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Organic Seed Alliance: Breaking Ground and Tradition

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Virginia Woodfork with Stephanie South

They call those born between the late 1970s and early 2000s a great many things—Generation Y, Echo Boomers, the Peter Pan Generation, and Millennials—but the one thing they do not call this demographic is farmers. However, this could be changing in the coming years.

In 2007, the Census of Agriculture said that the average age of farmers is nearing 60, but according to a recent article in the New York Times, there is an emerging group of people in their 20s and 30s who are beginning to choose farming as a career.  And although this is a much-welcomed trend, these young farmers face their own set of difficulties.

Besides the fact that many of them lack access to land or money to buy equipment, the knowledge gap faced by younger farmers is considerable. As Isolde Raftery wrote in The New York Times:

“They have been lauded—and even consulted—by older farmers nearby for figuring out how to grow beans in a valley dominated by grass seed farmers. But finding mentors has been difficult. There is a knowledge gap that has been referred to as “the lost generation”—people their parents’ age may farm but do not know how to grow food. The grandparent generation is no longer around to teach them.”

While this all may be true, there is an advantage to this apparent loss, and El Pomar Foundation’s Southeast Regional Council and an organization called the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) recognize this.

In 2008, the Southeast Council partnered with OSA on a three-year project designed to revitalize the family farm industry in the southeast by utilizing the resources at hand—the area’s existing resources and one of its very own organizations.

The Southeast is an ideal setting for organic farming and seed cultivation—there is already a strong family farming infrastructure and an environment with ready resources. The Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), an organization serving the region, has a mission to support the development and stewardship of organic agricultural seed.

Dan Hobbs, director of the Colorado branch of Organic Seed Alliance, has been in the agricultural and rural development industry for almost 20 years. He is dedicated to restoring and protecting the genetic makeup of seeds while teaching important production skills and techniques to farmers. Hobbs said that seed production is a lost art among farmers. At one point, most farmers grew their own seeds, but as science and industry progressed, more and more farmers found it easier to buy.

“The last generation of farmers all brought seeds from magazines or stores,” said Hobbs. “They had no idea you could grow your own seeds.”

Educating farmers about organic seed production gives OSA the opportunity to reconnect farmers with the basic farming fundamentals.  Farmers learn the importance of preserving seeds and are able to compete in an emerging market where demand is high. Hobbs believes “people want to know where their food is coming from and what’s in it.” Through organic seed production farmers can provide people with pure, organic foods.

In 2008, the Southeast Regional Council made the decision to fund OSA. The Council offered $30,000 toward a project with three components— group education, advising, and research programs with organic farmers and other seed professionals. Educational workshops provided farmers with a basic understanding of seeds and the importance of seed production. They learned about the genetic makeup of seeds and to conserve and improve seed systems. Collaborative research brought together experts and local farmers to develop seed varieties that are adapted to local ecosystems and ecological bioregions. During a field day, farmers actually planted seeds and studied the results to determine which seeds taste better, look bigger, and thrive in the climate.

With greater education and more workshops for farmers, the region could see the emergence of these new farmers and the market they help create for high quality food.

The Southeast Council played to the strengths of the region by supporting a program that diversified opportunities in an established economic industry, and council members continue to support this program because it gives farmers another option in the evolving agriculture business. Young farmers who learn to grow things like organic seed have an edge on a growing market that older farmers rarely know or are fairly indifferent to. Additionally, the willingness of farmers to learn and adopt new farming skills, as well as the Council’s continued support over the last three years, gives OSA validity in the community and the tools to change farming fundamentals in the Southeast Region.