Episode one of the second season of Free the Seed! the Open Source Seed Initiative podcast
This podcast is for anyone interested in the plants we eat – farmers, gardeners and food curious folks – who want to dig deeper into where their food comes from. It’s about how new crop varieties make it into your seed catalogues and onto your tables. In each episode, we hear the story of a variety that has been pledged as open-source from the plant breeder that developed it.
In this episode, host Rachel Hultengren spoke with Andrew Still of Adaptive Seeds and the Seed Ambassadors Project about his work in seed-saving, open-pollinated variety maintenance and the process of what he refers to as ‘dehybridization’. Their conversation focuses on ‘Gypsy Queens’, a variety of pepper that Andrew developed and pledged to be open-source.
Find Gypsy Queens seed at the Adaptive Seeds website.
Learn more about the:
Seed Ambassadors Project: www.seedambassadors.org/.
Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC): http://eorganic.info/novic/
Culinary Breeding Network: https://www.culinarybreedingnetwork.com/
Free the Seed! Listener Survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/TY73HXS
Hybrid: a variety produced by the intentional crossing two distinct, stable parental lines or varieties. Commercially available hybrid varieties are generally highly uniform (individuals in the population will all have the same characteristics) because the individuals are all highly genetically similar. (Hybrid varieties are also often referred to as F1-hybrids.)
F1: the first-generation progeny (offspring) of a parental cross. The ‘F’ stands for ‘filial’.
F2: the second generation progeny of a parental cross. Produced by saving self-pollinated seed from F1 plants.
F3: the third generation progeny of a parental cross. Produced by saving self-pollinated seed from F2 plants.
Open-pollinated variety: a population wherein the seed from individuals that have been crossed with other individuals of the same population will produce progeny that are characteristically similar to those parents and the population in general.
Off-type: an individual plant whose characteristics do not fit the variety description.
Rogue: remove from the field individual plants are diseased, or that either don’t fit with the variety description (if the individual is a member of a well-defined variety) or the project goals (if part of a plant breeding project) in order to keep them from contributing genetic material to the next generation (i.e. so that seeds aren’t saved off them).
Free the Seed! Transcript for S2E1: Gypsy Queens
Rachel Hultengren: Welcome to episode one of the second season of Free the Seed!, the Open Source Seed Initiative podcast that tells the stories of new crop varieties and the plant breeders that develop them. I’m your host, Rachel Hultengren. If you’re new to the podcast, consider checking out previous episodes from our first season. If you’d like to learn more about the Open Source Seed Initiative’s history and mission, I talk with Dr. Irwin Goldman and Dr. Claire Luby in episode 2 about intellectual property rights in crops.
In this episode, I spoke with Andrew Still of Adaptive Seeds and the Seed Ambassadors Project about his work in seed-saving, open-pollinated variety maintenance and the process of what he refers to as ‘dehybridization’. Our conversation focuses on ‘Gypsy Queens’, a variety of pepper that Andrew developed and pledged to be open-source.
Early in the interview, Andrew mentions the Culinary Breeding Network and NOVIC, the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative. We’ll have links to both their websites in our show-notes.
Rachel: Hi Andrew – welcome to the show!
Andrew Still: It’s good to be here!
Rachel: Thanks so much for taking the time. I’m excited to get to talk about ‘Gypsy Queens’. We haven’t highlighted a pepper yet, so it’ll be great to hear about pepper breeding generally, and the specifics of this variety and your process.
Maybe we could start with you describing ‘Gypsy Queens’ for us – what does this pepper look like if you had it on a plate in front of you?
Andrew: It’s kind of a Hungarian type, or eastern European sweet pepper. It’s a medium sized bell in a way, but it also has an elongated shape, so it’s kind of intermediate between a bell pepper and an Italian ‘Corno di Toro’ type pepper. It was kind of a cool process of pulling it out of a famous variety, I guess you could say, called ‘Gypsy’, which was a sweet pepper hybrid from Petoseed that a lot of farmers in the Pacific Northwest found quite helpful and really, really good to grow in our not-so-hot climate. It always performed well, and one of the main features of it is that it has a nice yellow-ish light green color when it’s underripe, and it starts to ripen a little bit orangey really quick, and so it’s one of those – it’s an interesting color and flavor in the early season, when there are only green bell peppers about or green peppers to harvest, so it kind of adds to that diversity of early season availability.
