Part of the evaluation process (and arguably the most fun) involves Tasting Trials. Aside from SSE Members who participate in the Member Grower Evaluation Network (M-GEN), the Evaluation Program has not requested public participation in the Taste Trials up until this point. Sixty-five participants at the 2014 Conference and Campout gave us detailed rankings and notes about 4 snap beans, 5 carrots, 4 collards, and 11 kale.Read More
The Preservation Lab at Seed Savers Exchange was buzzing with activity on this Friday afternoon in February. With about 13 full-time employees whose specializations range from germination testing to seed storage and everything in between, there's always something interesting happening in the Preservation Lab.Read More
Corn (Zea mays) is what we around here consider a ‘promiscuous pollinator.’ That’s because it is an outcrossing, wind-pollinated crop. Because corn relies on wind to carry pollen from the tassels to the silks, the light pollen grains may travel a few miles before finding and pollinating a silk. Your neighbor’s corn can therefore very easily pollinate yours, making it tricky to save pure seed from your open-pollinated corn.Read More
The Preservation Department at Seed Savers Exchange works hard to maintain the rare collection of heirloom varieties we've acquired from farmers and gardeners over the past few decades. In order to keep this collection alive and well, our staff carefully plans and implements grow-outs to evaluate the varieties and regenerate seed stock. As part of this evaluation process, staff take meticulous notes about the characteristics of each variety when grown out. These photos document the evaluation process of a few carrot varieties (Daucus carota) after harvest, although evaluations of each variety really begin with the seed before it is planted.
Freshly harvested and cleaned carrots.
Horticultural Technician Steffen Mirsky takes portrait photos of the harvested varieties.
Detailed information is entered into a database for each variety on such characteristics as color, shape, length, and weight, as well as other criteria.
Varieties are then scanned and archived with the collected data.
The carrots are sliced to analyze interior characteristics and for raw taste-testing (picture: 'Jaune de Doubs').
The carrots are steamed until tender. The steamed carrots are tasted and evaluated for culinary use.
Summary descriptions of each variety are written for the SSE Yearbook, with the hope that these descriptions will encourage gardeners to take the seeds from our collection and put them in their gardens and on their dinner tables (pictured: 'Amstel').
Please consider becoming a member of Seed Savers Exchange to support these preservation and evaluation efforts. Along with many other benefits, SSE members are able to access thousands of rare and unique heirloom seeds offered by other members in our annual Yearbook. Seed Savers Exchange also offers seeds from our vast collection in the Yearbook, allowing members much more diversity to choose from than what's available in the commercial catalog. In 2013, Seed Savers Exchange is offering 2,431 different varieties in the Yearbook for members to request. Join us today to help conserve and promote America's culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage.
Located six miles north of Decorah, IA, Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit membership organization dedicated to the preservation and distribution of heirloom seeds. Seed Savers maintains a collection of thousands of open pollinated varieties, making it one of the largest non-governmental seed banks in the United States. For more information, go to seedsavers.org
Whether blended in a soup, pickled in a mason jar or baked in an omelet, eating is the best way to utilize scapes, a farm and garden byproduct of garlic. Seed Savers Exchange is conducting its first ever evaluation of over 300 garlic varieties in its production garden this year, which means harvesting a lot of scapes for scanning, as well as to ensure the garlic bulbs are adequately plump and ready for replanting in October. Looking out across the half-acre field waving with crowns of silvery green, these several hundred varieties may appear identical to the untrained eye, but in fact differ considerably in size and shape. Many are uniform in their likeness (streaking brown leaves as some had matured early), still others display anthropomorphic qualities unique to their row: one variety like a sumo wrestler, squat and thick, while another resembles the stern form of a lawman. Taken together, the melded identities of Allium sativum are a chorus of opportunity for SSE to learn more about this species (and its flowering appendage) in the Allium genus.
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Our trial field includes both hard and softneck garlics. For those of us new to garlic varieties, softneck garlic doesn’t produce scapes, and generally isn’t as hardy (hence the cognate of its opposite, the “hardneck”), but, it does store better and mature quicker. The bulb size of many hardneck varieties is improved by removing the scape—its flowering stalk which eventually produces bulbils and flowers—hence getting “plump and ready for October." Some varieties, however, don't mind if you leave their scapes on until harvest time, such as those in the Turban group. It just goes to show – the more we learn about each variety’s characteristics, from planting to harvest, the more we’ll understand their preferences, personalities, and how best to make use of them.
Here’s a quick primer on Preservation’s Field & Lab Plant Evaluation
Any characteristic that has a genetic basis is recorded in evaluations at SSE, which, specific to garlic, includes observing and measuring:
1. leaf color 2. leaf posture 3. stalk height (or pseudostem) 4. scape shape (if applicable)
Everything is recorded into Preservation’s database—the hardneck scapes are harvested and scanned into a digital format—and staff can glory in the perk of free scapes for eating!
