Opinionated Gardener: Of Seed Catalogues & Snap Peas

11 mins read

Cabin Fever? If sitting close to the stove and pouring over maps of far flung places or the fine print of an unabridged dictionary isn’t a cure, try Fedco’s seed catalogue. It will do more than feed your fantasies; it will feed your hungry mind as well. One could say it’s more like a cross between a seed catalogue and Ralph Nader’s “Public Citizen,” the “Wall Street Journal,” “Consumer Reports” and “Plant Breeding Reviews.”

Not only does the catalogue of the Waterville-based cooperative tell you just about everything there is to know about the seeds you are buying – except perhaps their genetic codes, it tells you everything it thinks you ought to know about the current state of the seed industry. Told as only a passionately political and informed seller of seeds can tell it. With wit and unabashed bias. It’s the kind of catalogue that feeds the soul of the Opinionated Gardener.

What other seed catalogue would explain “We took our time about carrying this classic golden-yellow heirloom beefsteak because we had to find the best strain. All strains of Yellow Brandywine develop irregularly shaped fruits in Maine extreme weather fluctuations but this variation from Gary Platfoot in Ohio seems least affected?”

What other seed catalogue would announce it was dropping certain varieties of seed because the company that supplied it was bought out by a company known for its leading role in producing genetically engineered seeds. And report on its progress in finding replacements?

What other seed catalogue would report that it spent $318,000 on seed purchased from 100 suppliers in 2007-08. That 23% of its seed came from 51 small farmer/seed growers in 18 states for which it paid $75,000? (Probably one trying to recruit small farmer/seed growers).

Sugarsnap Seed and Fedco
And finally, getting to the point of this column, what other seed catalogue has come right out and told its customers that the seed of Sugarsnap – the pea you can eat raw, pod and all, straight off its six-foot- tall vine – the pea that is juicy sweet when maturely plump – had become “contaminated” with “off-types?”

Rather than silently pull the popular variety from their catalogue, as others have done this year, Fedco wrote the it had “lost its faith in the purity of the seed” it had sold a ton of for years and asked its customers to “let us know if you got significant off-types last year and we will refund you.” And assured them it was “working to clean up this critically important variety.” How’s that for transparency and customer service?

Conversations with plant breeder and vegetable specialist Mark Hutton of Maine Cooperative Extension and staff at Fedco and Johnny’s Selected Seeds, an employee-owned company in Winslow, indicate Sugarsnap’s contamination stems from the fact that in recent years there has been a major “sea change” in the management and production of the seed.

They speculate that the contamination began when the patent on the seed expired in 1994 and the company that had held the patent began phasing out production. And that the new, less-experienced growers who stepped in to fill the void were not spending enough time in the field “roguing for off-types.”

While peas with their “perfect” flowers are self pollinators, over the years off-type (not true-to-type) seeds occur through cross pollination with other varieties or through mutation. They can also occur through human error in planting, harvesting, and processing (cleaning and clerical). (Disclosure: The OG worked for three years with Will Bonsall at the Scatterseed Project in Industry, Maine planting and harvesting 400 varieties of peas a year in the name of maintaining genetic diversity.)

According to Scatterseed’s Bonsall, if “off-types” are not weeded out before the plant goes to seed, it is virtually impossible to distinguish one green, wrinkled pea from another. The multiplier effect can then wreck havoc. As it appears to have done. Seed distributors contacted by the OG shared reports of crops of Sugarsnap interspersed with snow peas and shell peas.

Not to despair. Fedco has made a sea change of its own last year by contracting with a small farmer/seed grower in Idaho, who came highly recommended. And assures us that “although he started with contaminated stock, observed the off-types and rogued heavily in the field.” You can grow 1,000 pounds of pea seeds on one acre. It’s the kind of supplier Fedco wants to grow (see above).

Not only did the farmer rogue heavily to increase purity, he also grew the seeds without the use of synthetic chemicals, making them organically certifiable by the Idaho Department of Agriculture. (See below)

The OG anxiously awaits next year’s crop of seed catalogues.

Sugarsnap and the Plant Variety Protection Act
To more fully understand what happened to Sugarsnap one needs to go back to 1970 with the passage of the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA), the federal legislation that provided a patent-like protection to breeders of new varieties. Applying for protection was and is still voluntary despite the many amendments to the act since then.

Proponents of the PVPA said it would stimulate private investment by enabling the breeder to recover its research costs. (Until 1970, most new varieties were bred by the public land grant colleges.) Critics said it would encourage multinational takeovers of smaller seed companies and reduce the free exchange of germplasm.

Under the PVPA, GallatinValley Seed Company in Idaho had the exclusive right to market Sugarsnap. It had taken the company twelve years to bring the seed to market in 1979. That right expired in 1994. Until then it was illegal for anyone else to market the seed. All of which meant that the companies we gardeners bought our seeds from had no choice but to purchase their seed from Gallatin Valley, the holder of the patent. While farmers and gardeners could grow the seed of the open pollinated variety for themselves, they could not sell it to others.

By the time (1994) the patent on Sugarsnap seed expired, Gallatin Valley had not only been the object of numerous acquisitions and mergers (see article in Daily Bulldog April ’07), it had also released a variety to take the place of Sugarsnap. It called it “Super Sugarsnap.” Not only was it earlier, and shorter of vine, it was somewhat tolerant to powdery mildew, an important feature the original lacked. And it was protected.

One surmises that the company’s contract growers then turned their attention to growing Sugarsnap’s latest offspring, leaving others – now that they were free to – to carry on the original line, for better or worse.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds says Super Sugarsnap isn’t as sweet but carries it; Pine Tree Seeds of New Gloucester says it has a “comparable sweetness” and carries it; Fedco says it is susceptible to pea wilt and doesn’t carry it. (It says nothing about its sweetness) The OG has decided to order it and decide for herself.

Sugarsnap and the National Organic Program
During the years it held the patent on Sugarsnap, Gallatin’s growers never produced organic seed for the company. If pea seed is difficult to raise – which it is – organic pea seed is even more difficult. What with all the weevils and powdery mildews attacking. And more to the point, there wasn’t much widespread commercial demand for organic seed back then so it wasn’t profitable.

All that began to change in 2002 when the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) went into effect requiring organic farmers to plant certified organic seed “whenever it is commercially available.”

Fedco’s Nikos Kavanya says currently there are not many growers of organic Sugarsnap seeds: she guestimates about four; Johnny’s guestimates between six and ten. For good reason. Cooperative Extension’s Hutton points out that the margin on growing peas is not great. So you must grow a lot. But the demand, while growing isn’t there yet to make it profitable.

And it is not only risky but expensive as pea seeds are susceptible to numerous diseases and organic pesticides are expensive and crops fail. Last year a pound of conventional Sugarsnap cost $6.60; this year a pound of organic Sugarsnap is selling for $10.

Fedco is not the only seed company selling organic Sugarsnap seed for the first time this year; Johnny’s Selected Seeds is also. And like Fedco, it has also contracted with a small farmer/seed grower in Idaho who is new to organic growing.

The OG suggests this might be a good time to start saving your seeds and growing your own. For some tips, log onto www.fedcoseeds.com/seeds.

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