Rachel: Mmhmm. And I’d like to ask you to get into the process of dehybridizing ‘Gypsy’ in a minute, but maybe we could talk about how you decided to take on the project of doing this work and developing ‘Gypsy Queens’. Did it come out of conversations that you had with farmers around you?
Andrew: We’ve always kind of had the plan of dehybridizing it because we like to do that with cool hybrids that we like. But the inspiration really came from some work with the Culinary Breeding Network and NOVIC (the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative). They had been trialing sweet peppers and evaluating flavor and such, and one of their concerns was that ‘Gypsy’ hybrid was going to be dropped commercially, so they were trialing varieties that were similar, or could be good in other ways as a replacement. And it was kind of my, like, “Well, if you like ‘Gypsy’, why don’t I just grow it out and see what happens?” It’s kind of a funny thing where I hadn’t actually grown it for quite a few years, but a friend of ours on the coast – a farmer, Carolina Liddy – and she was growing it, and I was like, “Can I have some of your fruits?” And I just grabbed some seeds from her and grew it out from there and have been growing it out for probably 5 or 6 years, I think, and just selecting it out for various traits. But yeah, it’s always collaborative and influenced from different people, and we like to take the things that we’re excited about and then double down on things that other people are excited about too, because we’re all so excited about so many particular, peculiar things that are weird. So it’s nice to have someone like the Culinary Breeding Network or NOVIC to push us in a more appropriate direction.
Rachel: So it sounds like the motivation was to create a potential replacement for if ‘Gypsy’ was no longer carried by the seed company that was carrying it.
Andrew: Yeah, the backstory of ‘Gypsy’ is that it was bred by Petoseed, I think in the 90’s. Petoseed was purchased by Seminis, and then Seminis was purchased by Monsanto. And a lot of organic farmers were very uncomfortable with the fact that Seminis was owned by Monsanto and was supplying a lot of their seed.
And also when these seed mergers happen, they tend to drop varieties that are only regionally popular, or like more specialty varieties like ‘Gypsy’ was very likely going to be dropped, and there was a period of time where the seed was not easily available. I think it’s still available from a couple places, but for various reasons people wanted to get away from it but still wanted it, so that was really the main reason we wanted to dehybridize it.
Rachel: And were there any intellectual property rights associated with ‘Gypsy’ when you started?
Andrew: Not that I know of. And I believe that there isn’t… partly because it’s a hybrid and was developed quite a while ago. And hybrids tend to not be patented or have much intellectual property about them.
Rachel: Why wouldn’t a hybrid have a patent or other intellectual property rights associated with it?
Andrew: Well, at the time, there wasn’t as much need for patents and intellectual property because the seed company has the parent lines that make the hybrid, and those are pretty proprietary and secret. So they’re the only ones that know how to make the hybrid, therefore they have a de facto kind of patent on it. They’ve doubled down on control and protections recently, but back then it was common not to patent or have intellectual property about hybrids. Back then, it was more of patenting techniques for making hybrids, and I think that the patenting system has gotten out of hand recently as sort of a recent development.
Rachel: Can you define for us what ‘dehybridization’ means?
Andrew: Dehybridization is… pretty much it’s just taking a hybrid – F1 seed that’s a commercially available variety – and planting it out and saving seed on it, and trying to select for something that resembled the original variety. As opposed to making a cross and trying to create something completely new, I would usually say that dehybridization is to take a hybrid that you like and make it open-pollinated, so you can then save seed on it and then that seed that you save isn’t mixed up and variable, it’s more predictable like a traditional OP or heirloom variety. So it’s kind of untangling the mess of hybridization and making it more of an open pollinated line.
