Archive for January, 2007

“One of the central hubs of German biodynamic plant breeding community”. We were told this by many people through our travels and we decided that we had to visit Dottenfelder-hof (translated version). After a nice hike in the morning from the train station we arrived invigorated to meet with our host Martin Kern, a very personable character with many years of plant breeding experience. Martin showed us all around the Hof, with brief stops at many of the farm’s constituent areas. . In German biodynamic tradition the site is the collection of many integrated and collaborative facets. Some examples of these endeavors are the plant breeding programs, dairy cow and chicken production, cheese and bread making, anthroposophical educational programs, and a biodynamic storefront. Many of the people who worked there lived there too and with all that was going on, it was a bustling scene (about 100 people living and working there).  I could compare it to intentional communities in the US but that would be misleading. The place seemed more like a well organized, fairly self-sustaining village. Lots of people making a living centered around an agricultural and educational foundation.

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Rodelika carrot tasting, selection and overwinter storage

Some of their achievements in the area of plant breeding:

Carrots – Dietrich Bauer has spent over 20 years breeding vegetables. What he is most famous for is his carrot variety ‘Rodelika’, available in the US through Turtle Tree Seeds. This carrot is famous for its flavor, especially when juiced.  “Rodelika” juice is available in the juice section of many stores that carry biodynamic products, right next to the standard “carrot” juice.  More marketing with variety names is something that could help expose people to the diversity of crops and help preserve those crops actively within society, like an old story or play. While at Dottenfelder-hof we helped select Rodelika lines for flavor and yield. Getting both flavor and yield simultaneously is one of the more difficult aspects of plant breeding. By the way, the carrot juice is excellent.

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3 Comments Andrew Still on Jan 27th 2007

From Switzerland we traveled back north up to Germany for a visit with Ulla Grall of Bio-Saatgut. The name of her company says it all: “Organic Seeds”. Ulla offers through her catalog seeds that she produces herself and those grown by several small contract growers, as well as seeds from Sativa Rheinau and a French seed company called Ferme de Sainte Marthe. Ulla told us she wants to grow more of her own seed herself, but also takes pride in the fact that she offers seeds from two other countries. Because of the EU seed laws it is difficult for many people to order seeds from other countries, or they simply don’t think of it as an option. Through her seed company, Ulla offers many varieties that would otherwise be unavailable to German gardeners.

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R to L: On the streets of Armsheim, Ulla grall in her garden, more of her gardens.

Ulla became involved in seeds initially as a translator and marketer for Ferme de Sainte Marthe in Germany more than a decade ago when the company was trying to expand into the German market. After Ferme abandoned this project, Ulla took on selling some of their varieties personally. What began as a small mail order resale company has since blossomed into one of the only independent organically certified seed companies in Germany.

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No Comments Sarah Kleeger on Jan 26th 2007

Pro Specie Rara (PSR) is Switzerland’s seed savers exchange. Unlike the American Seed Savers Exchange, PSR focuses solely on Swiss heirloom varieties: in order for a seed to be accepted into the PSR collection, it should have been grown in Switzerland for at least thirty years. For this reason, there are PSR listed Swiss heirloom Chioggia beets and many types of “French beans.” Traditional Swiss agriculture (and gardening) was heavily influenced by its neighboring countries (Germany, Austria, Italy, and France), as was the language, so the Pro Specie Rara inventory is quite varied. In addition to the vegetable varieties, PSR also promotes the stewardship of traditional animals and fruits. To date, 25 breeds of rare animals and dozens of fruits are promoted through the organization.

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Right to left: PSR; Marianna Serena Seeds project leader; The Seed Vault

Pro Specie Rara is 25 years old in 2007, and at the peak of their acquisitions they obtained hundreds of heirloom varieties each year — seven or eight years ago they acquired 100 – 200 new sorts per year. The past few years, though, fewer and fewer varieties have been submitted, and in 2006 they only received 20 new accessions. Marianna Serena, who manages the seed collection, said she feels good about the quantity of seeds they have, adding that the organization is about at the limit of what they can care for. Pro Specie Rara doesn’t have its own gardens like some other Seed Savers organizations — they are more of a networking and marketing hub for old varieties.

