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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Saturday, August 20, 2011

The persuit of landrace genetics or the alchemical search for an Edenic garden.

Part of our butternut and acorn squash landrace.

Throuought the course of aghistory mankind has faced any number of famine and disease threats closely linked to the food supply and the sustainability thereof. Often I find myself attempting to explain my intentions when it comes to my plant and animal breeding work to customers or under informed friends and family and often it comes off as far too archaiac, analog, and abstract to give a very real or clear understanding of what I do, so here, and on our future .com I will attempt to explain things a bit more clearly.

I, by my nature, am not an overly scientific person; I don't keep good notes, I'm a terrible organizer, and I really only use my minds capacity to it's full potential when confronted with abstract concepts when it comes to putting pen to paper (being previously an improvisational musician likely has a lot to do with this. I'm sure being an only child also has had some effect). I tend to think of my farming/breeding phillosophy as being equally as spiritual as it is scientific. The norms to me do not apply and neither does the judgment of the world outside of myself. The following explanation is posted here to the blog as much for my own rememberence and understanding as it is for those who would read the words.

To understand what is meant when I apply the word "landrace" to a variety of seed one must first understand the traditional definition thereof:

Wikipedia reports the following: 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.

While I agree with it mostly I find myself identifying a bit more with my friend Joseph Lofthouse and his definition: "Adaptavar" Landrace - An adaptivar landrace is a foodcrop lots of genetic diversity which tends to produce stable yields under marginal growing conditions. Landrace crops are adaptively selected for reliability in tough conditions. The arrival of new pests, new diseases, or changes in cultural practices or in the environment may harm some individuals in a landrace population, but with so much diversity many plants are likely to do well under the changing conditions.
In the case of mostly self-pollinating plants like peppers, tomatoes, beans, wheat, and peas a land-race may be thought of as many distinct varieties growing side by side.

In the case of out-crossing plants like cantaloupe, squash, or corn, a land-race can be thought of as an open pollinated population with tremendous genetic diversity. Most of the seeds in an out-crossing land-race end up being unique F1 hybrids.

For a few years I struggled to find a term which might in fact fit as a descriptor for the breeding work I was engaged in here on the farm, coining a few terms myself here on the blog, which I find available via google from time to time but Joseph got it a bit more right than others.

Amanda Palmer Corn in it's second year.

My definition of Adaptavar Landrace: A selection process whereby genetic chaos is controlled marginally by the hands of men attempting to wrangle in the genetic diversity of genepool processes in a way which is intelligent enough to adapt a seed population or animal group to your particular region, micro-climate, and cultural conditions while providing an abundant and reliable harvest with an eye to cullinary or medicinal (sometimes aesthetic) qualities which will still prove profitable. To foster the development of plant/animal varieties in a population which can provide all of these things in self sustainable systems which might include disadvantageous conditions for individual cultivars or breeds including pests and disese as well as parasites, low fertility, or in the case of animals a lack of abundant and cheaply aquired grains (selection for pasture and forage ability) or an ability to evade predators via coloration and or evasion skills. All of this paired with crops and varieties being diverse enough to face the challenges of changing paradigms, both natural and manmade while understanding that the evolutionary chain of events requires a goodly amount of variables which one may not even understand until they see the need for them. In essence, my landraces are a type of "crop insurance" by maintaining diversity I maintain my ability, even in the worst years to produce a crop for home or market use with out relying on the government and their regulations or on a insurance corporation to cover my ass.

Confused yet? I thought perhaps.

In the last 100 years we have progressed more technologically than we did in the previous 10,000 years due in part to both transportation and the green revolution. A paradigm shift was caused with the rise of industrial agriculture and the control of resources such as petrol based fuels and fertilizers into the hands of a small few with access to mass advertizing. In one foul swoop a concentration of power (by big corporations) had changed basic survival needs (food and medicine) and methods of trade and barter with heavily regulated and government subsidized commerce and poisons. The seed trade was turned into a wholesale business by the advent of F1 hybrids designed not for adaptation by bio-region but by perfomance based on averages paired with chemical treatments (created and marketed by the seed compaines and necessary only to the survival of week genetics) to do "average" everywhere as long as you bought the necessary suppliments (cutting out completely the cycle of self reliance on farm waste products and food to animal to manure to food production). To put it simply growing ones own food and medicine the truly "traditional" way became......revolutionary......particularly if you weren't growing it using the new industrial methods and using the new hybrid seeds that Extension agents were reccomending. For a deeper understanding of this "new world" one must also understand the federal reserve, the breakup of the american family, and any other number of divide and conquer, slave/master relationship paradigms.