Rachel: And are there reasons why farmers might prefer to grow a hybrid of a given crop?
Andrew: Well, certain types of plants and species tend to have more or less benefit for being a hybrid. Something like a cabbage or a broccoli, they tend to benefit a lot from hybridization. They have – they gain a little bit of vigor, and have uniformity at the same time, which is not very common for outbreeding crops. Typically you can get one or the other – uniformity or vigor.
And so hybridization is really helpful for that; you want to be able to harvest every single head of cabbage on the same day with your giant field crew in the central valley of California. But something like a pepper or a tomato – there’s not as many big reasons for hybridization, other than for the proprietary control over the variety. Sometimes hybridization can be helpful for making certain traits more available or predictable. You can achieve a disease resistance really quickly with hybridization, as opposed to having to go through a decade of backcrossing or whatever for making it open-pollinated, it can be more challenging. But I think that for self-pollinating crops, the main reason for hybridization is for the proprietary control. And also the hype around hybrids. A lot of farmers have been marketed to that hybrids are better, because the seed companies and plant breeding companies can make more money off of the hybrids because they’re a monopoly. But it’s not always true. Sometimes open-pollinated varieties can be just as good as hybrids.
Rachel: So there might be benefits to a given variety being a hybrid, but then there are also the tradeoffs of it being potentially more vulnerable to loss when a seed company drops it.
Andrew: Yeah, and seed companies drop stuff all the time for various reasons. And not because they’re bad varieties, necessarily, just because they had particular reasons to do it.
Rachel: Let’s talk about the process you went through in this dehybridization of ‘Gypsy’. You said you started by taking some fruit from a friend’s farm. What did you do next?
Andrew: The first year, I just planted out that F2 seed, and planted out probably 30 or 40 plants just to see what it would look like, and most of those plants were fairly similar. There wasn’t much diversity or segregation in the F2, which was kind of a shock to me.
Rachel: You would have expected it to be more diverse?
Andrew: I was, but I’ve recently kind of seen that saving seed of off F2’s, sometimes you don’t get tons of variety come out of them. I’m not sure exactly why. But I’m guessing for ‘Gypsy’, it was because the two parents were fairly similar to begin with.
Rachel: So there wasn’t a lot of genetic diversity in the parents that created the hybrid?
Andrew: Yeah, and they might have even been sibling inbred lines, and might not had a lot of much variation between them at all. I did see a little bit of variation, but it wasn’t that significant. Mostly what I did was, I saved seed off of a few of those plants that seemed to be the most healthy and vigorous. Because there wasn’t too much bad in that first population, I did that positive selection on a few plants just to go for vigor and production and health. And then I planted out the F3 the following year.
Rachel: How often did you go into the field to look at that plot of plants and evaluate what you were looking for?
Andrew: It was at a time when we were growing market vegetables for our CSA and we would take vegetables to town. So our seed company was pretty small at the time and we had to make a living as market farmers. I would probably go there every couple weeks and look at stuff, and we would harvest fruit off of some of the plants. I guess the selection process really did start in the greenhouse, when we planted out the plants, and we tried to make sure that no low-vigor seed was up-potted into pots for transplant. And if there were any particular transplants that were weak or sick, we definitely did not plant those out. So just the typical every chance you get to look at it, you give a look. But the first year of doing it, there wasn’t a ton to do. It was just like, “Oh wow, this is a slightly variable version of ‘Gypsy’. This is kind of cool.” It was pretty easy.
Rachel: And when you were out in the field, how did you mark the plants that you thought looked the best or had the most fruit or the best vigor?
