Growing for the future
HRH Prince Charles admittedly talks to his plants, Dan and Theresa Podoll are having a whole conversation with theirs. But then the Podolls – award winning family-farmers in North Dakota - don’t just grow plants, they grow organic vegetables for seed production: Seeds for plants that will be able to deal with the fast changing climate in the United States, colder winters and shorter growing seasons in the north, droughts in the south- and mid-west, unseasonal storms and flooding. ‘You have to have a conversation with your plants when you’re selecting stock seeds’, Dan Podoll told me when I visited the farm last October.
For him and his wife Theresa it’s not about promoting heritage seed varieties – that would turn a vegetable patch into a museum. But they believe that these old varieties hold in their genes the collective knowledge of how to deal with every possible challenge from soil, climate and weather. They have cultivated more than twenty varieties that are adapted particularly well to the soil and climate conditions of the northern states of the US and southern Canada: vigorous growth for short growing seasons – there was snow fall in North Dakota in the last week of April this year and the ground is still to cold for planting anything – resistance to extremely hot summers, (some of the Podoll’s melon varieties do well in Texas and New Mexico) and lately unseasonal storms which flatten crops and make them impossible to harvest. Dan and Theresa’s efforts to work with nature (and those of Dan’s brother David and his wife Ginger who are in charge of the arable side of the farm) earned them the 2014 US organic farmer of the year award
Dan and Theresa’s seed farm is like a minute, colour- and bountiful island in the ocean of GM soy and maze fields that is North Dakota. And it’s poignant that under the stewardship of people like the Podolls these seeds probably hold the one chance for the food production of the future. There still may be a lot of debate in the US over the causes of climate change, but by now nobody denies it’s happening. And one of the hardest hit states is California, the state that grows almost half of the US’s fruit, vegetables and nuts. It’s estimated that out of the 8 million acres of irrigated farmland 10% will lie fallow this year because there is no water to irrigate with.
One of California’s thirstiest crops is broccoli which needs over 20 litres of water per head to grow – which led the US magazine Mother Jones (May/June 2014 edition) to a ‘Broccocalypse Now’ headline and the suggestion that broccoli and other vegetables might in future only grow in the northern states of the US. The climate there is changing, too, but with the work of seed farmers like the Podolls the effects can at least be mitigated. But adapting crops to changing conditions is only possible if we can rely on the genetic wealth stored in the diversity of (vegetable) seed varieties. A diversity that is under threat – from big agrochemical companies who can only make big money with hybrid seeds and GM varieties and from planned EU legislation. And if you’d like to know more about the Podolls and their North Dakota seed farm have a look at this and the May edition of the Soil Association’s Organic Farming magazine.