Seeds of Change

Regionally Adapted Seeds for Sustainable Agriculture

Many farmers today are facing a harsh reality: the price of inputs is constantly growing, while their share in the sale price is constantly shrinking. A large reason this problem persists is the consolidation of production and distribution into fewer, larger firms and the resulting corporate dominance it brings. Much of the public conversation about this corporate consolidation has focused on animal products such as beef, poultry, and pork, but another crucial element that has placed an increasing burden on small- to medium-scale farms is seed. Seeds are essential inputs to any agronomic or horticultural operation. The concentration of the seed market into a small group of megafirms has led to fewer available varieties of seeds, less genetic diversity, less biodiversity in our agroecosystems, supply chain gaps for specific regions and of course, higher prices.

At RAFI-USA, our goal is to empower farmers, and in an attempt to alleviate some of the pressure on growers caused by corporate consolidation in the seed market, our Just Foods program has been developing two projects: Southern Farmers Seed Cooperative and NC Seed Stewards. RAFI-USA’s Just Foods program director Kelli Dale diligently oversees the development of both these programs, which were born directly from farmer input. “I’m not coming out as an expert and telling them how to run their farms, I’m just there as a tool to help them achieve something new.” she tells us.

Southern Farmers Seed Cooperative is focused on agronomic commodity crops, and began as a soybean program. Currently, five farms comprising 11 farmers grow and share four different varieties of regionally adapted soybeans. The cooperative was born out of the intersection of two organic seed trials attempting to find varieties best suited for Southeastern growing conditions. Trials were done at both North Carolina State University research stations and on organic farms across North Carolina over a three-year period. The results of these trials were very promising, but after being approached for distribution, no seed companies were interested in mass producing seed varieties as they viewed regional niche seed varieties to be an unjustified cost.

The allowance for niche is a common problem in profit-driven agricultural firms, but it is a problem that can be addressed comfortably at the local level if given the opportunity. A majority of the organic soybean seed offered by corporate entities was developed in the Midwest, and far from ideal for Southeastern climates. The same is true of corn, which the cooperative is currently trying to branch into. The process is slow, as seed specifically adapted to the region can only be found in quantities that could fit in a pint glass. However,  the cooperative is working hard breeding and replicating corn that could save Southeastern farmers a tremendous headache in the future. Kelli Dale finds this new breakthrough the most rewarding part of the project so far,  “These corn lines would probably be sitting in storage somewhere if I hadn’t had a group of farmers willing to listen to some crazy idea about producing a double cross corn line, something that hasn’t been done in North Carolina in almost a hundred years!” 

The NC Seed Stewards are focused on NC wildflowers, and are composed of members of RAFI-USA Farmers of Color Network. It all began during an advertising campaign for Burt’s Bees, in which the company pledged that for each customer who bought a container of lip balm, 1,000 wildflowers would be planted. RAFI-USA was contracted to plant the wildflowers on farms in North Carolina. During the process, a surprising problem presented itself. While it is possible to purchase wildflower seed mixes specialized for the Southeast, it is hit or miss whether those flowers are ideally suited for the ecotype of North Carolina.

We decided to turn to the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill as a reference for what could be grown, and settled on four species to grow for a new seed mix. With the first seeds hopefully being harvested in Spring 2023, this new NC wildflower mix has the potential to assist in attracting native pollinators, adding biodiversity to agroecosystems, and providing new market pathways for NC farmers allowing them to increase their dollar-per-acre output.

Both of these programs assist in bringing new autonomy to regional farmers. With corporate consolidation funneling the seed market into few, expensive options with little diversity, we strive to see farmers taking power back into their own hands. We see the importance of developing farmer-driven programs that address practical problems only truly visible with boots on the ground. While both of these programs are still in their infancy, and ultimately only a piece of the puzzle in pushing the balance of power back in favor of farmers, we are excited to watch these seeds grow. 

RAFI-USA’s Just Foods program director Kelli Dale plants wild flowers.
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