Andrew: Well, I guess the first thing we would do is just put a flag on the plants that we wanted for stock seed, for replanting. And when we’d flag a plant, that plant typically wasn’t harvested for market, so it would ripen up a good amount of seed, and not have the… someone else on the farm come and pick all the fruit, which is always the tension when you’re growing vegetables on a farm for sale and doing plant breeding or seed saving. It’s been a little bit of a challenge to organize that over the years. But we pretty much just flagged what we wanted and didn’t, weren’t really concerned with making sure it self-pollinated or crossed. Because we were hustling on being a vegetable farm, we didn’t have tons of time to emasculate flowers or self-pollinate things or whatnot. I guess we could have caged it – that would have been helpful. But also, maybe not.
Rachel: So if you had caged it, then insects couldn’t have come visit the flowers of a specific plant and then visited the flowers of another plant and transferred pollen between those plants. How often do pepper plants outcross? Or how often do insects come and move pollen around in the field?
Andrew: Well, peppers are kind of the intermediate between self-pollinating and outcrossing, and we’ve seen anywhere from 20% to 50% crossing, but it depends on the conditions and the particular fruit. We usually expect there to be up to 30% between plants nearby, and any plants that are within a couple hundred feet will probably be a little bit crossing. But also knowing that a majority of the seed in the fruit has been self-pollinated is an interesting fact to think about when observing the next generation.
Rachel: And if you see more variation, or plants that are much more different from their neighbors in the next generation, do you assume those are outcrosses, and pull those out?
Andrew: Sometimes. It depends on the project. But for ‘Gypsy Queens’, what I ended up doing, the third generation I noticed that they were starting to be a little bit more unique from each other. And some of the fruits were a little bit longer, and some of them were a little bit smaller. And some plants were more pointy, and others were more blocky on the end, more of a blunt end. So I decided that I would remove all of the little fruits, remove all of the really long, giant fruit, and just go for the few that were similar to the original ‘Gypsy’, kind of a medium size. And I selected a couple plants that were pointy predominantly, and selected a couple plants that were blocky. And I put them in two different packets and replanted them the following season as two different lines.
Rachel: Does ‘Gypsy’ have more pointed or more blocky fruit?
Andrew: That might be the main difference between the hybrid and the ‘Gypsy Queens’ now, because ‘Gypsy’ was a little bit pointy and a little bit blocky, but most of the fruit weren’t particularly pointy or blocky. So ‘Gypsy Queens’, now, the reason I call it ‘Gypsy Queens’, plural, is because I let some of the pointy plants and some of the blocky plants in the population, and so it’s still slightly variable and I like it that way.
Rachel: What are some other differences between ‘Gypsy Queens’ and the hybrid at this point?
Andrew: At this point… the hybrid had a little bit more of a lime green, yellow wax color, and ‘Gypsy Queens’ is not as green when the fruit is underripe. It’s more of a classic yellowy wax with a faint lime green tone to it. Not as yellow waxy as some of the Hungarian sweet peppers that we grow, but we selected inadvertently for the more bright yellowy types than the slightly lime green ones.
Rachel: Have you done much taste-testing to compare the two?
Andrew: Yeah, we tasted them; there’s not too much difference. It seemed like when we’ve done taste-tests and selections for flavor, it’s interesting to us that the fruit color tends to carry a little bit more of the flavor than between different plants of the same color. We haven’t noticed hardly any flavor difference between any of the plants we’ve been growing for ‘Gypsy Queens’. But I imagine there might be a slight difference between the hybrid and what ‘Gypsy Queens’ is now, just because the hybrid has more of that lime greeniness when it was underripe, but not too drastic. I’m always looking for good flavor differentiation to select from, and ‘Gypsy Queens’ was pretty stable for flavor.
Rachel: Would you taste the fruit when you were out in the field picking fruit from the plants, or would you bring them in and have a more structured sort of taste-testing process?
Andrew: Well, for ‘Gypsy Queens’ it was more of – just take a bite out of a fruit from each plant and mostly just trying to make sure it didn’t have any off-flavors or taste bad, because it was pretty good the way it was. We do a lot of seed-saving classes, and (in) part of the seed saving classes we teach selection and stewardship, and we tell people, “Don’t save seeds from a hybrid unless you want a seed saving project or a plant breeding project.” But sometimes that can be really fun, and be really easy, like ‘Gypsy Queens’. Whereas something like… we’ve tried to dehybridize ‘Sungold’ tomato; that might be a lifelong process, to find something stable and predictable.
