Drought, extreme heat and smoke from wildfires have left seed producers feeling the effects of climate change. Farmers in the state have found themselves facing unexpected evacuations, lower seed yields and entire losses of crops. We speak with Sarah Kleeger, founder of Adaptive Seeds, and Ellyn Greene, co-owner of Wayward Acres, on how climate change has affected their industry.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Geoff Norcross: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB. This is Think Out Loud. I’m Geoff Norcross. Wildfires can be destructive in ways you may not even know. Some farmers in the Willamette Valley and Southern Oregon are organic specialty seed producers. They spend years cultivating vegetable, fruit and flower crops; harvesting the seeds and selling them. The wildfires in September of last year in Western and Southern Oregon were so hot, so smoky and intense, they threatened to wipe out years of work. We’re going to talk about how wildfire is affecting this corner of Oregon agriculture with Sarah Kleeger, founder and co-owner of Adaptive Seeds near Sweet Home, and Ellyn Greene, co-owner of Wayward Acres in Southern Oregon. Sarah, Ellyn, welcome to Think Out Loud. Good to have you.
Sarah Kleeger: Thanks so much.
Ellyn Greene: Thanks for having us.
Norcross: Sarah, let’s start with you. The Holiday Barn Fire came very close to you last year. You were ordered to evacuate and you had this precious bank of seeds on the farm at the time. What did you do with them?
Kleeger: Right, the Holiday Farm Fire approached pretty quickly and when it was about 10 miles away we decided to go ahead and evacuate every seed that we had on our property. That included our backup seeds, which we maintain a pretty extensive preservation collection in addition to what we sell; all of the seeds that we sell and the seeds that had been harvested up to that point last season.
Norcross: How much, how much inventory are we talking about here?
Kleeger: It was about 8-10 truckloads, pickup truck and trailer loads. Yeah, it was a lot.
Norcross: Yeah. What happened to your farm?
Kleeger: Luckily the fire stayed away; it stopped about 10 miles away. So we were spared but we got a really good lesson in what to do under those circumstances. We had set up our irrigation system around our house and buildings before we left. And luckily, in our evacuation zone, we were allowed to come back each day. So we still came back and harvested seed with respirators and continued to remove stuff from the farm throughout the evacuation.
Norcross: Well that’s good news. But if the fire had overrun your seed collection, can you give me an idea of what kind of loss that would have been?
Kleeger: Well, our motto at Adaptive Seeds is “bringing biodiversity back” so we focus on a lot of varieties that aren’t otherwise commercially available. So there’s quite a bit of our collection that you can’t really get anywhere else. And just the potential of a seed, it’s not just our livelihoods, which that actually was sort of the bottom of the list of reasons that we wanted to remove everything to safety. But just that there are countless growers and customers; a lot of our customers are farmers and so the potential effects down the food chain, of losing all of our seeds, was fairly significant I think.
Norcross: Can you give me an example of a seed that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world except on your farm?
Kleeger: [Laughs] Wow. Well actually there’s quite a few. I don’t know about anywhere else in the world but..
Norcross: But you’ve maybe sold them and they are growing somewhere else but a seed that you have cultivated there that you’re especially proud of.
Kleeger: Certainly, we have several breeding projects. One of the varieties that Ellyn actually is growing for us is one that’s really special that’s called Joy’s Midnight Chard. We collected this variety from Joy Larkcom, who is a leader in the salad mix movement from England and it’s just this really beautiful, dark, dark red, purple color that I haven’t seen in other varieties of chard elsewhere.
Norcross: Ellyn, can you talk about how the big fires of 2020 affected you in Southern Oregon?
Greene: Sure. So we live in a tiny little nontown called Provolt or that’s where we farm at least. That’s about 30 to 40 miles away from the big Alameda Fires that ripped through last summer. We didn’t have to ever evacuate from those. Just to clarify, those were the fires that ripped through Talent and Phoenix and destroyed thousands of homes and [were] really just devastating to the local community. We didn’t ever have to evacuate for those, luckily, but we did have go-bags on hand. Just because of the proximity of the fire and [because] there were dozens of other fires really close, there was a period last summer for a few weeks where it looked like a white out. You couldn’t see the horizon. You couldn’t see the cars 100 yards down the highway coming towards you. So, not only was that really difficult for our crew to be out working in, there are a lot of impacts on the crops that we grow as well. Smoke at that density makes it really difficult for sunlight to penetrate, for one. So that impacts photosynthesis which is really crucial to plants growing and ripening. The particulate, when it’s that smoky, you’ll go out into the field and there will be ash all over the crop. So, that’s difficult for feed crops and for fresh vegetables alike. But that particular matter also prohibits photosynthesis from occurring. Then also just the smoke has carcinogens and particulate matter that clogs the plant’s stomata -- those are like their breathing holes essentially -- and prevents growth. So last year, and this year actually, we have had a lot of trouble with finishing crops off. Because the way seed works, if you’re growing fresh vegetables, you don’t necessarily need the full life cycle of the plant. If you’re growing salad mix or head lettuce, you harvest the plant and it’s ready when it’s just in its leaf phase. It hasn’t shot up its flower, it hasn’t been pollinated, it hasn’t set seed and finished. But with seed, we need that entire life cycle. And because of that, that extra growth time is just really crucial. So the smoke has definitely affected our production yields on a lot of different crops.
