Farmer Support Program Overview
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The mission of Going to Seed is to inspire a shift in agriculture toward adaptation, community, and diversity. Toward this end, we operate several programs, including online educational courses, a discussion group, a community seed program, and a seed exchange. More information about all of these can be found on this site.
Beginning with the 2024 growing season, we are introducing a Farmer Support Program to provide financial, technical, and marketing assistance to production farmers who want to breed their own locally adapted crops. The guidelines and application form in this document enable farmers to request such assistance. Applications will be accepted as of the time this document is published, and assistance will be awarded to qualified farmers on a rolling basis until the budget for the year is committed.
Background. Global agriculture is increasingly reliant on commercial seed produced and distributed by a small number of companies. The disadvantages of this system have become evident in recent years:
- More than 90 percent of genetic diversity in agricultural crops has been lost.
- Farmers and their communities have lost sovereignty over their seeds, many of which cannot even be saved and replanted.
- Commercial varieties are often poorly adapted to the environments in which they are grown, and depend on fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, and crop protection to thrive.
- Food security has become precarious as the climate changes and becomes unpredictable. Even varieties that were once well adapted to their environments may not succeed in tomorrow’s climate due to their lack of genetic diversity.
There is an alternative to this system: Farmers can breed their own crop varieties, either alone or in collaboration with neighboring farmers or even with gardeners. By growing multiple varieties close together, allowing them to pollinate promiscuously, and selecting seeds from plants that thrive with minimal inputs, a farmer can develop a genetically diverse, locally adapted variety (often called a landrace) that requires significantly less off-farm inputs than most commercial varieties. Over a period of several years, the farmer can select for qualities in addition to environmental suitability, such as flavor, nutrient density, appearance, growth habit, and compatibility with preferred farming methods.
Locally adapted varieties are not a new idea. People began domesticating plants millennia ago by saving and replanting seeds from plants that were healthy, productive, and easy to harvest. Indigenous farmers worldwide still maintain and improve varieties that their ancestors developed in the distant past.
However, few production farmers who currently depend on commercial seeds have attempted to develop new, locally adapted varieties. One reason is that the first few years of developing a new variety may be risky, in terms of both quantity and quality of product. Going to Seed’s Farmer Support Program is designed to mitigate this transitional risk so that more farmers can begin experimenting with locally adapted varieties.
Eligibility. Applicants must own or manage a production vegetable farm that sells its products through farmers markets, farm stands, community-supported agriculture, restaurants, seed companies, or other wholesale or retail channels. Joint applications by two or three farmers will also be considered. Total acreage under cultivation by all applicants (combined) must be at least one acre. Each applicant should have a minimum of three years’ farming experience. Farmers using organic or regenerative practices will be given preference.
Before embarking on a supported project, applicants must become familiar with landrace agriculture techniques and seed-saving techniques. If they have not previously developed a locally adapted variety, they should read “Landrace Gardening” by Joseph Lofthouse or complete the free online course of the same name at GoingToSeed.org.
Support. Applicants may request financial assistance up to $2,500 for the 2024 growing season to backstop potential losses in the transition to local adaptation. Applicants who are awarded support will also receive:
- Seeds to begin the project.
- Marketing materials to help educate customers about the importance of locally adapted, genetically diverse varieties. (Customers may require education because the sizes, shapes, and flavors of genetically diverse varieties often vary widely – and may not look like anything they’ve seen before.)
- Technical assistance via one-on-one phone or video calls with experts who have experience with developing locally adapted varieties. Technical assistance will also include monthly group video calls as well as membership in the online discussion community at GoingToSeed.org.
For awardees who are compliant with the terms of the award and need further assistance to continue their projects in future years, Going to Seed intends to provide assistance for as long as three years, contingent on our receiving continued funding for this program.
Obligations. Applicants who are awarded support must:
- Begin developing one locally adapted variety in the 2024 growing season. This means
- planting multiple varieties of the species they plan to adapt
- allowing cross-pollination among varieties
- saving seeds from those plants that produce seeds, and
- using minimal inputs throughout the growing process.
- Document and report on their progress monthly from planting through seed collection. Going to Seed will provide spreadsheets and may provide video cameras to be used for documentation. Documentation, including photos and video footage, will be the property of Going to Seed and may be used in future educational materials.
- Share their experiences on Going to Seed’s online discussion group.
- Mitigate their risk by following practices that Going to Seed suggests. (See next section below.)
The following activities are not required but are strongly encouraged:
- Contributing seed from the project to Going to Seed’s seed exchange program and/or to your local seed library.
- Soliciting and recording customer feedback, such as by holding a “tasting party” to gather community input on marketability.
Risk mitigation. Unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise, Going to Seed recommends adhering to the following risk-mitigating practices in designing and carrying out the project, especially for applicants with no previous experience in plant breeding:
- Choose a single species, rather than attempting multi-species crosses.
- Choose a species that produces seeds in the same year it is planted.
- Choose a species that has been successfully grown in your locality or in a locality somewhat similar to yours.
- If the species has multiple applications, choose a single application to work with. Keep plants separate from plants grown for other applications. For example, if you are developing a sweet pepper landrace, do not plant seeds within pollinating distance of hot peppers.
- In the group of varieties you are mixing, include seeds from a grex (i.e., seeds from multiple varieties that were previously allowed to cross-pollinate) or from an existing landrace.
- Mix the seeds of different varieties together, and plant at least three times as many as the number of plants you are aiming for. Planting three or four seeds in the same hole allows selection to begin from the moment of germination.
- If the species is one you are already selling, continue growing at least some of your usual crop, using your usual methods, especially if you have contractual obligations.
- Choose a species with a naturally high rate of cross-pollination such as corn, cucumbers, melons, or squash. (See Ease of Landrace Development pdf for further guidance.)