How do We Choose Fruit and Veggie Varieties

working through the main seed order for 2011

Planning seed orders for the 2011 growing season

Choosing seed and plant varieties is one of the most fun, and challenging, and frustrating, activities for most gardeners, and the same is true here at Hole in the Woods.  Several people have asked how we actually go about making our choices, and it’s really embedded in our whole farm philosophy. So, it seems a good topic to expound upon.  

Choosing fruit and veggie varieties is extremely important for any agricultural venture, be it a small potted garden on an inner-city balcony, or a large farm growing 100,000 acres of wheat out in the great plains. Every variety that has ever been developed has somethinggoing for it – great flavor, a different ripening time than others, easy transportation, very high yield, pest resistance, familiar or unfamiliar appearance, a great name, availability at the big-box-store seed display…  Something, at any rate. The way a particular grower prioritizes and values different traits will determine the choices he makes.   

Thus, I’m going to, as much as anything, expound upon the differences between how we choose our varieties and how a typical big farm makes its choices, and to a lesser degree, how a home gardener might make his choices (Do note that I’m not going to talk about how we choose what crops to grow.  That’s another show…). Many of the factors we weigh in the same way as any market grower serving a local market, but, we hope, a couple of things differentiate us from other local farms as well. Basically, here is a tabular version of the criteria one might consider.

Criterion

Big Farm

Hole in the Woods

Flavor Unimportant Highest Priority
Nutritional Value Unimportant High Priority
Transportability/Long Storage Crucial Unimportant
Appearance Uniformity critical, familiar important Uniformity unimportant, eye catching/unique is nice
Ripening Time All at once Spread out
Pest/Disease Resistance Often through GM or chemicals Via cultural practices or variety breeding
Yield As high as possible Manageable
Seed Cost As low a ratio to yield as possible Only occasionally considered
Local Demand Irrelevant Critical

 

Flavor

The primary trait we look for in our varieties is flavor. Now, what specific flavor – sweet, bitter, pungent? Well, that depends on the crop.  But, if it’s a potato, we want it to be the best tasting potato you’ll find. Of course, with something like potato, “best” is dependent upon how you want to use it, so we grow several different potato varieties. 

For the large farm, flavor just isn’t that important, and/or varieties that taste great simply don’t fit the other criteria. For example, a neighbor grew potatoes for Black Gold on a 110 acre field last year. He never could have grown our favorite, the Purple Peruvian, even though everyone we’ve polled agrees it is far better flavored.  However, growing for a huge global company like that, he is, quite frankly, going to grow the variety they tell him to.  And that variety will have a light-colored, thin skin, and be fairly large and blocky-shaped, because Black Gold potatoes primarily make potato chips, and you really don’t taste the potato in a chip.  Purple Peruvians taste incredible, but are dark purple inside, have a fairly thick purple skin, are rather small, and kind of knobby. Clearly meant for local distribution to folks with discerning tastes! 

This difference in the prioritization of flavor vs. other criteria by large agriculture has actually had the effect of making many old varieties endangered. More and more food is grown with less and less genetic diversity. I’ll talk more about the danger that represents later, but this intersects our variety selection in a fairly specific way.  

The international “Slow Food” movement has risen as an attempt to rescue endangered food that is remarkable because of its flavor and/or cultural (as in society, not agronomics) significance. It’s a global grassroots movement that links the pleasure of food to a commitment to local communities and the environment. And, they have compiled a list of  endangered and outstanding food called the Ark of Taste

The Ark of Taste is a very selective list of food items, all of which are truly outstanding in flavor, and in danger of becoming extinct if folks don’t grow (and eat) them. Here at Hole in the Woods, we make a special effort to grow as many varieties from the Ark of Taste as possible.
 

Nutritional Value

It seems ironic, but the nutritional value of food just isn’t that important to big agriculture. Sure, people eat food for nutrition (sometimes), but when it comes time to label or ask the USDA, spinach is spinach and nutritionally identical. Thus, while a large farm isn’t going to intentionally lower the nutritional density of its food, it will put other criteria such as yield and transportability ahead. This is one reason there as been such a decline in the nutritional value of vegetables in the western diet.  Yup, grandma’s broccoli really was healthier than ours. 

On the other hand, the small farmer selling locally doesn’t care so much about transportability. It’s also more economically important to stand out from “the competition,” thus commanding a premium price and creating demand for one’s produce, than it is to grow a whole bunch and possibly end up composting it all. 