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Garlic taste tests to follow… meanwhile, check out some of these intriguing recipes, and keep us posted on your favorite uses for scapes!
Jeannette Beranger and Alison Martin will be at the 2013 Seed Savers Exchange Conference and Campout representing the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. They will be teaching a workshop titled Evaluating a Poultry Flock for Breeding. We asked them to fill us in on what to expect from their workshop.
Backyard Chickens Are Back!
By Alison Martin, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy
Look around you: more than ever, chickens are showing up in back yards or being incorporated into sustainable farms. No matter the size of your flock, a question that comes up each year is “which of these chickens should I keep as breeders for next year?” Our workshop, Evaluating a Poultry Flock for Breeding, will give you the hands-on skills and knowledge to make those decisions.
For those of you who don’t know us, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) works with farmers to conserve heritage breeds of livestock and poultry. Like heirloom plants, America has lost many of the breeds that were important in times past. In fact, in 1976 organizers of a Bicentennial celebration at Old Sturbridge Village in New England had trouble finding animals that would have been on the farm in 1776. The more they thought about it, the more this bothered them, and together with concerned breeders and scientists, they formed the (then) American Minor Breeds Conservancy. In the 36 years since, we haven’t lost a breed!
Unlike Seed Savers Exchange, ALBC doesn’t sell animals. For one thing, they’re harder to gather and store than seeds! We do facilitate participatory conservation. Like Seed Savers Exchange, we help breeders network with each other so they can share and exchange breeding stock and best practices. Our Master Breeder project documents the wisdom of long-time breeders, and passes that along to new breeders. We have restored productivity to breeds that have been neglected, and brought other breeds back from the brink of extinction. All this and more conserves agricultural biodiversity and maintains options for farming.
The time is right for heritage poultry and livestock. Many have regional adaptations and history that fit right in with the local foods movement. Farmers are discovering that their hardiness and thrift make them a wonderful fit for small farms, and consumers who care where their food comes from are discovering the benefits of rich and diverse flavors. And heritage animals complement heirloom seeds well, as you’ve probably seen at Heritage Farm.
Jeannette and I are excited about our first visit to the SSE Conference and Campout. We want to meet with you and hear about your homesteads. And we want to share our experience – between us we have more than 50 years experience with poultry! This year we helped Seed Savers Exchange source some excellent Buckeye chickens, and that’s what we’ll be evaluating in the workshop. The birds selected as breeders will be banded, and at the end of the season they will go to the winner of the Mother Earth News Heritage Chicken Giveaway!
If you would like to learn more about Buckeye chickens, chicken assessment, or ALBC, check us out online at www.albc-usa.org. See you in Decorah!
With spring around the corner and a foot of snow still on the ground, the Seed Savers Exchange evaluation team has been evaluating dried legumes from last summer’s harvest. Beans, peas, and lima beans are soaked overnight and boiled until tender the next day. Cowpeas are not soaked, but are cooked the same. Once cooked, the evaluation team tastes each variety, taking notes on flavors and eliciting opinions from fellow lab staff. The following are some of the best flavored varieties grown in 2012:
SSE Collection: Bean 3461 ‘Alice Whitis’
These cooked dry beans were sweet with a smooth texture, excellent for baked beans. For fresh eating, the beans were easy to shell and had a meaty texture with a noticeable sweet flavor. While the pods were too fibrous to be enjoyed at the snap bean stage, this pole bean stood out as an all-around flavor winner for the 2012 growing season. John Inabnitt of Somerset, Kentucky donated this bean to SSE in 1992. Alice Whitis of Acorn, Kentucky gave the bean to John’s grandmother, and John’s aunt grew the bean after his grandmother died in the 1930s.
SSE Collection: Pea 94 ‘Jump’
These cooked peas had a rich, meaty, slightly sweet flavor with a smooth texture. The peas kept the brown mottled colorings when cooked. When eaten fresh, they had a slightly sweet flavor, but tasted far superior when used as dried peas. In the garden, this plant was a vigorous grower and prolific producer. Dennis Miller listed this pea in the SSE Yearbook from 1986 to 1991. His great-grandfather, Bill Jump, originally grew this variety in eastern Washington in the mid-1930s.
SSE Collection: Cowpea 16 ‘Swiss Gablie Bona’
This cowpea was slightly sweet, and had a good, firm texture. Jesse Yoakam donated the cowpea to SSE in 1988. His great-grandparents brought them from Switzerland many years ago. The English interpretation of the name is ‘Ladie Beans.’
SSE Collection: Lima Bean 282 ‘Wick’s Lima’
This lima bean had good texture with a sweet flavor when cooked. When eaten fresh, the beans had a dense texture and subtle sweet flavor. This pretty lima bean was donated by Helen Thomas in 2004. Helen obtained the bean in the 1960s from her husband’s grandmother, Wick B. Smith, of Sandyville, West Virginia.
