As a fire swept through the offices of Abundant Life Seed Foundation when Aldrich’s Market burned in August 2003, many gardeners, farmers and seed savers around the country felt the loss of the nonprofit’s collection of rare, endangered and heirloom seeds.
In the weeks that followed the fire, a new organization, Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), arose with a new strategy in seed stewardship.
OSA decided not to rebuild the seed collection but rather to create healthy seed systems, much as animal biologists work to enhance the health of existing ecosystems rather than storing biological diversity in zoos. This strategy goes beyond conservation to increase the overall genetic diversity of agricultural crops.
The development of localized seed systems is a fundamental element in nurturing the long-term health of local food systems, said Matthew Dillon, who had been the Abundant Life Seed Foundation executive director. Local seed systems provide varieties that are suited to local needs and place ownership of seed production and distribution squarely in the hands of regional rural communities as opposed to the giant gene companies – seed-chemical-pharmaceutical behemoths that control seed in conventional agriculture.
Dillon said that OSA recognizes that seed skills – breeding, seed saving, commercial production – are in fact more endangered than the seed varieties themselves, and so the alliance developed educational workshops, field days, conferences and publications that provided farmers with these skills.
OSA has had a fantastic start-up period over the last four years, with more than 250 farmers in North America in attendance at OSA events, more than 1,400 seed publications distributed, and two new regional seed cooperatives launched with OSA support, Dillon reported.
OSA worked internationally as well, consulting with seed projects in Africa and Latin America. OSA also partnered with farmers to begin new breeding projects, developing varieties well suited to organic or low-input agriculture. The alliance initiated the first known organic breeding of vegetable crops, working initially in spinach, tomatoes, carrots and arugula, Dillon said.
OSA’s approach of “participatory plant breeding” has as its foundation farmer involvement in developing the breeding criteria, selecting the most desirable traits and conducting assessments in the field. Classical plant breeding for ecological complexity is a time-consuming process, requiring up to 10 years for a finished variety, but the results are crops that have the genetic diversity to withstand a wider range of environmental stress.
These new “heirlooms of tomorrow” are available in their experimental stage to financial donors and will be released to the public on completion, Dillon said.
OSA is now in the process of moving into the next generation of its own organizational development. In 2006, it began a long-term strategic planning process with the nonprofit financial institution ShoreBank Enterprise Cascadia, with financial support from the Seattle-based Satterberg Foundation. The process included a thorough survey of OSA partners, farmers, and staff, as well as an assessment of the organization’s capacity to grow and enhance its mission and outreach. OSA began exploring new enterprises, including the formation of seed cooperatives to increase farmer-led breeding and localized seed systems and the creation of a seed association for lobbying and political purposes.
Hobbs succeeds Dillon
During this strategic process, Dillon, the alliance’s founding director and former director of Abundant Life, decided to step down from his role as executive director. Dillon, who was awarded a prestigious Lannan Literary Fellowship in 2006 for his writing on seed issues as well as fiction, wanted more personal time to work on his writing.
Dillon worked with OSA board members and their consultants from ShoreBank to find his successor. After a thorough national search, the board hired Dan Hobbs in May 2007.
Hobbs is highly experienced in agriculture and rural development, having worked throughout the Southwest and Latin America as a cooperative specialist and executive director while also maintaining a 15-acre organic farm in southern Colorado that produced both seed and vegetable crops. His experience in rural enterprise development and agricultural nonprofits coupled with a hands-on knowledge of the day-to-day challenges of small farms was a strong draw for OSA.
“Dan was first on a very good and very long list of potential candidates,” said Dillon, who has now become OSA’s new director of advocacy. Hobbs, who just relocated to Jefferson County from Colorado, expressed his enthusiasm for Organic Seed Alliance.
“The depth of skills, knowledge and experience in this organization is really exciting,” Hobbs said. “OSA is the most competent and effective nonprofit organization I have been associated with in my 20 years in the agricultural development field.”
The year 2008 promises to be a major one for OSA, Hobbs reported. OSA hosts its fifth Organic Seed Growers Conference on Feb. 14-15 in Salem, Ore. This conference is the largest meeting of seed professionals engaged in organic seed production, research and plant breeding in the United States. The conference also launches two new organizations that will be linked to OSA: the Organic Seed Trade Association and the Growers Organic Seed Cooperative.
And there is much more work ahead, given that organic certifiers estimate less than 10 percent of organic acreage is planted with organic seed. Farmers are allowed an exemption to plant conventional seed due to a lack in quantity and quality of organic seed.
Micaela Colley, OSA program director, views that problem as opportunity.
“We are creating new models of breeding, producing and distributing organic seed in a manner that is environmentally sound, conserves and increases crop biodiversity, and ultimately benefits organic farmers, rural communities and consumers,” she said.