Interestingly enough, we don’t necessarily choose our varieties by nutritional value directly.  But, more colorful, better textured, and better flavored typically mean more nutritious.  Of course, given a toss-up between two otherwise evenly matched varieties of spinach, if the catalog entry for one mentions that it has an extra-high vitamin A content, we’ll probably chose that one over the other. 

Transportability / Long Storage

Most of the produce from a large farm has to travel thousands of miles to get to the grocery store, and is handled several times en route. The time between harvest and sale can be several days to a couple of months. Most of the produce we sell goes directly from the field to the market, traveling around 7 miles, often less. Often the time between harvest and sale ranges from 5 minutes to 8 hours. 

Many varieties of fruits and veggies travel better than their compatriots. Of course, there are also cultural practices that improve transportability- those strawberries you ate in January? Probably picked green in Chile or New Zealand (California if you’re lucky), sprayed with bleach to remove any microbes that would begin the spoilage process, shipped to a distribution center near you, exposed to ethylene gas to “ripen” artificially, packaged, shipped to a warehouse, then finally your store. And the variety was still one chosen because it ships better than the one you might grow in your garden. 

Basically, we don’t even look at transportability.  Well, occasionally, we have been known to chose a variety because it tasted good andwas difficult to transport. That helps ensure we only  have to compete with the farmer across the county, not across the international date line… 

Of course, long storage does come into play on some items, particularly fall/winter root crops. Unlike large agriculture, we don’t have lots of ideal, climate-controlled storage warehouses tailored to the specific storage needs of one particular crop, nor do we have the ability to grow it elsewhere. We’ll sell it, and you try to keep it (or we try to keep it and eat it ourselves). Thus, we’ll often choose a vegetable intended to be eaten over the winter for its ability to maintain good flavor via traditional storage methods, such as a root cellar, canning, or freezing. 

Appearance

In the world of large agriculture, it pays to look the same as everyone else.  Every gala apple must be red tinged with green, not green tinged with red, and must be the same size as a baseball, not the size of a softball or a tennis ball. There are several reasons for this: processing machinery can only efficiently handle a particular size range (those black gold potatoes? When they’re harvested, the machine leaves piles of potatoes that are too big or too small all over the field, and folks scavenge them. But the piles are getting smaller, as the potatoes are getting more uniform), for example. But, really, I think the main reason is that produce managers presume their shoppers are lazy and uniformed.  Unable to tell which peach is the best, and unwilling to put for the effort to select a couple anyway, they feel much better about themselves if they see a huge rack covered with peaches that all look about the same. 

The local market is different, though. Most of the customers are well-educated, hard working, and interested in choosing the best produce for their meals. Maybe one customer wants to bake and stuff a big Granny Smith apple, while another wants a small, sweet-juicy-tart-acidic treat of a smaller Spitzenberg apple.  The customer can, and will, choose. Variety is good.  With many crops, the best tasting varieties are of inconsistent appearance, or just downright unattractive. With others, inconsistent or different makes it all the more attractive.  How ’bout some cornmeal made just from the dark maroon ears of Roy’s Calais? 

Ripening Time

Industrial agriculture needs economies of scale.  If you’re going to spend $10,000 hauling out the giant combine, you really need to make sure all of the corn is ripe and dry at the same time.  Even on non-commodity crops like broccoli or salad greens, it’s easier to harvest huge quantities and take them to the wholesaler all at once, plow the field under, and replant – other farmers, chemicals, refrigeration, and long-storing varieties will keep a steady stream coming to the grocery store. 

The local farm is different. We need to have something to sell each time we go to market or drop off a CSA share.  If all of our broccoli is ripe on the same day, what will we have next week? How could we possibly have enough time to harvest it all? And how could we possibly sell it all this week? More veggies for the compost heap! 

Instead, we choose varieties in ways that let us stretch the harvest out. Cut-and-come again lettuce re-grows so we can harvest it several times from one planting. Broccoli that provides good side shoot production lets us keep harvesting even after the main head has been eaten. Sweet corn (which we’re not growing this year) can be staggered simply by choosing varieties that take different amounts of time to mature. 

Pest/Disease Resistance

Everyone wants to grow crops that are eaten by people, not bugs, and that don’t die because of viruses and fungi before ever maturing. The difference between big ag and local farmers is the techniques used to achieve this, which again affects variety selection. 

