Organic Broadcaster

2015 MOSES Organic Farmers of Year adapt to climate change by saving, breeding seeds

By Jody Padgham, MOSES

Long-time organic farmers Greg and Mary Reynolds of Riverbend Farm in Delano, Minn., are the 2015 MOSES Organic Farmers of the Year. This prestigious award recognizes organic farmers who practice outstanding land stewardship, innovation and outreach. The Reynolds received their award at the 2015 MOSES Organic Farming Conference last week.

Dedicated to experimenting with new systems to improve biodiversity and fertility on 30 acres of diversified organic vegetable and small grains production, the Reynolds are well known for their generosity in sharing their knowledge with both other farmers and consumers.

Riverbend Farm, which the Reynolds have managed using organic practices “forever,” has been certified organic since 1994, currently through MOSA. The Reynolds market a diversity of vegetables primarily to wholesale accounts in the Twin Cities, including restaurants, food co-ops, nursing homes, and hospitals. They also have a CSA.

Greg is the primary farmer, supported by Mary, also a private practice physiotherapist, and paid farmhands. Two daughters, Jennifer and Jeri, are grown and are now off the farm. “Mary does a lot of the support roles that keep the wheels on when the season gets crazy, everything from the simple to the experimental,” Greg explained. She not only keeps the crew well-fed, but also jumps in when needed in the field. Her 15 years of off-farm employment are also important in providing health insurance.

The foundations of the Reynolds’ operation are seed selection for success in wildly variable weather patterns, the use of cover crops for fertility, and careful management to prevent erosion and encourage wild habitat.

A long-time organic vegetable grower, Greg has recently found new passion in exploring and developing locally selected and grown seeds. “As the weather gets more chaotic, locally adapted seed stuffs will become even more important,” Greg said. “Last year we had two feet of snow and it was bitter cold, and this year it’s above freezing and bare ground.” Recent springs have been cold and wet, pushing planting late into the season and challenging early season field work.

“Our seeds must be able to thrive in both cold and wet and hot and dry—this is the polar opposite of what genetic engineering is breeding for,” Greg claimed. “They breed to encourage one specific trait, while we need more general adaptability. We can no longer plan on stable growing conditions.”

He also pointed out that many seeds are produced on the west coast, in hot and dry (“perfect”) conditions, and can’t be counted on to thrive in ever more variable Midwestern climates.

For the past several years, Greg has been growing older, open-pollinated varieties, and selecting seeds from the plants that thrive, no matter what the weather. After about three years of selection he’s got versatile and hearty strains on the way to becoming well adapted to the conditions on his farm. Working on this project for about five years, Greg has found his own saved seed does much better than purchased seed of the same variety. He attributes part of this to the seed’s adaptation to organic management, especially the slow release of fertility from cover crops and other natural sources. “I have seen remarkable results in a very short time,” he said.

Greg now grows and selects seed for over 100 vegetable varieties, including peppers, onions, carrots, zucchini, cucumbers, winter squash and tomatoes. Some of their accounts have asked about organic table flowers, Mary is working on selecting good looking varieties that do well in their conditions, adding more diversity to the crop mix. Greg has also built some customized small-scale seed cleaning equipment. Although he’d love to grow enough seed to sell to other local producers, for now Greg is dedicated to producing for the needs of Riverbend Farm, doing the work “because it’s so much fun, so compelling.”

Greg suggested that other farmers would benefit from selecting and saving their own seed, and offered these suggestions:
• Choose older, open-pollenated varieties. There are some great genetics in hybrids but they take longer to select and stabilize.
• Select seeds from plants that are thriving and produce the fruit or growth qualities that you want.

Cover Crops Provide Fertility
Greg plants his 30 acres with about 10 acres of vegetables each year, in a four-year rotation with a diversity of cover crops, which are his primary source of fertility. “Unless we continually rebuild the soil, we are stripping the fertility,” he stated. The sandy soil at Riverbend forces him to pay close attention to fertility. A heavier soil may hide degradation longer, he pointed out, as it won’t be as obvious that the soil is being stripped.
Greg likes mixes of oats with peas, and rye with vetch, as well as yellow sweet clover as cover crops. He is also exploring sorghum sudan, and trying to work out how to incorporate it for organic matter without using a lot of nitrogen to break down the plants. He doesn’t use manure, but will occasionally apply compost, which he likes for bringing in new nutrients. “But compost is never as good as the growing plants of cover crops,” he claimed. Greg is committed to not having bare ground over winter, relying on cover crops and spring tillage to minimize wind erosion.

Farm as an Oasis
With years since any toxins have been used on the farm, it as an oasis for wildlife, Greg said, adding “We let nature find its own balance.” Rich habitat for beneficial insects ensures their abundance and ability to play an important role in controlling devastation by insect crop “pests.” A study by the University of Minnesota showed that 60% of the cabbage moth eggs and larvae on the farm had been parasitized – proving that a natural predator-prey balance was in play. “Encouraging diversity adds to the health of our ecosystem, and fewer problems for our crops,” Greg remarked. “We must get away from one-dimensional management and monocultures.”

The Reynolds strive to make systems energy efficient, and are in the process of exploring solar panels on the barn for electricity production. A large, energy efficient root cellar stores vegetables for winter sales.

Sharing the Wealth
Greg is well-known in Twin Cities and Midwestern educational venues. He participates in the MOSES Farmer-to-Farmer Mentoring Program, the Land Stewardship Farm Beginnings program and in workshops for the Minnesota Sustainable Food Association, as well as numerous conferences and classrooms each year.

In recent years, Greg has been talking to university students in St. Paul in an introductory cooking class. “They aren’t learning about fine dining,” he said. “They learn how to make salad, how to bake a chicken.” Greg shares information about making polenta from the cornmeal grown and ground on the farm, elaborating on local foods, and emphasizing how cooking is essential to feeding yourself and can lead to growing your own food. “Some get really excited,” he said, “but some are really overwhelmed, because I’m talking about things they’ve never considered.” He is cheered to see that the class has grown from about 15 students to over 140 in the three years he has been invited to speak.

As Greg pondered his experiences, he recognized how the local food movement has changed. “New farmers are coming into a much different environment than we did,” he claimed. “The CSA model is changing, and traditional retail markets are saturated.” This makes things harder for farmers just starting out. He sees opportunity, however, in new farmers banding together to aggregate product for wholesale markets. “Working together will create bigger market opportunity.”

On his own farm, Greg is preparing for a future in a changing climate. “I am working to build resilience into our systems: adding organic matter, reducing tillage, selecting seeds for weather extremes,” he explained. “I can work to mitigate problems on our own farm, but the larger climate change issues are something we need to be prepared to respond to, in order to maintain a viable business and provide our customers with the quality they expect.”

Jody Padgham is the MOSES Financial Director and Associate Editor of the Organic Broadcaster.

From the March | April 2015 Issue

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