Norcross: Yeah. Did you see those conditions again this year?
Greene: Yes, we did. It wasn’t as thick of smoke because the proximity of the fires weren’t as close. But we had, probably, a solid month this year where there would be enough smoke to obstruct sunlight and it cools the days off. And this year a lot of our fruiting crops -- so that’s tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, that sort of thing -- a lot of those did not ripen up and didn’t finish off. So yeah, we definitely lost a fair amount this year.
Norcross: We’ve been focusing on wildfire and how it affects the growing. But of course there is a lot else going on here. Can you talk about the record setting heat that we had this summer and what it meant for your crops? Let’s start with you, Ellyn.
Greene: Yeah. Again, that has impacted our yields massively this year. I know that you all experienced this too, up in Portland. In late June we had that week that down here, I think the high was 114 and it was a week or 10 days of over 100 degrees. The heat does a couple different things: one of which is, it kills off flower set. The flowers are what are eventually going to be pollinated and then become the seed crops that we harvest. So the flowers of many crops can’t make it through that intensive heat. So obviously those will never end up being seeds. It also deters pollinators; the pollinators like to be out in the mornings and the evenings when it’s cooler and when it’s that hot it’s just hard for them to be active. Not all crops are pollinated by insects, but for those that are, that can be really devastating. We actually grew a crop for Sarah at Adaptive this year that was a radish seed crop. And, while I can’t be 100% sure why it did so poorly, I think that it was in flower during some of those really intense heat spikes. Because the plants looked great otherwise. We ended up with a very low seed yield on it and I think that it was directly contributed to by those heat spikes deterring pollination and probably killing off flower set.
Norcross: Sarah, similar experience for you on your farm because of the heat?
Kleeger: Yeah, absolutely. Pretty much most of the crops that we had that were flowering during that late June heat spell, the yields were greatly reduced from that. Spinach, peas were affected here, among other things. There also were other crops that sort of got set back in other ways just from the stress of the heat. So even though they weren’t flowering, their yields were affected as well.
Norcross: There’s an irony here that you are breeding and getting seeds from plants that are more resistant to a warming climate, one that brings more wildfire, that brings more drought, that brings more high temperatures. Are you learning something from these experiences?
Kleeger: Right, that’s pretty much something that’s wrapped up in our name, right? We call ourselves Adaptive Seeds and it’s more acknowledging that plants adapt to the conditions that they’re grown in. And so we only offer seeds for sale that were grown in Oregon and Washington, with the idea that they would produce better in our area than seeds that are sourced elsewhere. Nature does some pretty good selection work I think. We experience that also with our cold wet winters and the deep freezes sometimes does a lot of selection for us as well.
Norcross: Yeah. Sarah, I read that Western Oregon is one of the top five seed producing regions in the world. What is it about this region that makes it so friendly to seed cultivation?
Kleeger: That’s a great question. It’s that Mediterranean climate, right? We’ve got relatively mild winters. A lot of biennial crops can make it through the winter. That [is], varieties that take two years to make seed, they can make it through the winter out in the field just fine. Also I think the best thing is the dry summers. A lot of dry seeded crops don’t want to get rained on while they’re maturing seed, in July/August. So that’s a pretty unique aspect of our climate.
Norcross: Ellyn, for anybody who’s interested in going into seed cultivation in this region, given the changing climate and given the intensity of the weather patterns that you’re experiencing, what is your advice? What is the future like? Is there any room for optimism?
Greene: I think so. There has to be because, no matter what, we have to continue to adapt and produce varieties, create and develop varieties of seed, that work to feed people. So it’s going to be increasingly challenging and probably involve a lot more breeding and focusing on, like Sarah was saying, varieties that are suited to whatever growing area that you’re in. But I think that there’s a future. It’s interesting, actually, this season, after the pandemic last year, there was actually a massive spike in home gardeners and folks wanting to grow their own food. So there were more seed contracts available than we could take. We had companies reaching out to us left, right and sideways asking us if we could grow more than what had ever been available. So I think, because as people move towards self sufficiency wanting to grow their own food, whether it’s even in their apartment windows in New York or whether it’s something in their backyard, there’s a market for it. I think as long as we continue to be innovative with our breeding and our selection, then there’s a future. Even that radish crop that we grew for Sarah, that essentially, from an economic standpoint for our farm it failed. But we were able to produce three pounds of seed. And Sarah emailed me and astutely said climate change did the selection for us on this one. So we’re continuing to produce in spite of all of the hardships and changes.
Norcross: And what about you, Sarah? What do you think the future looks like for farming in Oregon, given the weather trends? What is the key to its survival and success right now?
Kleeger: [Laughs] Wow, that’s a big question. I think continuing to diversify: it’s always a good year for some things in a bad year for others, is really, I think, what most farmers will tell you. That’s certainly been my experience. So, the more diversity that we can build into our systems, I think ultimately the more resilient we’ll be.
Norcross: Sarah, Ellyn, thank you so much for this. I appreciate it.
Kleeger: Sure, thanks so much.
Greene: Thank you.
Norcross: Sarah Kleeger is the founder and co-owner of Adaptive Seeds near Sweet Home and Ellyn Greene is the co-owner of Wayward Acres in Southern Oregon.
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