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, November 4, 2008

Independent plant breeders and their importance in the 21'st century

I was responding to a post about our little blog over at Patrick's blog ( when I realized that my response might make for an interesting blog of my own, so as follows is my copy and paste blog entry (with minor corrections):

I think we are on the verge of some great things in the sphere of agriculture and plant breeding on an independent and self-sustainable level considering the number of breeders showing up recently on our message boards ( It was only a couple of years ago that the majority of all conversations held on gardening web-sites based on organic/eco-logically grown practices were based on only open pollinated/heirloom seeds and their conservation and it seemed like any talk of breeding work using these varieties or commonly available hybrids was heresy condemned by forum arguments and the general shunning of plant breeders, little did people realize that the seed planted by folks like Alan Kapuler, Ken Etlinger, Frank Moreton and Tom Wagner had already began to sprout and take root and suddenly experienced heirloom gardeners were becoming interested in plant genetics and alternatives to the available heirlooms.

Looking back I suppose it was only a matter of time as the general problem within the heirloom seed movement was that there was a growing contingency of what I call “seed snobs”, that is to say completists whom thought they could grow any heirloom seed anywhere and it would be better than anything on the market, OP or not, that was considered new and possibly trendy.

The problem with that line of thinking is as we all know Heirlooms are adapted to specific climatic and micro-climatic conditions and have been adapted to those conditions for generations, this is something that can not be changed with only a year or two of work regardless of experience, this of course led to any number of disasters with both experienced gardeners trying heirlooms for the first time and new gardeners giving them a go in their earliest attempts at food production and this is not to mentioned the experienced heirloom gardener who thinks he can pull of that miracle of growing a crop from the high dessert in the humid Ohio Valley (lesson learned), something that just can’t be done with much measured success from my experiences.

I think this more than anything has opened gardeners up to looking for local heirloom seeds and regional ones and then looking to independent plant breeders for segregating and unstable genetic material and the direction to make selections from this material that is young enough in the Filial chain for them to make educated decisions in selection criteria in creating their own variety or strain adapted to their area. In this way gardeners can fill in the gaps in their locally sourced heirloom seeds, create an alternative to what’s available, and generally create the “Wow” factor in not only their neighbors but even in experienced heirloom gardeners.

Of course this isn’t discounting the work being done with alternative crops such as Quinoa, Amaranth, Yacon, and Oca by new up and coming independent plant breeders, it is often us who first find an interest in these crops (by way of the previous generation of independent plant breeders/seed savers) and then introduce them to the wider heirloom growing audiences. We set very good examples I think.

In the near future I look for this to be the next big gardening movement, thanks in part to Carol Deppes book, "breed your own vegetable varieties", which changed the perceptions of heirloom gardeners in response to plant breeders, I think we will see many more backyard plant breeders coming up with unique innovations, a very good example of this is Ken Allen and his Tetra Baby watermelon which Michel Lachaume (Canada Mike) turned me on to this previous season, be sure to look it up as it is a very interesting work of “art”.

A few years down the line I don't see it as impossible to find listings of one variety of seed followed by their "strain" identification including various selection criteria and what region that the source material was selected in and from whence the original mixed genetics came from. A database of varieties and their various alternative strains if you will, this will give gardeners a better grasp on selecting new material that is adapted to their location already. I foresee how this can open many doors for the independent plant breeder.

All in all the new wave and old wave of independent plant breeders are responsible for some very terrific things in regards to plant breeding, we are the future of gardening really, particularly when it comes to “Functional Foods” or as I call them “Value Added” seeds and their continued adaptations to local climates.

-Alan Reed Bishop


Patrick said...

Your suggestion of a database with different strains is excellent!

I struggle with the issues you addressed in this post on my blog. In the past I've talked about this a bit (but you've said it better here than I ever have), however I also often avoid the topic.

The reason I avoid the topic is for the same reason there are 'seed snobs', there are just a lot of people who would read this and get glassy-eyed. People want what is fundamentally a somewhat complex subject, cut into bit sized pieces and spoon fed to them. If you can't do that, then they become afraid of OP seeds and feel more confident going to the hardware store and buying a packet of seeds off the shelf, so they don't need to think about.

It would be great however if you wrote some more posts along these lines! There's really a shortage of these ideas and this kind of information on the Internet. It reminds me I need to write about these things more.

All feedback like this is really appreciated with respect to the seed network I'm trying to get going, and I'm going to do my best to incorporate these ideas.

You might think about starting your own seed network. Use the page that you reposted here, but change it according to what you think it should be. In that way you have a smaller seed network that more closely meets your needs, but can still interact with other people sharing seeds.

In the same way it was great to just be able to link to your page offering seeds, and be done with it, it would really be great if you or someone else organized a 'Bishop's Homegrown' seed network I could just link to.