Interested in growing these legumes? By becoming a member of Seed Savers Exchange you can access these and hundreds of other varieties in our annual Yearbook. Find out more about becoming a member and supporting the preservation of our endangered food crop heritage here.
The Evaluation Program
Maintaining and distributing unique heirloom and open-pollinated seeds is the primary goal of the Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) gene bank. The Evaluation Program is an important link between maintaining varieties at Heritage Farm and getting them into the hands of gardeners, chefs, and farmers.
The Evaluation Program, which is only three years old, was started with the financial support from people like you. The program allows us to collect data on a variety’s traits throughout its life cycle. This data includes characteristics such as plant height, flower color, days to maturity, and fruit size.
- In 2012 staff recorded more than 40,000 evaluation descriptors on over 1,000 different accessions.
Bringing Back Food Culture
The program also evaluates culinary usage—incredibly important in a world of unsustainable eating and forgotten food cultures. Modern fruits and vegetables bred for shipping and uniformity lack the diversity seen in heirloom varieties—like beets, potatoes, cabbages, and apples that store for months in a root cellar; horticultural beans harvested between the snap and dry bean phases for their higher protein content; and melons best suited for baking. The forgotten traits in these varieties are the building blocks to a sustainable food system.
The information collected through the evaluation program serves several purposes. It allows us to:
- Increase our knowledge about each variety and make that information available to gardeners.
- Make informed management decisions about the collection by developing a comprehensive profile of each accession.
- Reintroduce unique and rare varieties into the marketplace.
From the Preservation Gardens
For the first time ever, Seed Savers Exchange is offering a collection of varieties ‘From the Preservation Gardens’ in our catalog this year. These varieties were selected because of their interesting histories, unique characteristics, and popularity with staff—a direct result of the Evaluation Program.
- Join us in our efforts to preserve our garden heritage for future generations to come. With your financial support for the Evaluation Program, we can rediscover our food culture—one variety at a time.
A tax-deductible donation to Seed Savers Exchange will help us continue to maintain genetic diversity through projects like the Evaluation Program. Support our effort by making a donation or becoming a member online today, or call us at (563) 382-5990 (M-F, 8:30 am – 5:00 pm Central Time).
Thank you for your support,
John Torgrimson Executive Director
P.S. Donate $150 or more before December 31, 2012 and receive a free Seed Savers Exchange 2013 Calendar, which offers a beautiful glimpse of nature's seed bounty at Heritage Farm near Decorah, Iowa, where every seed has a story to tell.
2012 Evaluation Highlights
Horticultural Beans (Shelling Beans)
Eating beans from the pod, when the beans are fully expanded but not yet dry, is becoming a lost culinary tradition in America. The plump, wet, beans do not store well, and they are difficult to shell mechanically because the tender beans cannot tolerate rough handling. For these reasons, shelling beans have been shunned by industrial agriculture. However, the flavor is rich and shelling beans are richer in nutrients than dry beans. We added a horticultural bean taste test to our 2012 bean evaluation and found that most beans taste good as shelling beans, and some taste really good! Many that performed well in our taste test were not necessarily known as shelling beans historically. For example, “Bessie” (Bean 6042) has been passed down maternally in Frances Sullivan’s family for over a century, each generation using it primarily as a green bean for fresh eating and canning.
Tomato 324 ‘D. Jena Lee’s Golden Girl’
This variety really caught our attention in the 2012 taste test. We described it as having “excellent robust flavor, sweet and slightly tart, low-medium acidity, firm and meaty texture but still juicy, great as a slicing tomato.” Curious about the variety, we investigated its history and discovered that it is mis-named in our collection and should be called “Djena Lee’s Golden Girl.” We are not the first to notice its outstanding flavor. It is promoted by Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste, and won the Chicago Fair’s taste test 10 years in a row in the 1920s and 1930s. Though historically, women played a central role in developing and improving varieties in America’s gardens, Djena Lee was one of the few female plant breeders who enjoyed recognition for her efforts in early 20th century America.
Kohlrabi 44 ‘Giant Czechoslovakian’
Most kohlrabi reach market maturity in 50-60 days and quickly become woody if left in the field. For that reason, we complete our market mature evaluation at 60 days. One variety in our evaluation grow-out, ‘Giant Czechoslovakian,’ did not form a kohlrabi head at 60 days. We thought it did not care for the spring weather. But in our fall grow-out of the same varieties, it again produced no stem-swelling at 60 days. We began to question whether it was really a kohlrabi, or if our seed-stock was compromised by crossing with another Brassica oleracea. We researched similarly named varieties in commercial catalogs, promoted as a 130 day maturity kohlrabi that does not get woody even when large. Then we went back to the long-forgotten spring planting and found enormous kohlrabis! Harvested at 176 days, they tasted great!
