Alfred Reed Bishop and Doris William Butler

The picture above is the very tap root of Bishop's Homegrown/Face Of The Earth Seed. My grandparents shortly after moving to Pekin Indiana from Greensburg KY in 1947 where they purchased the farm that is now Bishop's Homegrown. This picture was taken in Pekin in front of the old co-op next to the old railroad depot, neither of which exist today.

Search This Blog

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Selecting and Breeding seed for a bold new climate.

Written and Researched by: Alan Reed Bishop of Hip-Gnosis Seed Development and Bishop's Homegrown

Anybody who has ever lived in Southern Indiana can tell you that the weather can be quite fickle. I've often heard it said that if one does not like the weather in Indiana then they should wait five minutes because it will change. Indeed for at least six months out of the year you may go every other day wearing shorts and a t-shirt to the next day wearing over alls!

However, climate change has certainly thrown Southern Indiana a curve ball over the past five or so years. Us Hoosiers in the southern part of the state hardly know what a spring is anymore and our summers seem to keep getting hotter and drier (minus the '06 season which was incredibly wet, too wet in fact). OOur weather patterns are changing as well as were viewed over the past couple of weeks with the outbreak of winter tornadoes all over Kentuckiana, a rare event, but it does happen from time to time, however within the past 5-8 years with increasing frequency. Coincidently, just as our climate zone has moved up one bracket so to have the weather reflected this, winter thunderstorms and Tornadoes are common in the Tennessee valley, which is where our new zone used to set.

This past planting season I had the foresight to predict that we were going to have a dry summer and I was able to collect a large number of seed accessions from drier parts of the world. Particularly I collected corn seed, squash seed, and some melon seed from Native Seeds/SEARCH out in Tucson Arizona. A preservation center and seed company which specializes in collecting accessions of seeds and preserving them, from desert and arid region dwelling Native Americans of the Southwest and of Mexico. This germplasm is rich in culture, history, and specifically in drought tolerant genes which may become of great importance now in a bold new world of climate change.

We grew out a number of squash and corn accessions last year which were hardly touched by the record setting drought and mostly lack of irrigation here at Bishop's Homegrown. Unlike other farms we do not have a pond on our property (as of yet, though that is an investment which will be made this coming fall), the only sources of irrigation we have on our farm are a creek which we keep dammed up, a couple of springs, and a couple of wells, we also have access to some ponds on surrounding farms within one mile, but hauling water that distance really pulls on our fuel resources.

Of particular importance was some sweet corn seed that we have been experimenting with and which is no present in our Astronomy Domine breeding material, a sweet corn grown by natives out west in what is known as "dry farming", a term basically meaning "allowed to fend for itself". This particular corn showed a lot of vigor and tolerance to drought and didn't in fact seem to notice the drought at all. Of course the drought tolerance was important to us in the breeding of Astronomy Domine and we will be doing selection for those genes in subsequent grow outs of that material.

We also made a number of positive observations on the winter squash which we received from Native Seeds/SEARCH, one would tend to think that dessert cultivated squash would be a dry, somewhat tasteless affair with little foliage. However, the Mochata, Mixta, and Maxima varieties all performed beautifully, were the last to go down in the year, produced an abundance of fruit, and had a nice taste for pies, breads and more, as a matter of fact they are one of the items that has been most highly requested from our farm stand customers for next year. Of course samples of these were also interplanted in our Mass cross of winter squashes and we expect great results from the future segregation of the hand made and bee made chance crosses of those saved accessions.

This year we did quite a bit of business buying seed for research, breeding and for farm stand customers through Native Seeds/SEARCH. I recently requested a number of squash varieties which are new to me, particular of the Cheese squash type as well as the Hubbard types, I requested a few Mixta/Agyrosperma types, but these aren't particularly high on my priority list because I much prefer the Moshata, Mixta, and Pepo types which I also think make better pies and which also seem to perform and store better for us. I am looking forward to making observations on these squash and some new crosses between these and other squash types we will be growing this year. I am particularly interested in the storage capacity, the drought and heat tolerance and the productivity as well as the taste. Of course there is always the added bonus of all the culture and the history of planting seed which has been passed down by Native American farmer after Native American farmer.

Another set of seeds that we requested was a relatively large collection of watermelon genotypes. Much like the squash that Native Americans grew, selected, and passed down the watermelon types are very diverse. Some tribes didn't save seed types separately from one another and let them hybridize freely for years and centuries, selecting only the strongest, most vigorous, nutritious, and pest and disease tolerance. They didn't place so much importance on uniformity and over time plants that appear to be separate and distinct verities were slowly combined into one, open pollinated variety. That is to say that a field planted in one type of Native American squash, one variety of Native American Squash, may throw any number of oddball shapes, sizes and colorations, sometimes more than one "type" to a vine. It is definitely intriguing and a parallel can be drawn between this and the so called "Indiana corn" that’s colors can not be separated out to breed true to one color. The same holds true for some types of watermelons in which one variety may throw several different shaped, different rinded and different flesh colored melons (red and yellow fleshed melons both in one fixed variety).

This diversity, culture, history of use, nutrition, pest tolerance and drought tolerance all make this seed particularly important in my breeding projects here on this farm. With the climate apparently going through such unstable and quick changes in just a few years we could have major drought every year or every few years in which time water (yes there will be a day when "peak water" comes) will be regulated just as it was in Georgia this past year, will be a rare commodity. The only varieties that will survive this type of drought are those with drought tolerance. By growing these South Western, desert dwelling, Native American varieties I am assuring the productivity of my farm as well as of my customer’s tables and assuring the productivity of gardeners and market farmers who I trade with. It is also my intention to breed this tolerance into some of my breeding projects and some of my old time varieties to further enhance their good qualities. It is better to be prepared for some event like this than to loose everything that you have I believe. Of course customers also like this diversity and I expect that by mixing the diverse watermelon seed into my mass cross of red type watermelons I will get an occasional customer who says "I bought a red watermelon from you that were yellow and I loved the taste and the surprise of it all." This is something I always hope for.

Be sure to check out and support Nativeseeds/SEARCH at

No comments: