Seeds in the mail
My interest in seed production began when my son started working on a farm in Arizona growing plants for seed; onions, broccoli, radish, arugula, bok choi. Seeing a field of broccoli in full bloom was both a delight and a surprise. It never occurred to me to wonder where these seeds came from.
The process I am describing is a small family farm producing specialty seeds. Nowadays, commercial seed production is done with sophisticated equipment, computerized, regulated and demanding long hours and meticulous care. Fields are turned over and then leveled to within an inch of level using laser and satellite imagery connected to computers in the tractors. Rows are drawn and measured within 1/2 inch variance depending on the crop planted. Most tractors use GPS to facilitate this accuracy.
Only the best seeds are used. Many of the Arizona farm’s crops are commissioned by a Japanese group that provides personally selected seed from a trusted company. They regularly send representatives to check the state of the crops and come to receive the seeds once harvested.
The family farm where my son works plants in 36-acre plots, maintaining distances of up to two miles between crops that can pollinate each other, like different strains of onions. Unlike a vegetable garden, seeds are planted more closely together to maximize seed production. Irrigation is precise, as is weeding. Weeds like pigweed can grow taller than the seeded plants, compromising the harvest.
Harvesting involves determining the readiness of the pods. There are instruments for this, but my son says the farmer-owner picks a few heads (eg broccoli), slaps them against his jeans and determines the readiness! Harvesting is then done in the evening, from sunset to sunrise due to the increased humidity desired to prevent the pods from exploding.
Most crops, such as onions, are cut with a windrower, a machine with blades adjusted to the height requirements of the crop. (Radishes grown from seed can apparently be five to six feet tall!) The crops are put out to dry in windrows on the ground. Then a combine harvester, a massive machine, scoops up the crop, separates the seeds from the chaff, moves the seed on a conveyor belt and spits it out into a bin or tender. Each bin can hold up to 2,000 pounds of seed or one truck and trailer can hold the contents of the entire 36 acres. The seeds are then transported off-site to be tested, cleaned and measured, using much more sophisticated machinery, to provide us with reliable seeds to grow the crops of our choice. Amazing to me; one acre of onions produces 80 to 200 pounds of onion seeds! That’s a lot of seeds.
Hot, dusty work, long hours, and wonderful, expensive machinery keep my son outdoors, which he loves. He makes careful adjustments so that high quality seeds can be harvested to supply our farms and gardens with the vegetables we need and love.
Nancy Bliss is a Master Gardener at the University of California Tuolumne County Cooperative Extension.