Friday, February 12, 2016

Farm Bulletin: Avoiding the "Tragedy of the Commons"

Lots of us think that farmers just stick seeds in the ground and wait until they're ready to harvest, maybe giving it a sprinkling of water now and again, then taking it to market where it's sold and ends up on our dinner table. As contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm outlines below, it's a longer and much more laborious process from seed to harvest.

He went by "Starlight." Heavy in the shoulder, long in carriage and gentle in disposition. In the autumn, passersby would gather a handful of the tart, nameless pippins, descended from apple cores tossed from carriages decades before, and entice him to the fence line to stroke his big white face. This polled hereford bull passed his years in a shady pasture along Rannapo Creek laconically providing the raw ingredients for artificial insemination, the AI of the day. It was a lovely spot to idle, the stream banks washed yellow with marsh marigolds in the spring, followed by the lush green leaves of skunk cabbage through the summer, and then blue with asters into the late autumn. He wintered up at the complex of barns near the farmhouse, returning to his pasture following the courtship of the woodcocks and the spring peepers.

His owner, John Howden, was highly regarded for the quality of his herd and seminal sire, as well as the bull before Starlight. John's greater claim to fame, extending well beyond his lifetime, was in fact a well-bred and distinctive pepo. The "Howden" pumpkin (top photo) is still sold by seed houses across the country. It is the standard by which the Connecticut field pumpkin was and is measured. John spent the better part of a decade refining his pumpkin through careful selection. In the early 1970s, he applied for and received a Plant Variety Protection (PVP) for the pumpkin. If we recall properly, his son was an attorney who aided the process.

Granting of the PVP meant that John controlled the sale and marketing of the seeds for the pumpkin. He grew the pumpkins on his farm and sold the seed to Harris Seeds Company. Good seed farmers do not sit on their laurels, especially when their name is on the variety. Every year a large field of pumpkins was planted and only the best pumpkins were selected for their seed.

Passing the field on misty autumn mornings, John's 100 or so herefords would be seen grazing, in soft seasonal focus, on the culled pumpkins—squash and pumpkins have long been grown for winter livestock feed, which is probably how John entered the world of pepos. Around the same time, the progeny of his fruits from a year past would grow from Harris's catalog entry to decorate porches, schools and storefronts all across the country, many with a candle and a face lighting up the fall evenings. Many still do.

Controlling the seed, he controlled the seed quality.

There is a prevalent view that once a variety is developed and stable, no further work is needed—all you need to do is save a portion of seed each year and you are doing the Lord's work. Treating a variety as a common asset will work for a while. Nonetheless, without careful maintenance of the variety's traits the quality will deteriorate and it will lapse into a feral state. There is no invisible hand assuring that the variety will remain useful to the cultivator, in fact, just the opposite. Nor will calling a variety an "heirloom" inoculate it from the law of entropy, the tendency to drift from an ordered to a disordered state. That's nature.

This principle of genetic entropy was illustrated locally a few years ago under the banner "'Blue Lake' beans suffer the blues." The Oregonian quoted a letter from a Newberg resident who wasn't happy with her Blue Lake pole beans; I've had increasing problems in recent years with some of them being flat and stringy when mature…no plumping, so to speak. I thought I was doing something wrong, but a change in location and irrigation has not solved the problem. According to the article, many gardeners and farmers had encountered the same dismal results. As it happens, the producers of the Blue Lake pole bean seed let it "run down."

Without applying energy to keep the treasured traits in place, the bean drifted away towards a feral—low energy—state, producing the tough, stringy pod typical of its ancestors. Same as when you see a Queen Anne's Lace growing in the meadow, it is nothing more than a carrot that has drifted away from domestication, producing an ancestrally tough, stringy root and a feral disposition. Word is that a breeder is working on restoring the Blue Lake pole bean to its plump and fleshy reliability.

What happened to the Blue Lake pole bean and other older varieties that have declined in quality can be seen as a "Tragedy of the Commons." In a 1968 essay in the journal Science, Garrett Hardin proposed that common or shared ownership can lead to overexploitation of a resource without the corresponding investment to maintain its function and value. Despite the gnashing of teeth and lamentations over Monsanto and the consolidation of seed companies, the truth is there are thousands of crop varieties in public domain, the seed commons. Within that reservoir of diversity, there is no mechanism to truly reward careful stewardship of their quality. Every so often, a variety becomes the food pet of the moment, and the "puppy mill" mentality grips the heirloom seed industry as they overproduce seed, the variety's traits are compromised, and then the jaded food lovers move on to the next "thing."

As we have noted previously, the process of pushing a crop variety away from the feral brink, or teasing out traits for an improved variety, is expensive and time-consuming. Many of the crops we sell are the result of such an investment on our part, some requiring the better part of a decade in realization as well as thousands of dollars out-of-pocket. There is also a creative side to the effort; even with restoration, the breeder needs a clear understanding of the crop, "a feeling for the organism" in Barbara McClintock's words. At its core, the PVP recognizes the effort, money and creativity invested in a new variety, and provides a mechanism and time for the breeder to possibly recoup that investment. Unfortunately, it is not a farmer-friendly process.

The PVP acts much like a copyright as opposed to a patent. It is possible to patent plants or traits (utility), as well. Crops and livestock are really better seen as expressive works rather than inventions, per se. The traits of a plant are our alphabet or scale, and we try to select them in pleasing and useful combination. The PVP allows farmers to buy a protected lettuce variety and sell the lettuce. They can also produce seed for the protected so long as it is used to grow more lettuce on the farm, but not sold as seed. Research exemptions are included, as well as protection of the larger national interest.

As seed breeders and producers, we believe the Plant Variety Protection Act needs to be reworked to make it more accessible to farmers who draw out and protect useful traits in crops. In addition, independent seed producers and breeders need to look at the nonprofit American Society for Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) as model. Currently, the work and cash investment we carry out on the seeds we grow goes back into seed commons with nary a penny back to us for our effort. We are willing to let that happen, though we may seek PVP status for some of the varieties we have worked on in the future. As Howden's neighbors, we would help him out at calving time and scratch Starlight's ears occasionally, and in the process a shard of the gruff old farmer's breeding efforts infected us. Forty years hence, we are heartened to see the Howden pumpkin still in the seed catalogs, a testament to the benefits of the PVP he secured.

To see the fruits of this labor—beans, grains, flours, greens, preserves and more—visit Anthony and Carol at their farm store this weekend, Feb. 13-14, from 2-5 pm, 15219 SW Spring Hill Rd., Gaston.

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