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No Comments Sarah Kleeger on Jan 25th 2007

The folks at Sativa do a lot of work with maintaining and reinvigorating old varieties for PSR. (Pro Specie Rara, the Swiss seed saver’s organization, see next posting). Most of this work focuses on brassicas, which often suffer from inbreeding depressions, leading to sickly plants and poor yields. By the time inbreeding depression is recognized it is often too late: one cannot simply grow out a large population of the line and save seeds, as the genetics have been bottlenecked by previous small populations (e.g. a home gardener saving seed from too few plants). The only glimmer of hope is to locate other lines of the same variety and cross the lines together — and this is exactly what Friedemann, the vegetable breeder at Sativa, is doing.

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Greehouse production, Brussels sprout de-hybridization, seed crop harvester.

The prime example of this tragic condition is found in the red Brussels sprout variety known as Rubine, still carried by many seed companies throughout Europe and the United States. Rubine has declined over the past several decades and now often fails to produce anything resembling Brussels sprouts. Friedemann recently acquired Rubine from six different sources throughout Europe, with plans to let them all flower together in the hopes that the different lines will bring enough genetics together to reinvigorate the variety — hopefully to the point of producing healthy plants that will produce large sprouts. If this cannot be achieved, he said he will begin work to develop a new red Brussels sprout variety.

Sativa is also involved in Biodynamic breeding projects of a completely different sort than Ute Kirchgasse and Christina Henatsch (see previous posts). Friedemann came to biodynamic vegetable breeding from quite the opposite direction of Christina and Ute. His training and experience is not Anthroposophical, but rather he worked as a vegetable breeder at Hild, a conventional seed company.

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breeder Friedemann, celeriac inspection, snow at Sativa.

It follows, then, that Friedermann has a different approach. In contrast to most of the Biodynamic community, he doesn’t see any problem with the wise use of F1 hybrids for breeding (unless these hybrids are geneticly engineered CMS hybrids). Friedemann doesn’t create hybrid varieties for sale or distribution, but acquires them from other seed companies and then uses these varieties as breeding material. He believes the organic/biodynamic community should utilize the genetic resources and hard work of the conventional community, just as the large seed compaines use the resources of the open-pollinated community in the creation of their hybrids.

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1 Comment Sarah Kleeger on Jan 24th 2007

From Gerhard and Susanne’s we traveled by train south to Sativa Rheinau, a biodynamic seed company in Switzerland near the border town of Schaffhausen, home to the largest waterfall in Europe. Set in a seventeenth century monastery on an island in the Rheine, Sativa is blessed with being one of the most beautiful places we have happened across in our travels. The seed company at Sativa is part of a larger Biodynamic farm project that integrates 25 handicapped people into the work with animals (dairy and meat), fruits, vineyard, grains, and seed growing and processing tasks.

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falls on the Rhine, Sativa HQ, seed room

Sativa’s main vegetable seed customers are home gardeners, and they work closely with Pro Specie Rara (PSR) to distribute heirloom Swiss varieties. (More about PSR, the Swiss seed savers group, in a later posting). Sativa’s main work with farmers is in their work with seed potatoes and grains, and they sell large quantities of rye, spelt, and wheat to farmers there. Because Switzerland is not part of the EU, they do not have the restrictions of most other countries in regards to the Common Catalog. But this does not mean that they do not have to deal with limitations; as is the case in the US, high quality open-pollinated varieties for market gardeners are either nonexistent or are hard to come by.

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Rhine, monastery, garden, gate
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No Comments Sarah Kleeger on Jan 23rd 2007

After another pre-dawn start, we left the company of the kind folks at Bingenheimer and headed south towards Nuremberg and beyond. Our next stop: Gerhard Bohl’s home and gardens in the hamlet of Rednitzenbach. Gerhard and his wife Susanne are the brains, braun, and brilliance behind Das Sortenbuch (= the variety handbook), a mail-order catalog collection of more than 2,000 tomatoes, 380 peppers, 700 beans, and hundreds of other rare and unusual vegetables (written in German).

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The crew: Susanne, Peter and Gerhard; Filderkraut – the ultimate Sauerkraut cabbage; Jelly melon slightly useful cucurbit.

Gerhard trades straight across with gardeners and fellow “collectioners” to the tune of some 20,000 seed packs per year. He distributes another 30,000 seed packs per year through other venues, mostly through his mail-order catalog with gardeners in other parts of Germany. Gardeners must write him by post and send five Euro for a copy of the Sortenbuch. If they decide that they want something from the buch, (how can they not?), they write again and send one Euro for every seed pack that they order, or if they are seed savers they can send in seeds from something they have grown in lieu of the cash. To encourage his customers to participate in the exchange and the stewardship of varieties, the Sortenbuch has several pages in the beginning that instruct people how to save seeds. This information is an important part of Gerhard’s work, as German-language editions of seed saving books are not common.

