Podolls, seed-saving stewards, named Organic Farmers of Year

By Jody Padgham, MOSES

Ginger and David Podoll, and Theresa (right) and her husband, Dan Podoll (not pictured) are the 2014 MOSES Organic Farmers of the Year.

North Dakota seed and grain farmers, David, Ginger, Dan and Theresa Podoll of Prairie Road Organic Farm and Seed in Fullerton, ND, have earned the 2014 MOSES Organic Farmers of the Year award.

Their core values—dedication to the development of regionally adaptive organic vegetable and grain seeds, commitment to community, and living lightly on the earth—illustrate why they are receiving this award.

The farm, started by the brothers’ parents in 1953 and certified organic since 1977, encompasses 480 acres. The Podolls grow a variety of small grains, with six to eight acres dedicated to regional organic vegetable variety seed production. “We strive for self-sufficiency and use the food we produce in our gardens as a teacher about how to manage the rest of the farm,” David said.

The Podolls focus on cooperation in both production and their community. “We believe in cooperation rather than competition, whether we are talking about our family, our community, the crops or our relationship with the earth,” Theresa said. The four members of this generation are joined by a couple of their children to accomplish the work on the farm. Theresa and Dan returned to the farm after college in the mid-1980s. “We decided, rather than expand, we would diversify to support multiple family members. We want to farm smarter, not bigger.” They reap the benefit of human biodiversity, with each person bringing unique skills, interests and labor to the operation.

As manager of small grain production on the farm, David fosters a diversity of crops. “Everything we grow is a specialty crop,” he explained. Triticale, hairy vetch, and buckwheat are grown for grain and seed. Crown proso millet has been grown on the farm from the same seed for 60 years. “We’ve been saving and planting it back, and it maintains its vigor and other qualities year to year,” he exclaimed. “There’s no better testament to our soil vitality and health.”

Sweet Dakota Rose watermelon awaiting seed harvest_2

Sweet Dakota Rose watermelon awaits seed harvest in the field at Prairie Road Organic Farm and Seed in Fullerton, N.D.

Management practices include cover cropping, careful weed management, (including hand-weeding in the vegetables), diverse crop rotations and green manures. “We generally have a quarter to a third of the grain cropland, and two thirds of the vegetable land in green manures,” David said. They strive to have 100% of the land covered with crops going into winter, “the time of most erosion.” Manure is brought in for fertility from a nearby Hutterite community farm. To provide diversity, the farmers maintain numerous margins–trees, wetlands, grasslands. “We farm in between,” David said.

The commitment to community and regional adaptability also drive the vegetable seed aspect of the business. “Our goal is continual improvement and adaptation in both the vegetables and crops,” Theresa said. “We foster varieties that can adapt and perform well in our region.”  Their work focuses on harvesting the best and planting back generation after generation to produce varieties that are enduring and specifically adapted to their northern plains environment.  “We do what farmers have been doing for millennia,” David explained. “We are seed savers and stewards, not just seed takers,” Theresa added, noting that they strive to provide for their own seed needs for the operation.  They focus special attention on selecting plants that thrive in organic systems, and timing planting and pollination windows to prevent cross-pollination with GMO crops. “Our goals are to cultivate plants with strength and vigor in all of our region’s growing conditions.”

Through Prairie Road Organic Seed, the Podolls offer 27 varieties of vegetable seeds and four small grains adapted to thrive in the Northern Plains region. The seeds are direct-marketed through their website, local stores, and at regional shows and conferences. Theresa says that direct marketing has added a lot to their knowledge, and that they learn a lot from customers. “People tell us how vigorous our seeds are, that they virtually pop out of the soil,” she laughed. “Talking to our customers is a perfect feed-back loop.” She sees the seed business as an expansion of local and regional food systems. “Just as we need local food, we need local seeds.”

On-farm research is key to the operation. At any one time, there are several on-farm research plots. “We are targeting underserved crops not likely to be addressed by land-grant university research,” David said. He is pleased that they’ve been able to dedicate 8 to 10 acres to small grain seed and variety research. The vegetable plots are virtually constant research incubators. As founding members of the Northern Plains Farm Breeding Club (FBC), the Podolls are excited to work with plant breeders to develop varieties well suited to organic production, increase diversity in rotations and expand the use of regionally relevant seeds. “Farmers are losing the power to choose what seed to grow, where the seed comes from, and how it is produced,” Theresa explained. “The FBC addresses the triple bottom line of sustainability: ecological, social and economic.”

It is impossible to capture the vast diversity and depth of community involvement and education the Podolls have participated in over the years. “I receive back as much as I give through community work. You can never really ‘out-give,’” Theresa claimed. David was a founding member of the Northern Plains Agriculture Society (NPSAS) and served as a Board member for many years. Both David and Theresa (the “travelling members” of the family) have spoken at numerous conferences and workshops, locally, regionally and nationally, and served on many boards and committees. David notes that his work on the organic review board of Farm Verified Organic was very important in helping him understand how needed education was for organic farmers to make their farms more sustainable. He is proud of helping organize an “Organic 101” course and has been a presenter at numerous organic production workshops. The farm generally holds a well-attended field day every year.

“Organic farming is exciting, creative work, and there is a lot more to learn.” Theresa concluded. “We must consider ourselves a part of the circle of life, not apart from it, and not in control of it. We are dependent on the circle of life around us.”

“Farming must be an artful venture,” David added. With mentors such as Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson and Aldo Leopold, he isn’t shy to share his base philosophies. “Seeds are a sacred thing. Everything we have now is built on farmers selecting seeds for millennia. All of that genetic diversity is a great gift. Seeds should not be owned, patented, or controlled.”

Congratulations to the Podoll families of Prairie Road Organic Farm and Seed on their achievement of the 2014 MOSES Organic Farmer of the Year. The Podolls received their award at the 2014 MOSES Organic Farming Conference Friday, Feb. 28 in La Crosse, Wis.

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