw that he was interested and gave him the nudge,” Sarah recounts.

But many of the farmers they worked for were dubious and questioned the practicality and economic viability of pursuing seed growing. “It was a little bit of a reaction against that to double down and prove we could do it,” Andrew says. “Also it was really fun.”

After apprenticing on small farms for four years, the pair harnessed their growing interest in seeds and set off to Northern Europe with a mission: collecting and exchanging seeds and teaching seed-saving skills. “We had a couple thousand dollars of life savings and really wanted to travel but not be tourists,” Sarah says.

With this goal, the Seed Ambassadors Project, was born.

The project aims to increase the diversity of locally adapted varieties and to get them into the hands of more gardeners and farmers. Specifically, Andrew and Sarah were interested in winter gardening varieties. “Seed companies in the U.S. at that time were selling varieties that were developed for commercial agriculture in California,” Andrew says. “The winter hardiness had disappeared.”

Sarah and Andrew returned from their first trip with nearly 800 varieties of seeds, which would form the foundation for Adaptive Seeds, which published its first seed list in 2009 and first catalog in 2010. After returning from Europe, Andrew and Sarah lived and worked at Hayhurst Valley Organic Farm & Nursery for three years. “[Owner] Richard Wilen was very generous and gave us our own beds to start growing out to evaluate and save seed on,” Sarah explains. “It really allowed us to have the abundance.” At Hayhurst, they grew about 100 varieties, primarily beans and tomatoes, because they can be grown in small plots.

Sarah Kleeger wants to move seeds into the spotlight of the local food movement.

“We had been sharing and saving seeds through the Seed Savers Exchange [a nonprofit dedicated to saving and sharing seeds through a seed bank and 13,000-member community], and at some point, our methods of distribution were not getting them into enough hands,” Sarah recounts. “Basically, that momentum is why we started Adaptive Seeds. We didn’t start it thinking we could make a living; we just needed a more efficient distribution system.”

Now firmly rooted in the Pacific Northwest and growing steadily, Adaptive cultivates seed crops on three to four acres of the 30-acre farm they lease in Sweet Home. In addition to growing for seed and for evaluation, they also do preservation work for the original Seed Ambassadors Project, and have saved many varieties previously on the brink of extinction. Sarah points out a rare Hungarian black-seeded sunflower and nearly 30 varieties of beans, like D’Hondt Family purple pole snap bean from Ireland and a Belgian runner bean also known as Farmer’s Toes.

When growing crops for seed, adequate physical space between plant types, or isolation, is required to prevent cross-pollination of varieties. To address these isolation needs, Adaptive partners with several regional farms to grow various seeds. At times, cross-pollination is encouraged or can result in happy accidents. For instance, Sarah says they had 30 or 40 vegetable brassicas and limited resources for growing them out. At one point, they let 17 brassicas flower together, and the resulting variety was dubbed the “Kale Coalition,” which produces a range of colors, shapes, and leaf types in a single garden. “Now we have the rainbow chard of kale,” Andrew jokes.

Andrew and Sarah, along with other Northwest plant breeders and activists, seek to move seeds, the foundation of agriculture, into the spotlight of the local food movement for both farmers and consumers. “Most seed that organic farms are planting are hybrids from multinational corporations,” Andrew says. “Probably half of the varieties are the same on every organic farm. But the seeds work and that’s why the growers do it.” Sarah explains that, while supportive of local food, many farmers tend to view seed as simply another input.

But the tide is slowly shifting, in Oregon and elsewhere. In 2016, Adaptive shipped seeds to 30 countries. Farmers of all ages are starting to realize that local begins with seed, Sarah says. “I would hope that part of [it] is that our seeds do perform well for them, but I think part of their motivation is also recognizing seed as the foundation of the food system.”

While serious gardeners comprise the bulk of Adaptive Seeds’ customer base, Andrew and Sarah are gradually carving out niches that target small farms, such as varieties with regional adaptation and winter hardiness, as well as heritage varieties. Another goal is to scale up hard-to-find heritage varieties so that they’re available in larger packet sizes more suited to farmers.

Japanese Pie Winter Squash field at Adaptive Seeds Farm in Sweet Home, OR.

“Many small organic farms in the Pacific Northwest are happy to have a percentage of their farm be planted in unique varieties that might distinguish them and also might grow really well here because they’ve been stewarded in this environment,” Andrew says. Sarah points to the Double Red sweet corn, an Oregon variety developed over three decades by Alan Kapuler of Peace Seeds in Corvallis. The deep-magenta kernels are known to stain your fingers purple when eating it.

Across the Open Oak Farm, many of the current breeding projects – jalapeños, melons, tomatoes, and tomatillos – are driven by desirable culinary characteristics. Portland chef Timothy Wastell has helped with selections based on culinary traits for two generations of a Gulag Stars kale breeding project. Eugene chef Tiffany Norton helped evaluate this summer’s crop of Farthest North Galia melons – softball-sized melons selected over several generations for their green flesh and bubblegum-like flavor — and featured the melon in the Culinary Breed Network’s Variety Showcase in October. “I’m a little bit terrified of the jalapeño project because I don’t want to do the sensory evaluations,” says Sarah.

As the seeds stewarded by Andrew and Sarah and their partner farms across the region spread to fields and tables across the Pacific Northwest, the food system inches closer to re-diversification. “Our tagline is ‘bringing biodiversity back,’ but how we are doing that is the important part,” Andrew says. “Not only do we want to preserve rare varieties that are hard to find and be collection curators, but the bigger [goal] is: How do we get this food and diversity back into the food system?”

Katie Chamberlain is a freelance writer focused on food and agriculture based in Eugene.

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