Organic Broadcaster

Partners start open-sourced network to grow seeds for research, preservation

By Jody Padgham, MOSES

These striking lima beans are from Ethiopia. The Experimental Farm Network has been created to help preserve rare seeds like these, as well as creating a network for growing out new varieties for researchers.

Climate change and monoculture farming threaten the world’s food supply—it’s a food system “propped up by three inappropriate pillars: GMO corn, GMO soy, and inbred wheat, all grown with intense chemical inputs,” claimed Nate Kleinman. Hoping to turn the tide, Kleinman and his business partner, Dusty Hinz, have created the Experimental Farm Network, an open-source network to facilitate collaboration on plant breeding projects and other agricultural research.

Kleinman and Hinz believe that sustainable crops and growing systems of the future—including those with the power to reverse climate change—will only be developed through a large-scale effort that is open, transparent, and organized from the ground up. They started the Experimental Farm Network (EFN) last year and signed up 300 volunteer growers in every zone from Maine to Hawaii.

“We plan for EFN to one day become the largest ‘citizen science’ project in history. Our primary goal is to stop or even reverse climate change through agricultural innovation,” Kleinman said. “We are sure this is possible, but ‘how’ remains an open question.”

Expanding an early passion for plant diversity, Kleinman discovered the USDA National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS, www.ars-grin.gov/npgs) database. NPGS is a cooperative effort by public and private organizations to “acquire, characterize, preserve, document, and distribute to scientists, germplasm of all lifeforms important for food and agricultural production.” The database has over 12,000 plant species, which researchers can request for genetic research and other projects. USDA research facilities and government funds are used to do some research and grow out germplasm for ongoing preservation.

Kleinman spent months exploring the database listings from around the world—from Afghanistan to Iceland, and Indonesia to Syria. He was especially drawn to plants from countries under siege either from human conflict, or environmental conflict, such as rising sea levels.

“There is so much genetic material there that could be important to our future,” Kleinman stated. He feels that government and big ag-funded researchers can’t be counted on to protect and explore the vast diversity and potential. He sees the government as being ultimately ineffective at protecting and utilizing this vast and important resource. “The system relies on the support of the federal budget, so it is vulnerable.”

For the past several years Kleinman has himself been receiving seeds, tubers, plant cuttings and bulbs from the NPGS, which will distribute them to “anyone with a legitimate research, education, or breeding purpose.” He is growing out numerous varieties in farm fields near Vineland, New Jersey which he said was once known as the “California of the East.”

But, Kleinman said, his project needed to grow beyond what he himself could do and involve other people. He also wanted to “expand beyond preservation and into innovation.” Thus, the idea of EFN was born.

EFN is an “open-source, participatory model” that creates collaborations between researchers and farmers to protect and develop plant germplasm. The network invites both Experiment Designers and Volunteer Growers, working together in participatory plant breeding, variety trials on under-utilized crops, and seed-saving. “Anyone can design a project and recruit volunteers through the network,” Kleinman said.

There is much vision in the project. “To create a new paradigm—to not only be sustainable, but restorative—we will need new crops, new methods, and plenty of new farmers, too. We are committed to finding these new crops, new methods, and new farmers, and we recognize that none of us can do these things alone.”

EFN was piloted in the growing season of 2015, and around 300 participants in 43 US states and 4 Canadian provinces are currently taking part as either Experiment Designers, Volunteer Growers, or both. Current EFN projects involve quests for perennial wheat and sorghum, and Dr. Frank Kutka’s “organic-ready” corn that resists outcrossing. Kleinman hopes to see additional efforts to develop perennial grains and oilseeds which would sequester carbon, preserve soil, and require fewer inputs.
Kleinman expects that the EFN will breathe new life into long-running efforts that have yet to live up to their potential. “It may take many more years or decades still, before EFN innovations are ready for wide use, but we are nevertheless certain that our open-source, participatory model will yield innovations none of us can yet predict,” he explained.

In its first year, EFN relied on the labor of Kleinman and Hinz to create the matches between growers and researchers and source the germplasm material. The goal, though, is to have an interactive website where researchers (“Experiment Designers”) and growers can find each other.
“As the network develops, seed will be coming back,” Kleinman explained. “Saved seeds will eventually go bad, they must continue to be grown out. A major goal is to get people growing seeds to preserve for future use. Even if it isn’t obvious now, they may be important for some reason in the future. There is great value in keeping them growing.”

While it’s too late to join for this year, it’s not too early to start thinking about how you might like to use the EFN next year, whether designing experiments or taking part as a volunteer grower. Even gardeners with only a few square feet to spare—just enough to grow out a few plants of a rare landrace wheat from Syria, for instance—can make a difference. Kleinman noted that those with solid experience in successful organic growing are especially needed so researchers can be assured that their projects will unfold and viable seed will be created.

Plant breeders and researchers are encouraged to think of how they can utilize dozens of volunteers across the country willing and able to help.

Kleinman hopes that the EFN website will be open soon, with applications for Experiment Designers and Volunteer Growers later this fall. He noted that a crowd-sourced fundraising effort will soon be launched to help cover costs of the network’s development.

“Neither giant agri-businesses nor the universities and governments they bankroll will ever innovate a challenge to the dominant status quo, yet these same institutions conduct most agricultural research today. If the EFN is successful, all farmers will one day have free access to new crops and systems, collaboratively developed for public use, in the public domain, and to benefit the public good,” Kleinman concluded.

Contact EFN Co-Founder Nate Kleinman at nathankleinman@gmail.com. With the EFN website still in development, follow progress, including the launch of the crowd-sourced fundraising effort on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ExperimentalFarmNetwork.

Jody Padgham is the Finance Director for MOSES and a contributing editor for the Organic Broadcaster.

From the July | August 2015 Issue

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