A Path Towards
Through Common Sense and
This guidebook owes its existence to the good people
of the Homegrown Goodness Plant Breeding Forum. The forum members collaborated with me in refining years worth of posts, discussions, and plant breeding experiments into a single guide. I am grateful for and acknowledge the tremendous amount of community
involvement, and the generous sharing of ideas and germplasm. Holly Dumont of Foothill Farm, Alan
Bishop of Face Of The Earth Seed, Ken Ottinger of the Long Island Seed Project, and the Hoggy Seed Swap at Ella's Garden Cubit have been particularly prolific in supplying me with seeds. Susan from Idaho has shared a tremendous amount of locally adapted seed with me. Grammy's farm-stand has been a consistent source of genetically-diverse and locally-adapted winter squash. Carol Deppe
's book, “Grow Your Own Vegetable Varieties” was very helpful to me. I am grateful to Mother Earth News
for allowing me to refine my thinking by blogging about landrace gardening
on their web site: http://www.motherearthnews.com/search.aspx?tags=+Lofthouse
It has been a thrilling journey for me: moving from a globalized corporate-based industrial farming model to a model premised on localized survival-of-the-fittest plant populations growing in a culture of individual responsibility and community collaboration.
The premise upon which this guide is based, is that the industrial model of growing food has separated us from traditional food production methods. The separation has been so thorough that the vast majority of home gardeners and small-scale market farmers are oblivious to the benefits that can accrue from disintermediation, and growing locally-adapted genetically-diverse crops. This booklet endeavors to explain an alternate method of food production which is more in the line with the traditional farming practices that have been with us since time immemorial.
The message that I want to convey with this book is a message of hope: That seed saving and plant breeding is an activity that is easily within the grasp of the average gardener. We do not need to depend on highly mechanized mega-corporations in far away places and climates to produce average seeds for average gardens. We can grow excellent seeds customized to thrive in our own gardens, and in our own communities.
What is a Landrace?
A landrace is a crop with considerable genetic diversity, which allows it to produce stable yields under ever changing growing conditions. Landrace crops are adaptively selected by survival-of-the-fittest and farmer preference for reliability in tough conditions. The arrival of new pests
, new diseases, or changes in cultural practices or in the environment may harm some individuals in a landrace population, but with so much diversity many plants are likely to do well under the changing conditions. Landrace crops are frequently grown without costly inputs such as herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers. For small-scale growers, these savings can more than compensate for the lower gross yields that are sometimes attributed to landrace varieties. For gardens with extreme growing conditions, landrace crops may be the only varieties that will produce a harvest.
History & Politics
Johno of the Homegrown Goodness Plant Breeding Forum wrote:
"Landrace: A variety or collection of interbreeding varieties that were developed in a specific location with selection based more or less on survival of the fittest for that location."
For 10,000 years agriculture thrived by growing locally-adapted genetically-diverse seeds. About 60 years ago large corporations started breeding crops so that huge harvests of identically sized and colored produce could be mechanically harvested on the same day. They did this primarily through inbreeding and application of chemicals: discarding most of a species diversity, and then spraying the heck out of it with pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and ripening agents to compensate for the problems caused by the intense inbreeding and shipping needs. It is rare for a home gardener to be able to stick to the strict spray
schedules required to get the best yield out of highly inbred crops. I believe that small market farmers, organic growers, and individual gardeners are generally better off growing variable sized produce that ripens over a few weeks or months, and that doesn't require perfect weeding and carefully timed applications of fertilizers and pesticides.
Genetically-diverse crops are less susceptible to complete crop failure due to pests, disease, or weather. Highly inbred or cloned crops contributed to several crop failures including: The European potato pestilence of 1845-1857, the southern corn rust in Africa in the 1950s, the American corn blight of 1970, and more recently the GMO corn failure in South Africa in 2009. Genetically diverse crops are less susceptible to these sorts of failures. On my farm, for example, I grow about 5000 genetically unique types of sweet corn. A mega-farm might only grow 1 to 3 genotypes.
As oil and the agrochemicals derived from it become more expensive and less readily available or if there is a meltdown of the financial system I expect landrace farming to become the norm.
Euphytica 104: 127–139, 1998. © 1998 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands. Landraces: A review of definitions and classifications A.C. Zeven wrote:"Yield stability of landraces under traditional low input agricultural systems is due to the fact that whatever the varying biotic and abiotic stress for each plant one or more genotypes within the landrace population will yield satisfactorily. Landraces were and still are grown by farmers, market and private gardeners all over the world for this reason."
