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.

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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Creating diversity in food crops through the time honored tradition of cultural mixing of seed stocks:

Creating diversity in food crops through the time honored tradition of cultural mixing of seed stocks:
A new spin on an old method as realized by many backyard plant breeders.

Written By: Alan Reed Bishop of Hip-Gnosis seed development and Bishop’s Homegrown
All writings are copy left and public domain property. Feel free to distribute!

So much of what we do on our little produce and research farm here in Pekin, Indiana finds its roots in the time honored traditions of days gone by. Of particular and keen interest to the untrained backyard plant breeder are the questions, how and where do I start. We are often asked why we spend so much time making “chance” mass crosses, something that is often frowned upon by the school and book trained plant breeders. I will attempt to give some history and background on what inspired me to take this particular road in many of my current plant breeding programs in the following paragraphs.

I guess I should start by putting forth my philosophy on life; I am whatever is, and will be, and I create reality with my every thought that is put into practical use within the third dimension and which can be proven time and again through process of spiritual evolution, free thinking, and common sense. I hope that didn’t go over your head, but that’s my creed and all of my self study into cultural, spiritual and horticultural knowledge of the past helps me to reinforce this idea. In other words, one doesn’t learn everything (and sometimes one learns nothing) that is practical within the pages of a book, taught within enclosed walls.

One doesn’t have to look far into the past to see the success, rise and eventual fall of all empires, civilizations and ideas. One also doesn’t have to look far to see the implications of a practical use of common sense. With these ideas in mind a few years back I implemented my plant breeding work after re-discovering my love for natural horticulture and agriculture by way of history and proven, time tested, methodology.

Much of my work is typified by “mass crossing” and mixing experiments. Wherein food plants of one species but of different varieties are planted together and encouraged, deeply, to cross with one another, providing myself with a wide diversity of F1 seeds and new recombination’s of genetics in the following year with which to grow out and make selections from.

A good example would be my current watermelon experiments. We have collected a number of watermelon seed types from around the world in colors of pink, red, orange, yellow, and white, in the winter after collection was done we grouped them into like types; red and pink, yellow and orange, and a separate white fleshed mix. The seeds were thoroughly mixed together in their separate color categories and then planted, encouraging crossing between the varieties with a hive of bees or by way of other pollinators (and sometimes hand pollination, particularly for planned crosses or for “selfing” a bloom for the sake of seed purity). The end result will be mixed and more often than not crossed F1 generation seed that will be bulked together and replanted and which will give rise to future selection work, particularly in developing varieties adapted to our disease, insect, and climate pressures here on the farm and in the surrounding area as well as taste and productivity measures.

You might ask why we don’t just trial a number of cultivars and pick what does best. The long and short of it is that we do and we have, however a good selection doesn’t mean you’re best or most creative, artistic, or tasty option, sometimes our “reality“ needs to be shaken up and revisited as it were (seeds are just like ideas and ideas are in fact seeds). In other words if you can find an OP of terrific quality that works well with you, it will be important to keep that variety pure and keep right on propagating it (you never know when the seed companies will stop offering it) however, if you aren’t satisfied playing the averages and you feel a little adventurous, mix it up a bit, plant the seeds and then start the selection process. In time you can, like we have, select for and develop verities of food plants and recombination’s of genetics, in a natural way, that are uniquely suited to your agricultural needs. Sounds rather tongue in cheek right? That’s the point. With a little bit of ingenuity and common sense and an eye for selection you too can explore the diversity and beauty that nature offers us and create your own variety.

Don’t get me wrong, this is definitely not a new idea. As a matter of fact this idea has probably been practiced for as long as agriculture has existed, particularly so by way of the Native Americans. We have often grown out seed types from Native American farmers which will “throw” us all sorts of shapes, sizes and colors of fresh produce all from the same plant! What the natives were able to breed into plants in diversity is absolutely amazing; a good example is seen on display nearly every fall in the form of “Indian corn“.