Rachel: And that has to do with the – like we talked about earlier – the genetic diversity between the parents that created the hybrid in the first place?
Andrew: Yeah, that’s what I’m assuming, for sure.
Rachel: So if somebody were to want to save seeds from a hybrid and potentially take on a seed saving and plant breeding project, is there any way they would know before they got started whether their project was going to end up more like ‘Gypsy Queens’ or more like the ‘Sungold’ project that you described?
Andrew: There’s not really a way to know, unless you hear from someone else that attempted it, or you just have to plant it out and see. I’m always surprised, actually, whenever we do any of that, because it’s different every time.
Rachel: So folks might not know exactly how much of an adventure they’re signing up for.
Andrew: Yeah, and that’s part of the fun of it. (Laughs)
Rachel: So the catalogue description notes that you’ve been working on this project for about four generations, and I’m curious when you decided that the seed was ready to sell, that you were in a place where the variety was stable enough that you wanted to share it with farmers.
Andrew: Well, you kind of make that decision per variety, but with ‘Gypsy Queens’ it was quite useful and quite interesting just right after the third generation, so we just started selling the seed, but also noting that there was some variation in the population in the variety description. I think that if just you make sure to tell people that it’s not a purebred, pedigree or stable variety, that most people are pretty excited about that.
And with something like, the variation that it had was not a problem even for farmers to plant, because you get good peppers from every plant, and there’s only a slight bit of difference between plants. Some things, depending on your goals, like, you don’t want any hot pepper genes in your sweet peppers, for example. That would be bad diversity for most people, but a little bit of variation, I think, can be beneficial and interesting.
Rachel: Do you think that in the future you’ll narrow the variety down to a more consistent fruit shape, whether that be pointy or blocky, or do you think you’ll keep it with that diversity in it?
Andrew: I haven’t decided yet. That’s a good question, because I’ve been kind of mulling it about. What we’ve been doing is continuing the process of planting what I call ‘progeny blocks’, where we save seed off of some of the best blocky fruits and some of the best pointy fruits, and plant the two types in different blocks, maybe ten feet apart from each other. And so there’s gonna be a little bit of crossing between the two groups, but mostly they’re going to be crossing within the blocky group and also crossing within the pointy group. So every year we’ve been growing it out, we’ve been selecting more uniformly blocky fruit in one group and more uniformly pointy fruit, but I’ve been more and more attracted to the pointier fruit than the blockier fruit. But I’ve definitely heard from a few people that they like the blockier fruit. But I’m not really sure why, so maybe I’ll just leave them together. But my inclination would be to just select it out for a uniformly pointy variety. I haven’t decided yet.
Rachel: You said that you’d gotten feedback from some people about liking the blockier end type; what other sort of feedback have you gotten from farmers that have grown ‘Gypsy Queens’?
Andrew: Some farmers are really excited that there’s the open- pollinated version, and they’ve been pretty happy with it. I haven’t received really any complaints about it. My general take-away from talking to farmers and having grown it ourselves for market is that ‘Gypsy’ in general is not the most tasty pepper, it’s not the most beautiful pepper, but it’s by far the least frustrating sweet pepper. It doesn’t get much blossom end rot, it ripens up fairly easily, it doesn’t set fruit in the middle of the plant and break the plant in half when the fruits get big. Bell peppers and sweet peppers are often just frustrating to grow as a farmer, and ‘Gypsy Queens’ is so much easier and pleasant and just does its job. And that fact alone makes it really a valuable variety.
Rachel: Where are the field where you’re doing this work?
Andrew: We have our home farm where we live and grow most of our seeds for Adaptive Seeds. It’s outside of Sweet Home, Oregon, kind of the southern-eastern Willamette Valley. That’s where most of the work has been done for ‘Gypsy Queens’.
