At Diablo Valley Farm, we are working to create a living seed bank of food crop diversity. We are growing some of the world's most popular crops -- they are popular for a reason -- but we are also striving to develop many neglected and under-utilized crops as well.
My name Mike Jennings and I manage Diablo Valley Farm with the help of my wife and our two small children. In my previous career I have worked in botany, horticulture, permaculture, construction, habitat restoration, and land management. More recently, I have realized that my calling is breeding food crops. This business is my attempt to support my endeavors as a freelance plant breeder. I have a degree in Agroecology from Prescott College, and I have been growing food crops and saving seeds for nearly 20 years. In the past few years I have connected with other plant breeders, and have realized the enormous value of selecting regionally adapted populations of food crop species.
The crops I grow are partly to provide high quality food for my family, but also to increase available crop diversity for my local community. The catalog of most seed companies is largely restricted to only the most common varieties of the most popular crops. These companies are often also selling many of the same varieties, and so much of the world's crop diversity remains unavailable to gardeners and homesteaders. I am attempting to collect maximal diversity of as many crops as possible, and also adapt and introduce new crops that are largely neglected in my part of the world.
I coined this term in reference to the concept of maximizing the diversity of both the crops we grow and the food we eat. Conventional wisdom is that a highly diverse diet of whole, minimally processed, foods is a healthy and nutritious option. I am not a nutrition expert by any means, but this doesn't seem like a terribly risky assumption. I am a gardening expert however, and my experience is that crop diversity has reliably proved itself to be important to agricultural success. The combination of these two ideas is fairly simple -- add diversity in both type of crop and number of different plant species (phylogenetic diversity).
I will give a couple of examples! By crops type I mean: root crops, tuber crops, dry legumes, edible pod legumes, leaf crops, grains, vegetable fruits, stem vegetables, summer squash, winter squash, annuals, perennials, tree crops, and even animal food sources. There are endless ways dividing and labeling food crops, and there will be overlap in most cases, but likely the more of these boxes you can check off when planning your garden, the more resilient and nutritious your produce will be.
As far as phylogenetic diversity, this simply means striving to grow as many species as possible. For example, if you are growing kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, cabbage, gai lan, it is important to remember that these are all the same plant species (Brassica oleracea). For this reason, they may all be susceptible to the same pests, diseases, and climate preferences. They also may carry a similar nutritional profile. Even if you add turnip, rutabaga, black mustard, bok choi, napa cabbage, mustard greens, mizuna, and russian kale, to your garden, it would still be comprised of plants in the same genus (Brassica rapa, napus, and juncea), that are generally grown as annuals. On the other hand, if you were to plant asparagus, you would be adding a perennial in a very distantly related family (Asparagaceae). It would likely offer different nutritional profile, and alternative pest and disease resistances, as well as reduce the need for yearly replanting.
This is just one of many examples, but I recommend that all farmers and gardeners put some thought into crop diversification. This is something I put a lot of effort into, and I try to check off as many of the aforementioned categories as possible in my own gardening and breeding efforts. I also plan to try to have my seed catalog reflect this as much as possible, but there is still much work to do!
I live in a densely-populated suburb and vegetable gardening is a fairly popular hobby as far as I can tell. The most common crops my neighbors grow are probably: tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash, peppers, green beans, snap peas, kale, and chard. I think this is wonderful, and these vegetable crops are an excellent form of locally-sourced, nutrient-dense produce, but none of these are staple crops. Almost no one I know in my neighborhood is growing food crops that produce a high ratio of calories per square foot of land. I imagine that this trend carry through to other suburban parts of the country as well.
In addition to the procurement of fresh produce, and the enjoyment derived from gardening, of the reasons to grow your own vegetables is to increase self-sufficiency and reduce reliance on our potentially fragile food distribution system. If the worst should happen, and your region experiences a famine, those commonly homegrown vegetables are probably not going to make a big dent in your diet -- they also do not store easily beyond the growing season. However, if you chose to also grow potatoes, sweet potatoes, grain corn, dry beans, winter squash, Jerusalem artichoke, parsnip, or other root vegetables, you will have high-calorie crops that also store for long periods of time. Fruit trees, nut trees, food-producing animals, and food preservation knowledge will also help increase your food resilience.
With these ideas in mind, I am working to breed, and offer germ-plasm for, as many staple crops as possible, as well as other highly nutritious vegetables.
Genetic Diversity and Unstable Breeding Lines
In addition to diversity of crop species, I am also a big proponent of maintaining diversity within species and even within crop varieties.
Most seed companies sell either F1 hybrid seed or open pollinated seed. In this case, "open pollinated" refers to a genetically uniform, often highly inbred, seed line. This inbreeding is necessary to stabilize the traits that define that variety. An F1 hybrid is seed from the first generation after a cross between two highly inbred varieties. In that first generation, the dominant traits contributed by each parent will be expressed in the progeny. Additionally, if the two parent are sufficiently inbred, F1 generation will be completely uniform, but may display hybrid vigor that is lost in the process of selecting for genetic uniformity. For this reason, most production farms plant a large portion of their crops with F1 hybrid seeds.
I don't fault anyone for purchasing hybrid seeds, but there are a few fundamental reasons that they reduce agricultural resiliency for small farms and backyard homesteaders. First and foremost, is that they discourage us from saving seeds and require that we purchase new seeds from the company each year. I believe there is a bit of misinformation in this idea though. You certainly can save seeds from hybrids! Except for a few groups like the mustard and carrot families (which may not produce pollen), there are no problems with saving hybrid seeds. That next generation, which is called the F2, may not have the uniformity of the F1, but it will likely still have the vigor. In fact, seeds saved from a hybrid may be the perfect place to start selecting a variety that is adapted to your climate and your garden. This process is called dehybridization!
The other problem with growing only hybrid or stable open pollinated lines, is that they contain minimal diversity. On the other hand it is possible grow diverse populations of crop plants that are homogeneous for some important traits -- like excellent flavor and texture, or early maturity -- but are heterogeneous for less critical traits, such as skin color or leaf shape. Such populations may be quicker to adapt to a new region or changing weather patterns. Sometimes plant breeders make intentional crosses and spend several generations stabilizing a desired phenotype. These generations are labeled F1, F2, F3...etc. These early, unstable generations can also be extremely valuable for adapting to your climate or just selecting out a new variety that no one has ever grown before.
Heat tolerant crops
Since I farm in a hot mediterranean climate, where summer high temperatures frequently get up to 105F (40C) over a 6-month long warm season, I have a real need for heat-tolerant crops.
Day-length sensitive crops.