Squash 5080 ‘Dostal Cucumber’ Squash
This squash’s oblong shape, size, and dark green mature color make it look somewhat like a cucumber. A staff favorite as a winter squash, this year we evaluated this pepo squash as a summer squash as well. To our surprise, ‘Dostal’ turned out to be a favorite 2012 summer squash - with its dense flesh and mildly sweet flavor. It went on to win accolades again in the 2012 winter squash taste evaluation for its buttery, smooth texture and complex, rich flavor. ‘Dostal’ has proven that we cannot make assumptions about the versatile varieties in our collection based on the limitations of more modern, highly specialized varieties.
Each year at Heritage Farm we grow a portion of our collection—family heirlooms passed down generationally and given to Seed Savers Exchange for safekeeping.
Part of the responsibility that comes with maintaining this unique collection of fruit and vegetable varieties is understanding as much as we can about each one. To gain this understanding, every summer—in addition to growing varieties that are in need of refreshed or increased stock—we also grow a portion of our collection for evaluation purposes.
This year we are growing more than 400 varieties of heirloom seed in our evaluation gardens—from amaranth to watermelon—with beet, carrot, celery, collard, corn, cowpea, cucumber, eggplant, kale, kohlrabi, leek, lettuce, lima, melon, mustard, okra, pea, pepper, radish, rutabaga, squash, Swiss chard, tomato, and turnip in between.
Why do we evaluate these varieties?
The evaluation crew spends their summer documenting and describing each variety we grow. The crew collects data on traits such as plant height, flower color, days to maturity, and fruit size, to name a few. We also evaluate how a variety might do in the marketplace, considering taste and culinary usage. For example, this year we are evaluating 40 varieties of beans and will classify them as snap beans, shelling beans, or dry beans.
Evaluation data not only helps us make informed collection management decisions, it also gives us the information we need to write detailed plant descriptions. Plant descriptions are key to promoting our collection in the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook and other publications, increasing the distribution of collection varieties to our members’ gardens and bringing more active participants into our preservation efforts. It is our hope to see more and more of our collection being grown, enjoyed, and preserved in gardens across the country.
We are one of the few organizations doing this important work with heirlooms. And with thousands of varieties in our collection, this is work we do each summer, year after year.
You can help by supporting this work essential to our preservation efforts.
A tax-deductible donation to Seed Savers Exchange will help us continue to maintain genetic diversity through projects like the evaluation program. Support our effort by making a donation or becoming a member online today, or call us at (563) 382-5990 (M-F, 8:30 am - 5:30 pm Central Time).
Thank you for helping us maintain these heirloom varieties for future generations to come.
John Torgrimson Diane Ott Whealy Executive Director Co-founder and Vice President
Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization, with a mission to conserve and promote America's culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.
If you’re trying to make small talk at Heritage Farm, don’t ask someone from the SSE preservation staff how the garden is looking. I found this out for myself a few weeks ago while fetching some coffee from the break room.
“How are those peas looking, Tor?” I asked innocently while filling my mug.
“Well, that really depends on what you’re looking for,” he replied, grabbing a pea magnet off the refrigerator. Two cups of coffee and a pea anatomy lesson later, I started to understand his frank response.
While we collect characterization data during most grow-outs, we use the term "evaluation" when varieties are being grown specifically with the intent of collecting characterization data. In 2011 we have several evaluations in progress, including okra, peas, eggplants and beans. In the case of peas, the preservation staff measures 17 traits of each of the 79 varieties grown for the collection here at Heritage Farm in 2011. Six of those traits require 10 individual samples. That’s 5,609 individual measurements done by hand—and that's just for the "fully expanded immature pods" life stage. The preservation staff takes measurements at five different life stages throughout the growing season and different traits are measured at each stage. Considering this myriad of variables, it’s no wonder Tor didn’t have a quick response when I asked him how his peas were looking. But I probably should have expected as much from a guy who gardens with a laptop!
But of course all these numbers have a much more significant purpose than derailing efforts at small talk. The preservation department webpage explains this importance:
“Each time seed is regenerated, the potential for genetic change exists. Plant evaluation is one way of knowing that seed harvested is true to the seed that was planted. Each variety we plant is evaluated at several stages throughout the growing season: at seedling emergence, plant maturity, reproductive maturity, and seed harvest. Quantitative and qualitative characteristics are recorded using a modified list of plant descriptors created by the USDA and Biodiversity International. Data is consolidated into brief descriptions for the Yearbook.”
Do you know more about your peas than the average Joe? If so, we need your help. Beginning in 2010, SSE members are invited to participate in our evaluation process by observing certain varieties in their own gardens. Learn more about our Member-Grower Evaluation Network (M-GEN).