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No Comments Sarah Kleeger on Jan 19th 2007

Bingenheimer’s resident plant breeder, Ute Kirchgaesser, is on to something. Really, she’s probably on to many things, but to describe them all would take a book and I only have one blog posting.

Ute has what equates to a master’s degree in horticulture, but her German title sounds much better; Meistergartnerin. She got her start in plant breeding with a family run seed company where she learned the basics of traditional plant breeding, and has combined that knowledge with a more esoteric knowledge of an anthroposophical kind. All of these experiences combine to make her something more like and Ubermeistergarternerin if you ask me. But if you ask her, she is just a vegetable breeder.

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Ute is working on developing a summer fennel. She is in the process of improving some leek varieties, and also is working to re-invigorate some old kales. She is in charge of the on-site seed production for Bingenheimer’s catalog. And she is also working on a project that even she can’t explain.

In 2002, she began to study what effect musical intervals have on plants. Previous studies have been done that show that plants respond well to classical music, and not so well to death metal. Ute wanted to know if a particular sequence of notes effects plants more than another, and she wanted to know if this effect can be seen in subsequent generations. She set up a research project working with some lettuces, which she surmised would show results quickly due to their rapid growth.

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1 Comment Sarah Kleeger on Jan 17th 2007

We left Greifswald for Bingenheimer Saatgut AG, the largest biodynamic seed company in Germany, Leaving super extra early on Tuesday morning, we traveled via “Mitfahrgelegenheit” through Berlin and on down to a small town northeast of Frankfurt. “Mitfahrgelegenheit” is the musical word for ‘organized rideshare’, and there are several websites that one can use to post rides wanted or rides offered. People in the US use Craigslist for this purpose, but in Germany the practice is more widespread and therefore more effective. Mitfahrgelegenheit costs about half as much as a train and can get you there twice as fast, and it is a good way to meet people. Since we traveled so far, we pieced together two rides and had a few hours to hang out in Berlin. We were delivered to the door of Bingenheimer, 13 hours after the start of our journey – not really twice as fast as the train but still half the cost!

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We stayed, worked and learned with the kind folks at Bingenheimer for three work days, from Wednesday through Friday. This was our first visit with a seed company, and we learned a lot and had a really good time. Andrew was in heaven being surrounded by so many seeds, and the sense of community there really impressed me. But these are just two of the indicators that Bingenheimer Saatgut AG is not your average seed company. It is primarily Biodynamic. It is the hub for a network of 30 Biodynamic vegetable breeders in Germany. It was once part of and is still affiliated with the Lebensgemeinschaft Bingenheimer, a Camphill-esque community that fully integrates people with developmental disabilities into the tasks of daily life. As such, the Saatgut Werkstatt (seed workshop) is one of five workshops that employ disabled people in the community; they also rotate through candle making, woodworking, ceramics, and weaving workshops. Additionally, some of them work on the biodynamic dairy farm and others in the gardens, helping to grow food for the community and seed for the seed company.

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No Comments Sarah Kleeger on Jan 16th 2007

We left St. Petersburg by bus on Friday, January 12, and 36 hours later found ourselves in Berlin. Two hours after that we were in the town of Greifswald, on the Baltic Sea but identified as Eastern Germany more than Northern. Nevertheless, as we proceeded north on the train we noticed more and more “grunkohl” (= a curly leafed, bright green kale common in Denmark) in people’s dachas (the Russian word for little gardens away from one’s home).

We were met at the train station by Mareen Protze, one of the members of the board of directors for Naturschutzjugend Deutschland (NAJU). NAJU is Germany’s largest youth environmental action organization, with over 80,000 members throughout the country. NAJU has many local and national environmental initiatives, including an internet game program where members score points based on different conservation/preservation activities, such as cleaning streams or building birdhouses.

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Photos L to R: Mareen & Sarah, place of study, northern germany at sunset.

But there is also an international scope: One of the things that NAJU does is coordinate International Exchanges over the summer, where participants can see what young people are doing on behalf of the environment in other parts of Europe. NAJU provides the organizational tools for any member of the organization to plan an exchange trip with a country and focus of their choice, and then makes the trip available to other people within the organization. Mareen has planned trips to Belarus and Poland in this way. These trips, and many others, focus on social exchange as well as environmental topics. For example, there is one trip this summer between Germany and Serbia that focuses on hip-hop culture in the two countries. As with many social and environmental initiatives, Germany seems to be leading the way with this one.

