It is often asked of myself and fellow plant breeders such as Joseph Lofthouse what the definition of land race is, or more definitively what our definition of land race might indeed be since it seems to differ in the opinion of some from the definition provided by common sources.
First we must look at the standard definition of land race. Since I am entirely to lazy at the moment to look it up properly in the dictionary, the generic definition from Wikipedia will have to suffice.
A landrace is a local variety of a domesticated animal or plant species which has developed largely by natural processes, by adaptation to the natural and cultural environment in which it lives. It differs from a formal breed which has been bred deliberately to conform to a particular standard type. Landraces are usually more genetically and physically diverse than formal breeds. Many formal breeds originated from landraces, and sometimes a particular type has both landrace and formal breed populations. Sometimes a formalised breed retains the "landrace" name, despite no longer being a true landrace.
Where people seem to have a problem with the term Landrace as used by this breeder and many others at Homegrown Goodness
is in our insistence that new landrace varieties can be and are being developed, even if by the traditional sense of the word our new genepools can't be defined as landraces as we speak.
To truly understand what is meant by us when we speak of breeding landraces we need to take a look at the methodology behind breeding a new landrace. First off however it is important for us to come to a conclusion about the current state of the seed industry and why intrepid breeders have decided to persue the mixing of genetics.
The heirloom seed movement may have started in the 1970's with the "back to the land" crowd but didn't hit full stride until probably about 1999-2005 when the term went main stream via the media. This was a boon to those of us interested in bio-diversity and genetic preservation, suddenly we had access to genetics that we were never able to access before, particularly because of the profusion of botanically related words and definitions in the media but also because the Internet allowed us to network in ways not previously possible. All of these things are greatly beneficial to the average gardener, market gardener, and plant breeder, but some of us dream of possibilities beyond the next hill in the road.
There is no doubt the amount of diversity being offered by both conventional companies such as Burpee as well as the myriad of small heirloom seed companies is much greater than what has been commonly available before and that there is indeed a parallel between these small companies and the companies of 100 years ago, but one valuable little advantage is missing. The missing component is the bio-regionally based seed company.
Take for example a company such as Baker Creek Seeds, a good company no doubt, with a diverse offering of many types of seed from all over the world, a feat not easily accomplished by just any small seed company and something to be admired for sure. Of course the original branch of Bakers Creek is located in the Ozarks but they markets seed worldwide and often those stocks are amplified by growers in diverse climates, presumably climates and regions scattered across the US, sometimes climates completely different from their point of origin.
On the other hand 100 years ago the intrepid small seed company endeavored to serve the bio-region in which it was located, perhaps a three to four state swath with climates at least similar enough to allow for the overlapping of farmers seed repatoirs between states. The seed was often grown by the seed house selling the seed and the selections were most often varieties well adapted to the bio-region where they were being marketed and often times were made up of "folk varieties" from samples sent to the company via "farmer John". This gave everyone access to varieties very well suited to the local climate, varieties likely selected under very similar stresses and advantages to the ones the crops would experience in your garden, if you yourself saved those seeds for a few years they would be further adapted to your very own micro-climate and would likely out perform the seeds sold to you originally by the company they were purchased from.
There is a related parable here in the form of local "folk" varieties and their reliability. At one point in time (prior green revolution) it is likely that most bio-regions had multiple repetoirs of locally adapted varieties sourced via trades beteen friends and neighbors. This is to say that each bio-region had a preferred watermelon, tomato, corn, bean, ext and many times these varieties were made up of a mixed heritage or mixed bag of genetics. True folk landraces which lent horizontal resistance to disease and from which the lives of many people were nourished and which upon each successive generation became further adapted to the climate they were grown in. The Ozarks and Appalachians are excellent examples of such bio-regionally adapted landraces. Every family had their own version of "greasy beans", many of which were likely simple selections from a wider landrace of varieties grown endemically in the region.
Of course native tribes the world over, the very founders of civilization at the dawn of such relied on such varieties. It was well known that crops crossed back and forth even if the method thereof was not well understood and the cultural mixing of seeds was often practiced much to the advantage of the farmers culturing the new stocks. This was the "status quo" of plant breeding for nearly 10,000 years and is still what we find today when we look to the history books as well as the native population of any particular bio-region. It was a simple fact of observation that diverse crops gave more options in terms of disease resistance, production, and hardiness as opposed to deeply inbreed lines. This was the earliest form of plant breeding, population breeding which gave rise to those landraces as defined above and it is this which we are trying to recreate.
This is not the case in today's world, for the most part (though there is a positive movement towards small bio-regional seed companies growing 90-100% of their own seeds). For example, though Baker Creek is located in the Ozarks they only offer a simple handful of varieties adapted to that bio-region. The biggest fallacy of the entire heirloom community (and I am talking purists here, plant snobs as we have discussed before) is that all heirlooms are created equally in diverse climates when in fact this is not the case, a plant from India will not grow as well or adapt as readily to Indiana as a variety originally sourced from a local bio-region. In other words high dessert crops don't grow well in the deep south and deep south crops don't do well in the middle east.
Of course someone with a bit of time on their hands and a penchant for deep research could locate the locally adapted landraces or selections thereof, if they still exist, but the simple sad fact is that most of them that do still "exist" are either out crossed and no longer matching description and thus no longer very well adapted to their "homeland" or they are so inbred as to be considered useless, more often however they were simply widely discarded by well meaning farmers who listened too intently to the local extension office when "new" and "improved" hybrids were introduced.
Thus is is up to the intrepid farmer (who by definition is a seed saver and by proxy a plant breeder) to find a solution to the dilemma.
There are two steps in our creation of new landraces here at Hip-Gnosis (R&D of Face Of The Earth/Bishop's Homegrown). The first is the creation of a "genepool" or an admixture of varieties which have the potential to contribute some traits which we think may be useful in the development of a new and very bio-diverse landrace.
We scour the gene banks, trade lists, seed companies, and local folk resources for whatever might be of use to us, mixing seeds of such varieties together in roughly equal amounts, this sometimes includes even commercial hybrids who' gentics themselves are largely the result of past generations of folk breeders and then plant them in blocks in the field, trying to encourage pollination by whatever means the variety of plant at hand needs for pollination; wind, insects, exct.
At the end of the year we evaluate the fruit of such labors for all qualities agronomic, culinary, and storage/other saving the seed from only the best performers which will once again be blended together in the next years crop in equal amounts.
Years of this same method of selection eliminates some of the genetic diversity which is deleterious in our particular climate while enhancing what is useful to our tastes and needs while allowing for a very diverse phenotype well adapted to our climate. This is the very definition of landrace.
Of course in the end it's all based on preference and that's the beautiful thing about what we do here, every year we create new genepools and send them out to others via trades or the catalog in the early filial generations, when they may still be selected in climates opposite of our own giving rise to multiple landraces or individual selections adapted to different bio-regions while continuing our own work within the genepool until we have selected our own locally adapted landrace.