The greatest benefit that I have noticed on my farm from growing landraces and saving my own seed is that my crops thrive. When I buy a variety from Oregon, or Iowa, or a mega seed company I never know how it will do in my garden: seeds with different genetics can even carry the same label. But if I plant three or four varieties, allow them to promiscuously cross pollinate, save and replant the seeds from the individual plants that grow best for me, I end up after a year or three with plants that do really well, and that are reliable year after year. I specifically mention Oregon because much of the organic vegetable seed sold to home gardeners in the usa is grown in Oregon, with it's damp, overcast weather. When my neighbors plant that seed in their gardens it burns up because it has not been adapted to our super aridity and brilliant sunlit days.
Seed companies test their seeds for average conditions in average gardens. I believe that means that their seeds may not do as well as seeds that are specifically tailored for specific conditions in specific gardens. I believe that if we want the best cultivars for our own gardens, we ought to be growing genetically diverse crops, and saving the seeds from them in our own gardens and communities. My farm has extreme growing conditions due to the high altitude and short season. It is at the ecological limits of many varieties. I could not reliably grow cantaloupe until I started saving my own seeds.
Better Tasting Food
By saving my own seeds year after year based on what tastes best to me, I have developed strains of vegetables that are immensely pleasing to my taste buds. When I import industrialized varieties from far away I am horrified at how bad they taste to me and wonder how people can tolerate such bland tasting food.
By growing my own landrace seeds I eliminate all sorts of stresses. I don't have to worry about paying for seeds. I don't have to keep pedigrees. I don't have to make labels. I don't have to keep seeds pure or isolated. I can save seeds from hybrids. I don't get out of kilter when the seed catalog drops my favorite variety. I don't have to worry about inbreeding depression, because I can add new genetics whenever I want. I don't have to worry about whether or not I will get a harvest.
Modern inbred varieties rely on poisons for crop protection. Landraces provide crop security via genetic variability.
Open Pollinated or Heirloom vs Landrace
Alan Bishop -- Homegrown Goodness wrote:"In essence, my landraces are a type of 'crop insurance' by maintaining diversity I maintain my ability, even in the worst years to produce a crop for home or market use with out relying on the government and their regulations or on a insurance corporation to cover my ass."
Seeds are sometimes described as being 'heirloom' or 'open pollinated'. These varieties can be highly inbred, often having originated from a single seed, and coming to us via 60 years of inbreeding. In the seed industry, the term 'open pollinated' has come to mean that every trick known to man has been applied to a variety to insure that no cross-pollination has taken place: The exact opposite of it's plain-English common-sense meaning. Heirloom and open pollinated varieties may also be somewhat genetically diverse, but they are seldom as diverse as a landrace. I describe my landraces as promiscuously pollinated, to call attention to the fact that the genetics are being creolized. What that means in practice, is that many of the plants in my landraces are naturally occurring hybrids, and thus exhibit the vigor typical of hybrids.
Creating a Landrace
AdaptiveSeeds.com 2012 seed catalog. wrote:"A landrace is a variety that has been purposely maintained as a diverse gene pool to help it be more adaptive to harsh conditions."
The method most commonly used is to plant approximately equal amounts of seed from several different sources and varieties. My fellow plant breeders and I recommend using primarily heirlooms, and open pollinated varieties. Some hybrids are acceptable. It is common to plant together the seeds from 5-50 varieties to make the original mass cross. The seeds produced by this mass cross are a new proto-landrace. With the first harvest of seed, and in the following years the landrace is tailored to each garden and to each region by adaptive survival-of-the-fittest and farmer-directed selection. Landraces that have been selected to thrive in my arid very sunny high-altitude garden grow much better for me than typical off-the-shelf seeds that were produced in humid semi-overcast regions.
When creating a landrace we include seeds that are available from individuals via the free
market (blogs, online
auction sites, open-source seed breeding projects, local
gardeners, seed swaps). Seeds grown by our neighbors and our local farmer's market are included because they are already at least a year ahead in adapting to our local conditions. Due to cytoplasmic male sterility we recommend that hybrids not be used in the creation of landraces for the following crops: carrots, cabbage, broccoli, onions, beets, potatoes. The following species are generally considered safe even if hybridized: spinach, cantaloupe, squash, tomato, beans, peas. We recommend that landrace crops be screened routinely to eliminate male sterility. (I chop out any plant that doesn't have anthers.)