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No Comments Sarah Kleeger on Jan 12th 2007

The Vavilov Institute is located in two beautiful old buildings in the main part of St. Petersberg. We were told that the government does not believe the Institute needs to be located on such prime real estate (right next to the Hotel Astoria and other big-money hotels), and so they do not provide them with the funds to maintain the buildings.

Some of the space of at least one of the buildings is rented out to other businesses and this building, which houses the herbarium and some of the gene bank, as well as many offices, is in the course of renovation — the outside is complete but the inside has far to go. This is the building that we spent most of our time in — it houses Sergey’s office.

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Left: Sergey Alexanian, our great host. Right: One of many Vavilov Statues.

We had the opportunity, though, to walk across a great traffic circle (the “backyard”) to the Institute’s building on the other side. This building was initially designed to be apartments for nobility (200+ years ago), and some of the interiors were reminiscent of the Hermitage, with gold plating on the walls and frescoes in the halls, and ornately carved ceilings throughout. This is where the Director of the Institute’s office lies, and also where the private Vavilov Museum is located. There are also two great halls capable of hosting at least 100 people for conferences and the like, and also many other offices that we did not see. Our tour of this building began with a walk around to see some of the more impressive rooms mentioned above.

Next we went to the private Vavilov Museum, which consists of several exhibits detailing the achievements of Vavilov as well as those of the Institute. There are maps depicting Vavilov’s Centers of Origin, and maps that show where he himself went on collecting missions over a 20-year period from the 19teens to 1940. The most impressive map, though, is the one that details all of the collecting missions that have been carried out by all staff of the Vavilov Institute over the past 100 years – this map is nearly all marked up, except for locations that are very far north. This is especially impressive when one considers the political situation with Russia for most of that time, and the financial situation now.

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Photos from left to right: Sergey giving us the museum tour, books in Vavilov’s study, map of the institute’s collection missions, N.I. Vavilov.

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No Comments Sarah Kleeger on Jan 6th 2007

On Wednesday we had the pleasure of taking a tour of parts of the Vavilov Institute. The first stop on our tour was the Herbarium. An herbarium is a collection of preserved samples of plants or plant parts, usually pressed on sheets of paper, for scientists and researchers to view. The herbarium at the Vavilov Institute is home to over 200,000 such samples, collected by Vavilov himself and other scientists on collection missions throughout the world. It was once one of the preeminent herbariums in the world, but now the largest herbariums in France and England house over seven million specimens!

We were very excited to see the herbarium, but also a bit surprised at its condition. Everything was very clean and well organized, but it seemed that funds were deemed to be more useful elsewhere, as the lights were off and the room was lit through the open curtains only (this could be better for the specimens). There was no climate control, and the cabinets and boxes used to store the specimens were quite antique looking. Many aspects of the Vavilov Institute seem to be straight from another time, and the herbarium was no exception.

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Left: Preparing seeds to give to VIR. Right: The Vavilov Institute.

There were a few people working in the room, examining specimens at their leisure. The coordinator took a few minutes to show us some samples that are kept out as examples of the layout of different types of plants. We viewed samples of a grass and a tree, and observed how they were filed according to species in boxes stacked in row after row of tall wood cherry wood cabinets. One of the samples had the signiture of Vavilov on it — this was a sample that he had actually collected! After sufficient oohs and aahs, we walked down to the office of one of the scientists.

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Left: Sergey showing us the the Herbarium collection. Right: A specimen collected by N.I. Vavilov in the 1920′s.

We were quite happy to meet the Director of Legumes, Dr. Margarita Vishnyakova. In her office we found petrie dishes with examples of the different species of beans and peas, and a large case filled with different fava bean (Vicia faba) varieties. On her wall were two mosaics made from beans, and on shelves around were giant pods from leguminous trees and branches from different leguminous plants.

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1 Comment Sarah Kleeger on Jan 5th 2007

In 1939 Winston Churchill said “Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” and coincidently a short time before we entered the country there was a magazine title story that was called something like, “Russia — Understanding the Enigma” sitting in the window of a German book store. More than 65 years later Churchill’s description is still applicable.

Most of us have some sort of preconceived notions about Russia, and we must admit that we had ours. Our stay in Saint Petersburg was really only enough to add to those a priori assumptions, and as with most countries (and most things in general), we left feeling like we had learned just enough to realize that we haven’t a clue about the country, let alone the city that we called home for eight days.