Often times natives would mix multiple seed lines or varieties into “grexes” or “mixes” used for planting the next year. Weather these original crosses were the results of planed variability or naturally occurring accidental crosses is probably up for debate, but there is no doubt that the natives saw immediately (common sense again!) the results of diversifying their crop types with the aid of new germ plasm which could lend to the selection pressures of their bio-regions and particular requirements. Seed trading was often a large part of communication between tribes and in this way many new seed stocks found their way into many new seed mixes. The history of most crops in the western hemisphere will prove beyond a reasonable doubt how seed can travel and at a pace that is almost unprecedented (for example, watermelon, a crop brought to the new world by the Spaniards, was being grown by the Natives in some places up to 50 years before contact from the Spaniards!) In other words, dent corn (or flint, pop, or sweet corn types) of multiple varieties were mixed together (by type; dent with dent, flint with flint, with some amount of intermixing between types) and grown together for years while making no apparent attempt to select for a crop which would mature uniformly and in a small space of time (modern plant breeders are big on those type of traits due to the modern food processing industry) leading to a wide variety of colors and shapes, and a long harvest window, important to the home gardener and in some Native American rituals. Disease and pest tolerance were probably well noted in the mind of the grower so that seed selection could be made based on the best of the best. Squash and beans, the other two pieces of the important “three sisters” guild, were also often grown in this way. To this day, squash seed, coming from the natives in the arid south west and Mexico by way of Native Seeds /SEARCH shows such diversity that a novice gardener might believe there had been a seed mix up when in fact these seeds are open pollinated, just genetically variable by way of cultural mass crossing of crops, in other words if you try to save seeds of only on type of squash off of a plant that gave you many shapes and colors, you will always get all of those same shapes and colors in the following plantings. It is pretty ingenious if I do say so myself, and a terrific way to develop genetic diversity. It is due to the work of these early natives and seed saving plant breeders that we owe most of the diversity left in our food crops today.

Beans show the same diversity even though they aren’t commonly out crossers, these beans have made chance crosses for so long, that all the varieties have become one variety, in other words, one variety may have as many as five seed types, but any one seed will give rise to all the same variations! Exciting stuff if I do say so myself.

Early plant breeding by large seed companies was often left to chance as well. Many of the older commercial O.P. types were the results of mass crossing, rare spontaneous mutations, or the results of two varieties of one crop being grown in a field together to encourage crossing with future selection work being made on the progeny, bringing the seed into a “fixed“ or open pollinated state.. Many of the very best varieties suited to regional and local agriculture have been breed in this way or by way of accidental crossing and selection pressures.

Much of this crossing led to much improved varieties, particularly within local agriculture and regional agriculture systems. By mixing up the genetics you are in effect shuffling the card deck, looking for new combinations, and constantly rouging out the “bad hands”. Sometimes you get dealt a real winner though and with a little common sense in selecting the “parent” seeds that go into the mix, one can greatly increase their odds of getting that wining hand.

Parent seed selection should be based on firm self study and research, what grows well in your climate, has disease and pest tolerance that matches your needs, is productive and tasty, can you find multiple varieties of one crop type that has all of these traits that you’re searching for, maybe a compromise must be made from time to time. One melon has taste and productivity but no powdery mildew resistance, while one has taste and powdery mildew resistance while not being drought tolerant, one is drought tolerant and productive but you don’t care for the taste, perhaps these are all vineing types and you want a bush types, with a little common sense we can track down all that we need for a mix to create a mass cross, and if one is really on top of the game they can even trade like the natives before us for all the parent stock they will need for only the price of some of their own seed stock.

From the onset of the additional crosses, the ball is in your hand to make and document your selection criteria for your own needs, perhaps you want a uniform crop where selection must be regimented, or perhaps you’re an explorer and lover of diversity in the time honored tradition of the natives and you will select for disease, pest, and taste and allow the diversity to flourish, the choice of course is yours!

Of course one should not completely rule out F1 hybrid seed either. It is by way of much commercial F1 hybrid seed tat we have made many crosses or selected and segregated out an effective open pollinated version of such and F1 hybrid. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, but the beauty is that you always learn and you might just find something great!

Many of our future blogs and research articles will be based on a great many mass crosses and the segregation process that follows here on our farm. Among the many mass crosses that we have or will be working with this year are the following:

Winter squash mixes:
Acorn and mini pumpkins in all colors and variations
Mixta, Moschata, and Maxima mixes
Red cross
Yellow and orange crosses
White Crosses
Modern cherry, grape, and mini pears crossed to high sugar wild relatives in all colors
White Cucumber mass cross
And Many others!

We also make what we term pure “grexes”, where the seed of many varieties of one type of non out crossing crop are mixed and intercropped together for maximum diversity!

1 comment:

Rebsie Fairholm said...

Interesting to read about your activities and ideals, Alan. It's quite similar to what I'm doing, except I'm working on a much smaller scale in my back garden in England. I've been meaning to try the mass-cross and mass-selection method for a while, but as I mostly work with peas (and they're resolutely self-fertile) I mostly have to do hand-pollination. I really enjoy hand-pollinating though, so it's all part of the fun.

I agree that it's important to recognise the spiritual alongside the scientific.

Those jewel-like tomatoes look fabulous ...

Rebsie Fairholm