Rachel: Can you describe the climate there?
Andrew: The Willamette valley is kind of an ideal place for growing seed. We have a nice warm summer, not too hot. It usually stays in the 80’s during the summer, it’s nice and dry all summer – a maritime, kind of Mediterranean climate where it’s dry and warm in the summer, but also rainy and cool during the winter. So a lot of people grow seed here for biennials, like cabbage and onions, and chicories and beets and stuff like that, that like to go over through the winter and wants cold but not too cold and then makes seed in the dry summer for convenient dry harvests. A lot of crops that grow well in the Midwest don’t produce very good seed there because they have kind of the opposite climate. They have a dry, cold winter and a humid, wet summer – a hot summer – and when you’re maturing dry seed, it’s not very convenient to have it be thunderstorming and pouring rain when you’re trying to harvest your seed. So the Willamette Valley and just the west coast in general has been quite an important place to grow those kinds of seeds.
Rachel: Peppers that do well in the Willamette Valley, not just for seed but for fruit production – would they do well in other parts of the country?
Andrew: Yeah, I think so – can’t ever be completely sure because we’re so particularly dry and moderately warm here, that if you were to plant our peppers in, let’s say, the Southeast of the United States, you might have different disease pressures and issues there that we don’t necessarily have here to select for. We’ve heard good feedback that our peppers grow well most places, but definitely no guarantees. When something has been bred and selected in a particular climate, it tends to be adapted to those conditions.
Rachel: So would you say that ‘Gypsy Queens’, given the feedback you’ve heard from farmers and your experience growing it, is a good replacement for the hybrid it’s intending to replace?
Andrew: I think so. Partly because it’s so similar to the original, and it just grows well and easy. There’s always room for other people to do it too and see if they get something quite different. And you never know for sure if it’s going to turn out quite different or not. There’s always that possibility. So I always encourage folks to dehybridize it in their climate, too, just to have more diversity available, and more interesting stuff to choose from.
Rachel: If somebody were to grow ‘Gypsy’ in Florida, they could go through this process of creating an open-pollinated variety from ‘Gypsy’, and they might end up with something that’s a little bit different from ‘Gypsy Queens’?
Andrew: Yeah. Especially when it comes to particular genes that might be important for disease resistance, or a leaf architecture that sheds water in humid climates, or who knows – it’s kind of hard to predict – but there’s a lot of things that I didn’t select for that maybe I lost. Maybe I accidentally or inadvertently removed them from the population, where somewhere else that trait or gene might have been really helpful for them. It’s hard to know unless we all become plant breeders in our own ways and in our own climates.
Rachel: So this variety you’ve pledged to be open-source, with the Open Source Seed Initiative, and you’ve been involved with OSSI for a while. Maybe you can talk about why it was important to you pledge ‘Gypsy Queens’ as open-source?
Andrew: Well, I was drawn to the Open Source Seed Initiative because I’ve always been bothered by the whole patent system and plant variety protection and copyright, and just that whole intellectual-property milieu, I’ve been always a critic of and always uncomfortable with, partly because I see it as a theft from the commons that we’ve communally inherited. I’ve always thought that I’ve benefited a lot in the past from people sharing seeds with me and people being open and non-proprietary with stuff, that I feel an obligation in a way to continue passing that on myself. Because it’s almost a Golden Rule of sorts – I really want to help people the way that they’ve helped me, and maybe that will inspire other people to also be sharing and generous in the future. I see open-source seed as a way to transform the culture plant breeding and seed in the world, and as a way to celebrate the abundance and our inheritance from the past in a way that makes it open and free for other people to use. It just seems like a no-brainer, in a sense, to pledge things open-source and kind of impose that giving. (Laughs) It’s kind of a funny way to think about it.
Rachel: You talk about other people having shared seeds with you – can you tell us about the Seed Ambassadors Project that you’re a part of?