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Photos from right to left: Frozen crust on the River Moyka, The Hermitage, The first tourist pose in a long time, The “Church on Spilled Blood” used as a root cellar but the Soviets.

Our interest in visiting Russia was inspired by the renowned Vavilov Institute (VIR), which is known for housing one of the world’s largest and oldest gene banks. In planning our trip to Europe, the VIR was at the top of the list of places we wanted to go, and after more than a little effort, Nick was able to secure an invitation for us.

We had the unique circumstance of arranging a visit to Russia that bridged the first two weeks of the New Year, with an arrival of January 4 and a departure of January 12. In arranging our trip, Sergey Alexanian, a Vice Director and the Foreign Relations specialist at the Vavilov Institute, had mentioned “the holidays,” but I assumed he was referring only to the couple of days on either side of the weekend of January 6-7, the Eastern Orthodox Christmas. Like with many assumptions, I was very wrong.

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Portrait of N.I Vavilov

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2 Comments Andrew Still on Jan 4th 2007

Latvia for new year’s eve was a bit more drunken than our other new year’s spent traveling, when we were in Malaysia (2003-04). A few thousand people gathered under the Freedom Monument in the central part of Riga, danced in the street to pop music courtesy of a live DJ, and oohed and aahed at fireworks exploding directly overhead, closer than I have ever seen them. We were in Latvia for about five days, but most of this time was New Year’s holiday celebrations, and so our opportunities for meeting with seed related contacts were minimal.

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Photos Left to right: Powerful statues outside the Latvian Occupation Museum, Beautiful Old town Riga, The liberty Statue (where people where once thrown in jail for putting flowers at its base).

Our first impressions of Latvia seemed to indicate that this country was much more economically developed/ “successful” than Lithuania, judging only by superficial views of the size and glitz of Riga compared to Vilnius, the amount of English speakers, and the general cosmopolitan feel of the city. Because of these opinions, we were expecting the Organic scene here to be more mature than in Lithuania, but we learned that in many ways Latvia is on par with Lithuania, and in some ways has further to go in developing organic agriculture, seeds, and markets.

We had the luck of arranging a last-minute visit with Dr. Livija Zarina of the Priekuli Plant Breeding Institute, about a two hour bus ride north east of Riga. The work at the Institute, whose logo is a potato flower, is focused almost entirely on field crops. The state institute of Priekuli owns 286 hectares and grows on an additional 100 hectares rented from neighbors. The six departments at Priekuli include potato, barley, tritcale and rye breeding programs, agrotechologies, seed production of field crops, and a tissue culture lab. They have also managed a small organic experimental field for many years now, which Dr. Zarina counts as one very important aspect of Priekuli, “We are really rich. Not many places have this, but in ours, it exists.”

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Photos right to left: Dr. Zarina our host at the Plant Breeding Station, A beautiful Potato flower for a logo, Display of their pea breeding accomplishments, Short term seed storage, Latvia’s main organic certification office.

Dr. Zarina is the Head of the Agrotechnology Department, and her work is focused mostly on canola. She is also involved in an intensive study that, for at least the past ten years, has been trying to establish a system of crop rotation that is beneficial for fertility needs of organic production of Latvia’s main field crops of rape, rye, barley, peas, and a few others. The experiments are evaluating six fertilizing schemes and soil management practices with 11 different crop rotations.

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1 Comment Sarah Kleeger on Jan 3rd 2007

Don’t criticize it, certify it! ORGANIC Lithuania.

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L to R: 1. A view of some of the Organic Certification paperwork, including the three colors of certificates: Red and yellow for the first two years of transition to OG, and green for fully Organic. 2. Kayla looking at some documents with the head of the Lithuania Organic Certification agency. 3. The shelves and folders of the Certified Farmers (unfortunately only a few seed growers).

After learning about the paperwork we when to a small special organic farmers market.

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L to R: 1. The Kaunas Organic Farmer’s Market. 2. Some local produce (apples, beats, parsnips sunchoke!, Rutabagas!, cabbage, squash, parsley, onions, potatoes, and some little yellow Lithuanian quinces). 3. Herbal teas that can be mixed special for your own needs. 4. Grains and the first OG kids cereal in LT. 5. Collecting some LT grain and caraway accessions.

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No Comments Andrew Still on Jan 2nd 2007