First let’s get cultural practices out of the way.  Big ag: large mono-cultures attract lots of pest and disease. They fight this with lots of chemicals, and genetically engineering crops (often to produce chemicals themselves). Small local farmer: small poly-cultures are less of a target for pest and disease. Crop rotations and careful monitoring, combined with mechanical (ie, hand-picking potato beetles and dropping them in a bucket of soapy water) controls are favored, beneficial insects and microorganisms are enlisted to help, and crops that have been selected for natural resistance can be chosen. 

So, really, from a purely empirical view, both chose varieties for resistance to pests and diseases. But which they chose is different. A large farmer will buy genetically engineered “roundup ready” soybean seed from Monsanto, so he can spray large quantities of the herbicide Roundup (also manufactured by Monsanto) to keep weeds from out-competing his crop. A local farmer will choose a soybean that grows quickly in its early stages and has larger leaves that can shade out weeds so they can’t get big enough to compete. His will also probably be an edemame variety, so it’s best use will be being eaten by people than, say, making ink for the Sunday paper. Of course, weeds are becoming roundup-resistant, and the only response at present is to spray stronger concentrations of Roundup more frequently.  By the way, my bees tend to leave or die if there is any roundup use near them… 

Yield

For big ag, varieties are chosen that will produce the highest yield possible, either per acre or (for the more enlightened farmers with some accounting skill) per dollar of input. It makes sense in a world where grain crops are commodities, and fruit and veggie crops are all aggregated together with other farmers’ wares anyway. 

Local farmers like to have good yields, too. But they aren’t the end-all be-all.  Basically, yield is just a lower priority than other criteria.  What good does it do to grow a whole bunch of woody Kohlrabi if no one eats it? More veggies to compost.  But, grow a lower-yielding variety that tastes good, stays tender over a long harvest period, and perhaps is purple, and you’re in much better shape. 

Seed Cost

For large farms, the cost of seed is significant. $.20/lb higher price is $2000 when you’re buying 5 tons of seed.  Some of our more expensive lettuce seeds cost $8 more for 2 grams. Obviously, scale is a problem. 

For the large farm, the price per unit of a particular seed is most significant.  They’re buying large quantities of very few varieties. For the small, local farm, it’s almost more a matter of how many different varieties you grow than the price difference between varieties. When you’re buying very small amounts of seed for trials, or seeds that are very small like onion, most of the seed cost is in packaging and shipping anyway.  We rarely use cost as a deciding factor between two varieties of a crop, but sometimes cost does influence how many varieties we choose to grow. 

Local Demand

Local demand is irrelevant to the large farmer. Since the market he is targeting is regional-to-global, there is a sufficient and stable market for him to predict his sales quite effectively.  For the local farmer, though, the local market is key.  

For example, salad greens. Across the country, demand for arugula, while growing, is small. A large farmer might likely chose to grow baby spinach instead, because of larger national demand.  However, at our market, there is a large demand for arugula. Granted, it’s only a few customers each week, but they always purchase large quantities. So, we grow it for them.  

A less competition-based example…  Locavores often lament having to make exceptions for salad and cooking oils. Most in our local area make an exception for olive oil, since there is no way to get it locally.  However, sunflower seed oil makes a good, multi-use cooking- and salad-oil. Thus, while we aren’t able to get to it this year (one can only tackle so many projects at a time!), we plan to grow oilseed sunflowers and extract the oil here to meet that demand.

Summary

OK, that turned out to be as much about why locally-produced, small-farm food is supperior to large-scale agriculture and distribution as selecting fruit and veggie varieties. Sorry about that. So, then, how do we go about choosing our varieties? Well, some of it is trial and error, some is feedback from our customers. A lot is relying on experience. Some is actually dumb luck. For example, we are locally famous for our Purple Peruvian potatoes. I’ve grown them for years beginning before we ever had the farm. So, now we choose them from experience.  But how did we initially find the variety? Dumb Luck – Seed Savers had run out of a variety I had ordered, and the nice lady on the other end of the phone suggested them as a replacement.

But, basically the process is to pour through our notes from last year, dig through all the business cards with little notes about a particular item scribbled on them and handed to us at random times, search the Ark of Taste for stuff we can grow but aren’t yet, and mostly order from that.  For varieties that didn’t fare so well, or if we think it’s time to trial something else, we pour through all the seed catalogs we get to see what sounds like it will taste great, be highly nutritious, look cool, and grow reasonably well in our garden. If it has some sort of story that intrigues us, so much the better. We like stories.

Leave a Reply