Landrace crops may also be developed gradually. For example by saving the seeds from whatever you happen to be growing this year, planting the collected seeds, and also planting a new variety in the next row over. Then if the new variety grows well saving the seed from that and adding it to your population.
Importing a Landrace
One of the simplest ways to start a new landrace, is to import an existing landrace into your garden. Because of the wide genetic diversity that exists in the typical landrace, it's very possible that some family or other will do well in the new location.
Maintaining An Adaptive Landrace
I consider it my duty as a farmer to maintain healthy and thriving adaptive populations for the crops that are most desired by the people that I feed
. My protocol for doing so is:
Add small amounts of new genetics to the genepool from time to timeInclude a small amount of 2 and 3 year old seed in each year's plantingGrow a sufficiently large population to maintain genetic diversity Be liberal during selection: for example by saving fruits of different sizes, shapes, colors, textures, flavors, and maturity datesSwap seeds with the neighbors to enhance local adaptability
Wild Garden Seed Catalog, 2009 wrote:"Without synthetic inputs, the true strengths or frailties of a cultivar become clear."
I planted around 100 different varieties of cantaloupe over a four year period. They came from my farm, the surrounding farms, and the Internet. I planted the first packet of seed, and then the next packet, etc without keeping track of which varieties went where until many rows were planted. Some varieties were entirely destroyed by soil microorganisms before they germinated. Some varieties were completely eaten by bugs before they were an inch tall. Some varieties grew slowly and didn't produce a fruit
in my garden. Many varieties grew passably and produced fruit by the time the plants were killed by frost. A few individual plants grew vigorously, and produced lots of fruit, and some fruit ripened weeks before first frost. I collect seed from the most productive, the best tasting, and the earliest cantaloupes. I call it "Lofthouse Landrace Muskmelon". The taste, aroma, and texture are immensely pleasing to my primate tastebuds.
I do something similar with tomatoes... The first of season fruits are saved as "Joseph's Earliest Landrace Tomatoes" pretty much regardless of how they taste or what they look like. Then I save a group that are canning/slicing tomatoes that produce abundantly during my main harvest season. I plant maybe 10 to 100 new varieties per year... If any of them produce as good or better than my current landrace then they are added to one of my gene-pools. It is possible that some varieties could end up in several gene pools. For example an early tomato might still be producing heavily when I collect the "Main Season" seed.
Plant Purity and Isolation Distances
When I talk to people about saving seeds, they are often full of fear. What if they don't get isolation distances right? What if the variety gets polluted? How about inbreeding depression? What if their seed is a hybrid or gets crossed? My response is invariably the same: None of those things matter. The only knowledge that is necessary regarding seed saving is that plants produce seeds, and those seeds can be harvested and replanted. The vegetable species that we are currently eating were created for us by illiterate farmers who's only understanding of genetics was that children tend to resemble their parents and grandparents.
One of the joys of growing landrace populations is that it greatly simplifies seed saving due to reducing or eliminating worry about plant purity and isolation distances. It seems to me that worrying about purity is one of the biggest impediments to seed saving by small-scale gardeners and farmers. If I am focused on keeping varieties pure, then I am preventing them from rearranging their genetics. If they can't rearrange their genetics, then they can't adapt to my garden. So I don’t worry much about isolation distances or keeping cultivars pure, because I think
my plants are stronger when cultivars cross pollinate each other. If a Hubbard squash and a banana squash get cross pollinated, all of the offspring are still squash. They grow like squash, they look like squash, they eat like squash. I keep hot peppers separate from sweet peppers, and sweet corn separate from popcorn, but I really don't care what a sweet pepper looks like as long as it is a sweet pepper.
Likewise, inbreeding depression is only a problem if I am growing a cultivar in strict isolation. If I am constantly adding new genes to a population, then it doesn't much matter how many plants I save seeds from.
I welcome collaboration with other growers: Let's swap seeds with each other. One of the strengths of growing landrace plants, is that landraces are all about location, location, location. The plants that we adapt to growing in Cache Valley become ever more acclimated to the valley, and thrive better with each passing decade.
Landrace Agriculture as an Expression of Pluralistic Values, Jake Wartell wrote:... "farmers who want to honor their plurality of values, minimize risk, and maximally fulfill their needs will plant a diversity of landrace populations that are internally diverse."