Andrew: Yeah, when we were farm hands, working on other people’s farms when we first got into organic farming, we always had seed saving projects on the side, and always had our own little gardens at different farms that generously shared space for us to play with seeds on the weekends. And after working for years as farm laborers and interns and such, we took our savings and went travelling in the winter time. And one of our first places we went travelling was Europe – Northern and Central Europe, where we decided to, instead of just be tourists during our seasonal unemployment, that we would also go share seeds and go to seed swaps and meet seed savers and learn from people and share our knowledge along the way. And we, actually, in 2006/2007, travelled through 7 or 8 different countries and collected seeds and met with dozens of seed companies and seed saver groups. We ended up collecting over 800 varieties of seeds that first trip and imported them successfully into the United States and started trialing seeds that next year during the summer. And that Seed Ambassadors Project led to us starting a seed company, in the end, because we ended up with so much seed that we wanted to get around and share with other people – cool stuff that we’d found that wasn’t available in other places – that we seemed almost compelled to start a seed company.
Having given seeds to people over the years and received seeds in return… it feels so good and seems so healthy for the food system. One of the things that always shocked us is every country we’ve been to – we’ve probably been to a dozen countries all over the world over the years – everywhere we’ve been, there’s this kind of universal language of seed saving and seed gifting and sharing. We’d go to places and open a bag of seeds and be like, “Here! Try some of these cool varieties that we brought to share with you!” And people would be like, “I didn’t know this was a seed swap!” And they would drop everything, and go run home and get their seeds and bring seeds back and have impromptu seed swaps. And it’s really kind of great to know that most of humanity is still connected in that way, and we seems to speak a similar language when it comes to plants and sharing.
Rachel: So sharing seed has been pretty fundamental to your work for a long time.
Andrew: Yeah, definitely. And I want to encourage it more and more, because it’s so beautiful and fun. And also I think it’s necessary to create a more resilient food system in the end. The more and more we rely on an industrial, vertically-integrated and centralized food system, the more precarious society becomes. And I think that we need to diversify it, and have more diversity of farms and diversity of seeds, and that’s partly why we, Adaptive Seeds, we like to say we’re trying to bring biodiversity back. That’s not just like an heirloom gardener kind of way, which is wonderful by itself, but bring biodiversity back into the food that people eat, and food that people sell, and really make the whole food system in general more resilient. That’s kind of why we do what we do, in the end, I think.
Rachel: On that note, would you have any advice for someone who’s thinking about getting into seed saving or plant breeding?
Andrew: Advice? Well… Some advice that I was given was just “Start saving seed. Start making crosses. See if you like it and see where it takes you.” These things tend to be addictive (laughs) and you tend to want to do more of it the next year. And pretty soon you have hundreds of varieties and you’re starting your own seed company, which I think is beautiful and wonderful.
Rachel: How many different varieties have you developed?
Andrew: We’ve developed, I don’t know, maybe a dozen? It’s kind of hard to say because a lot of the varieties that we carry are not necessarily pedigrees in the sense that we’ve bred them ourselves in a classical sense. But we tend to sell a lot of – and grow out a lot of – populations that are variable, and so we do a lot of stewarding of diverse populations. They’re not particularly varieties that we’re finished developing, but every year when we plant out a new seed crop of it, we select it for quality, and rogue out off-types. And we have quite a few varieties like that that I’m really proud of and also excited about for the future, because every time we grow them it’s a new experience and it’s fun and we get to see unique stuff coming out of them.
Rachel: That’s a really interesting point that you make – that even in just stewarding and maintaining open-pollinated varieties, populations – that there is some amount of influence that a seed saver has there. That there is selection that you’re doing, and evaluation, and in selecting the plants that you want to take forward because they represent the variety that you have in mind, or rogueing out the ones that don’t fit with what you imagine that variety to be ideally, you’re having the sort of influence that a plant breeder has, even if you didn’t make a cross and start selecting with a plant breeding project in mind.