This concentration of power and marketing has led to any number of health issues and food scares and a great deal of erosion of biological resources. Big corporations do not favor bio-diversity as it does not make for easy, quick, efficient, and bottom line oriented processing in their favor.......and since they pay the bills of the industrialized farm owners and even market gardeners the responce was to settle on the easily sold in bulk, highly inbred, and totally inefficient varieties that the seed companies marketed. Many examples of crop failures exist as examples of how this lack of bio-diversity have already effected our lives (Perhaps you remember the corn blight) or have seen the cascade of crop failures in 2011 alone (inflating even more the price of basic staples on top of the inflation caused by the totally engineered global economic downturn). This all without mentioning the constant money flow out of the farmers pocket and into the seed companies hands annually in exchange for genetics which once existed in a grow it and save it yourself system. The current system works not only against the best interest of the farmer and the consumer but also against the common sense with which the agricultural world once exhibited by completing the cycles of food and seed production on a yearly basis, once again isolating us as a race from what is our basic instinct and cultural heritage in favor of a manipulated power/greed driven slave/master relationship.

The goal is not to reinvent the wheel, but simply to improve it (if improvement is needed. I don't advocate unnecessary work when a simple existing variety fits the niche for example). Prior to the green revolution of now 60 plus years ago we had a number of advantageous locally adapted varieties and landraces which have in the meantime been lost due to aging gardeners and farmers or the downfall of local, bioregionally based seed companies. The heirloom seed movement (as well as the heritage animal movement) has done much to preserve a portion of this bio-diversity much more has been lost than has been saved in certain regions (The Ohio Valley in particular) so we must attempt to locate and integrate necessary bio-diversity on our farms.

What we ultimately are looking for is what we feel works best within our cultural practices and what will provide a hedge against our bets in the worst years of farming and could still be grown practically if resources such as fuel and other commodities were no longer available. These populations are often built out of either local or regional heirlooms, other landrace varieties aquired from breeders, old open pollinated commercial varieties, and the occassional introgression of genetics from exotic locations (particularly if we are looking for short season crops or drought tolerant crops). We tend to try to access our genetics from other small farmers ( as well as local farmers and farm markets) via trade and barter where possible and from commercial sources as little as possible as we are also attempting to expand a network of trade between like minded individuals which fosters good will and cooperation. Ocassionally we lean heavily on wild relatives (particularly this was the case when breeding our previously mentioned "Kiva" turkey variety). Sometimes the genetics are particularly diverse as is the case in Amanda Palmer and Astronomy Domine corn and other times we are simply trying to add an infusion of genetics while selecting for a narrower pallet of particular traits (an example of this is a population of watermelons we are persuing based around the positive traits of Charleston Gray with the additon of yellow and orange fleshed genes and disease tolerance).

This allows us to grow out a vast array of genetics in the first generation while making both controlled and unexpected crosses and to eliminate any unwanted genetics from the future breeding pool. As the years cycle through we see the rise of new genotypes and phenotypes and make informed selections about which of those performs best under our conditions. This provides us with both farm adapted seed and the opporotunity to help foster the development of an entirely new population of plants from which we deprive or means of health, wealth, and livelyhood which saves us money on seeds and guarantees a harvest even in years when crops of the same species might have failed in the region over, something that is not provided by inbred lines, hybrids, or even most open pollinated selections.

Stepping into this fold is not neccesarily as easy as one might presume, but by no means is it difficult, it simply takes some understanding of how basic biology in plants and animals works as well as persistence and determination. The obvious starting point is identifying the need for a new and unique variety and understanding the challenges of producing a crop in your bio-region by incorporating the knowledge you have gathered about pests, disease, site fertility, and weather and then applying those criteria to your selection process regarding foundation genetics (stock you will use to develop a population) as well as selections from those populations in the succeding generations. This is essentially the same sort of method that would give rise to a single Open Pollinated line but we desire to go beyond that and incorporate a diversity of phenotypic and genomic traits (both for utility and for beauty) in creating a landrace. While it is fun to persue genetics from far off exotic places your best bet is to start with varieties already well adapted to your region or adapted to regions similar to yours by ammasing open pollinated lines, other landrace strains, and even.....gasp F1 hybrids which match your wants and needs. (though in some crops cytoplasmic male sterility may be an issue as a new paper written by Joseph Lofthouse explains)

A few other things one may want to take into consideration when creating a landrace:

-Take advantage where possible to allow natural pollinators into your crops to ensure cross polination. Where there is no reason to persue the hard work of hand pollinations and controlled crosses one would be wise to allow nature to take it's course

-Always hold back some samples of seed of the past two or three years to mix back into your stock for the sake of maintaining diversity if you end up skewing your project away from it's intended destination

-Share your seed with other locals and encourage them to make their own selections, working in cooperation to develop new varieties.

The end game and desired solution is the creation of a vast stock of bio-regionally genetically diverse crop seeds. If your at all involved in agriculture you have seed the profusion of local gardeners and farmers, many organic based, speaking to the need for local "food sheds" but oft overlooking the need for a solid foundation for this food shed.......seeds. To be sustainable you have to have seed and if you aren't saving those seeds your not sustainable and you have missed the point entirely.

Kiva Turkey Landrace Poults.

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