If we have lots of smaller seed networks these are more likely to serve the people in them. We could have networks of more advanced people, beginning gardeners, various regions, maybe specializing in different kinds of plants. As long as we have agreement on the the ways we are all going to communicate and some other basic principles, the network can grow and can become stronger as a result of the differences and decentralization.

Rebsie Fairholm said...

Hear hear!

Patrick is absolutely right too.

There's a cultural issue here. In our lifetimes we've got so used to the idea of store-bought seeds, usually accompanied by impossibly seductive glossy colour pictures on the packets, that most of us have forgotten that there's an alternative. But I can see that changing, slowly but surely. The informal seed sharing networks are the hub of that change.

The funny thing is, every time we try to 'preserve' an heirloom variety in its pure form we are going against nature. Nature demands constant change, she wants to shake those genes up and recombine them, whether we like it or not. Inbreeding depression is nature's way of rejecting too much 'varietal purity'. Even if you do manage to keep a variety pure and untainted without it becoming an inbred runt, nature will thwart you yet again by introducing spontaneous mutations ... mistakes in the copying of DNA ... which actually form the bedrock of evolution!

I understand why people feel the need to preserve old varieties unchanged ... I share that instinct and it gives me a warm feeling to be nurturing the same varieties my ancestors knew and loved. But anyone who thinks their beloved 'heirloom' is genetically identical to what it was 100 years ago is deluding themselves ... it's evolving year by year, just as it should!

And of course breeding new varieties using heirloom genes is not in any way harmful to those heirlooms. It's an "as well as", not an "instead of".

Mike said...


I take to heart your remarks concerning locally-adapted varities. However, there is one more joker in the pack: climate change. Yesterday's locally-adapted variety might well become next-year's maladjusted misfit. All the more need for international exchange of varieties that might not be optimally suited to an area right now, but introduce a wildness into the local gene-pool that enables adaptibility and survivability into the future.

Bishops Homegrown said...

Thanks for the words of encouragement and inspirations Patrick, I just do what I can to try to inform other curious gardeners. It really is a shame that some of the other gardening messageboards won't allow the posting of links to other gardening sites like homegrown goodness ( because I think we should all work together in that way and if we could just get the name of the forum out there and in the open I believe the more adventerous gardeners would stick their head in from time to time and become interested in seeing just how deep the rabbit hole goes, however any time I have proposed this at places like gardenweb,, or tomatoville I have been chastised for daring do so for fear that I might "steal" a regular poster from them and brainwash them with my ideas.

I will work some more on the seed network thing shortly, I have some ideas that have been gestating for quite some time and we will see where they lead. The one thing I do want to point out to people who are prospecting my seed is that many of my seeds are in various stages of early segregation or re-combination of genes if you will, this means that regardless of your location you are getting a mix of genetic material that you can work with in creating a locally adapted strain for your area and then you could later offer that strain for trade or even sell, the only thing I ask for the bit of work I do with these projects is that they don't land in the hands of bio-tech companies and be sure to throw a little credit my way from time to time (what can I say, we all like to see our name in print don't we?)

Rebsie, I completely agree with you about the cultural issue and the bias towards OP and newly bred OP varieties. I live in an area with a strong sense of culture and links to the ways of old, but in reality very few people know the old ways of gardening and even fewer have collected, saved, or continued on with seed grown by their ancestors in this area, however with a bit of education I have been able to bring several younger people and middle aged farmers back to the fold by way of organic farming and OP seeds, reminding them of stories, hints, tips and more that have been remembered and passed down to them through the generations about farming/gardening.

I too find it funny that heirloom preservationist seem in many ways to miss the point of an ever evolving food crop, there is great merit in keeping gene pools alive and growing them, but trying to save every last cultivar on the planet and keep it from changing in one way or the other is a completly impossible task, I once argued with Carolyn Male about how often mutations actually do occur in tomato crops and she did nothing but try to reduce me to an infidel by claiming that in my lifetime I would be lucky to only see one or two mutations when in fact I documented 3 in one year. Sometimes I think we can't just open the door for others, we sort of have to knock it down for them.

I definitely agree that plant breeding is not a "instead of" but indeed an "as well as", I wish more people saw it the way we do.


I definitely agree about the joker in the pack called climate change, people can deny climate change all the want and yet right now in Southern Indiana it is in the 70's in November! Heck Indiana just had a tropical storm not that long ago! That is some real climate change.

The good thing about locally adapted varieties is it gives you an evolutionary base to start from, in other words maybe we can nurture these plants along as the climate changes and adapt them over time to the new conditions, they basically give us a base line and in some cases the varieties themselves have seen some drastic climate changes already in their history which might give them a predisposition to be better suited for evolutionary selections (human induced evolution? safer than GMO's I'd say)

I know in the past couple of years many of my locally collected varieties have been put through the ringer because of the strange Southern Indiana weather, but each year I see marked improvement to unusual conditions and that gives me a good starting point any how.