Andrew: Yeah, and it’s the kind of plant breeding that all of our ancestors participated in throughout thousands of years of plant breeding, where you just select what you like, and replant the things that were best or worked for you. And that’s really just stewardship of a variety, in the end. I like to think of plant breeding and seed stewardship as a continuum. And there’s no real difference between the ends of that continuum because plant breeding is stewardship and stewardship is kind of plant breeding; it’s just a different level of focus, I guess. That’s why we’ve really really loved working with open-pollinated plants, is because it’s never ending. You’re always improving things and always selecting for what you like, and it’s kind of artistic and technical all at the same time.
Rachel: Before we wrap up our conversation, is there anything else you’d like to tell listeners about the Gypsy Queens project?
Andrew: I think that Gypsy Queens is kind of an example of how easy plant breeding can be. And coming from being seed farmers primarily and plant breeders on the side, it’s an example of how other farmers could possibly be plant breeders and do these projects and have it not take over their whole lives and distract them from what’s more important in the moment of being a farmer – growing and selling food. But I think that it fit really well within our system because we could be plant breeders and farmers at the same time, and we could sell the seed at the same time as we were growing it out and improving it over time. It’s hard for us to pay for plant breeding, as a small seed company and seed farm. So selling the variety while it’s being developed is a really good way to offset some of the costs and make it a viable product in the meantime, while it’s being developed. And I think that people tend to think of plant breeding as this, like, scientist in a lab coat doing all this work for a decade and then releasing this perfect finished thing. And that’s, I think, a little bit of an old-fashioned… or, a way of looking at plant breeding that is particular to an economic system that can afford to breed that way. And I feel that farmer-plant breeders and farmer-seed stewards don’t necessarily have that opportunity, or even necessarily a need, to do it that way. And also, depending on your techniques and plant breeding style, you tend to end up with different plants in the end, that you breed. And the plants that are bred in that hyper-proprietary kind of a laboratory model of, almost like releasing a pharmaceutical drug at the end of a couple of years of testing – that’s a different kind of plant. It’s going to be a different archetype, in a way, than what a farmer-seed steward might release. And I really love that – the beauty that can be created from different methods, and how plants tend to resemble their stewards over the years, and how the values that different plant breeders have tend to determine the kind of plant that results from their breeding style. It’s just really exciting and wonderful. And I just want more people to dabble and play and get super obsessed and breed stuff in labs and do crazy things out in the field, and the more the better, really. I think that Gypsy Queens symbolizes a little bit of that in how there’s so many ways to do things.
Rachel: I’m really glad that you said that.
Rachel: Yeah, it’s evident that you’re really passionate about plant breeding and biodiversity, and I feel like that was a really great call to arms. Or call-to-hoes, I guess. Call-to-field-tools.
Andrew, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. It’s been really great to hear about this project, and about all the plant breeding and seed stewardship work you’ve been doing at Adaptive Seeds. I really appreciate it.
Andrew: Thanks for having me. And it’s really nice to hear so many other stories of interesting plant breeders, and the crops that they’re breeding as well. It’s always inspirational for me to listen, so thanks for having me.
Rachel: We’ve been speaking today with Andrew Still about ‘Gypsy Queens’. To find seed of Gypsy Queens or any of the other varieties that Adaptive Seeds maintains, please visit their website at www.adaptiveseeds.com/. You can learn more about the Seed Ambassadors Project at www.seedambassadors.org/.
Be sure to check out our show-notes on the Open Source Seed Initiative’s website at http://www.osseeds.org for links and photos of Gypsy Queens. You can also download the full transcript of each episode there. We’ve also added a glossary to the show-notes, giving definitions of plant breeding terms that come up in this episode.
I want to say a very special thanks to Andrew, not only for being my guest on this episode, but for his help with some of the technical aspects of putting this podcast out in the world.
Lastly, we have a brief survey that we’re asking listeners to fill out to let us know what you think of the show. We’d be happy to hear any and all thoughts. You can find a link to the survey on the OSSI website and on their Facebook page.
Thanks for joining us! Until next time, I’m your host, Rachel Hultengren and this has been Free the Seed!