Victory Seed Company News

What's Happening Around the Farm as well as a Soapbox for Victory Seed Co. founder, Mike Dunton

Archive for October, 2012

Ramblings on History, Traditions and Autumn Customs

If you have read other things that I have written over the years, you know that I have a tendency to reminisce (and ramble).  I am not the sort that dwells on or lives in the past, but I actively use memories and experiences, as well as lessons from general history, to better understand the present and help me to plan for the future.  I believe that this is a healthy behavior for people to practice.

Over the past couple of weeks while preparing the farm for the long winter months ahead, many of the tasks are so routine that I am allowed the luxury of performing them without much thinking and thus allowing my mind to wander. (I blogged about this topic a while back.)

Some of the Fall tasks on the farm include harvesting our seed crops, preparing the fields for a winter rest, pressing cider, hauling firewood to the cellar, picking up nuts, canning and drying food, turning off water to outside faucets, storing hoses and irrigation parts, cleaning out rain gutters, and a list too long to go into here.  While doing these things, I began to think about how I got to this point in life, how many times I have done this same Fall routine, and whether it now constitutes classification as a habit, a ritual, or a tradition?

Although Denise was raised on a farm and I had strong connections to my family’s, we didn’t get to start our life together on acreage.  Out of economic necessity, we first settled into a life in the suburbs and went to work acquiring knowledge, experience and some working capital.  Even though the “eat local” and “slow food” movements were still decades away, “health food” was common and organic gardening was a grassroots phenomenon.  We saw great value in raising as much of our own food as possible and began developing a “homesteader attitude”[1] when it came to choosing our personal lifestyle.

When we were able to buy our first house, we fell in love with a little “starter home” in a fairly new housing development in Petaluma, California (Petaluma is where we both grew up).  Although it was small on the inside, it had a large garage where I set up my workshop and it was built on a large lot on a quiet cul-de-sac.

We immediately began to “homestead” the yard by altering the landscape for optimal productivity.  We removed most of the lawn and replaced it with low maintenance beds and areas where we could establish vegetable gardens. We planted fruit trees, berries, artichoke, grapes, hops and various perennial plants served double-duty as ornamentals and edibles.

Planting our 1986 Suburban Garden

A photo of a much younger, and slightly thinner, "yours truly" getting an early start on our 1986 garden in the 'burbs.

Like so many other developments in the area, the land underneath ours was once dairy pasture.  Its dark, adobe soil was rich but difficult to work.  It was heavy and dense, sticky when wet and hard as concrete when dry.  Once amended with (literally) tons of composted mushroom mulch, it grew just about anything we wanted to experiment with.  This great soil paired with Petaluma’s awesome climate made for the best location that I have ever had the pleasure to garden.  It is no wonder that 100 years prior, Luther Burbank chose this region to establish his horticultural career.

Although our “farm” in Petaluma was only a quarter-acre city lot, the skills that we learned prepared us for purchasing my family’s farm in Oregon, without hesitation, when the opportunity arose in the late 1980s.  The seed for what eventually grew into the Victory Seed Company was sown in Petaluma.

This brings me back to the present day and to my contemplation at the beginning of this blog post.  Humankind’s survival has always been dependent on how well we made our plans during the winter months, how those plans were implemented in the spring, how hard we worked in the summer and how much bounty was harvested and stored away in the fall.

As the fourth generation to work the land on this farm, I often find myself wondering, “What would Great-grandpa think about me doing this?” or “What would Grandma think about us doing that?”  I feel a profound connection to my ancestors and I understand that everything that I do is simply building upon the foundation that they quite literally laid.  I trust that my descendants will someday share this experience.

So whether these seasonal behaviors that we practice have been learned from books or the internet or videos or our ancestors, they are routines that are more than habits and more significant than going through the motions of empty rituals.  They are in fact traditions by the purest definition of the word.



1.
   One of my favorite books was given to me by my Dad back in 1973.  It is called, “Homesteaders Handbook” and was written by Rich Israel and Reny Slay (©1973).  It, along with the Foxfire book series and Bradford Angier’s, “Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants” (©1974), was the core of my childhood homesteading or self-reliance reference library.

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Quick Update

We have been working really hard this past couple of weeks wrapping up harvest, cleaning up the gardens and fields, and working at building compost piles and getting growing areas put to bed for the winter.  Everything that had to be immediately processed (melons, tomatoes, peppers, etc.) are pretty much done whereas things that could be harvested and stored (beans, peas, squash, etc.) are safely indoors and awaiting processing.  We will get to those tasks on rainy days (which sound like they will begin tomorrow).

Yields on peppers and tomatoes were on average lower for us this season than I like to see.  It was just one of those years.  A few “new” old varieties that I was hoping to introduce to you all this next season probably won’t be available.  But we will have enough seed to grow out larger plantings next summer and if all goes well, offer for the 2014 season.

Not a lot else to report here.  We are ants working at preparing for a long, wet Oregon winter.  But at this moment, the sun is shining, and I just popped into the office to grab the tractor key . . . heading back out to till the gardens and sow some cover crops.

More later.  ~Mike

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Tomato Seed Harvest Crunch Time

This summer was a close repeat to the one that we had last year – cool, wet weather into the first part of July and then mild temperatures all summer.  Unlike the rest of the country, we had very few hot days.  Now we are trying to harvest everything all at once before either freezing temps or devastating rains zap us..

The result of these weather patterns is that the “early season” tomato varieties have been ripening in late August while the “mid and late season” varieties are ripening late in September and into October.  Rain is not threatening – we actually have not had a drop since July and none is forecast in the near future – but the nights have been dipping into the low 30s for the past three days.  The cold temps have been a season-ender for the vining crops, the corn and legumes are drying down nicely, and solanace family are all showing some degree of damage.

This means that we are running a big crew (for us anyway) trying to bring in all of the tomato seed that we can before a “real” freeze or rain hits and turns everything to mush.  I thought that I would share a short pictorial of the tomato seed harvest process with you all.

John Picking Tomatoes

John Picking Tomatoes

Harvesting tomato seeds obviously begins with picking the fruit.  Only fully vine ripened tomatoes are processed for seed.  Although we spend a lot of time with the plants throughout the growing season, we use this opportunity to document the flavor, textures, interesting characteristics, weights, sizes, and take photographs.  Once that is done, the buckets of tomatoes are given to the crew for processing.

Squeezing  Tomatoes

The Crew in our Early Fall Ritual of Squeezing Tomatoes

As you can see in the photo, this October here on the farm has been really nice.  It has started light frosting overnight, but has been in the mid to high 70s during the day so we are able to do this messy work comfortably outside for a change.  This is a photo of the crew squeezing tomatoes that John picked.  During this seed removal stage, the crew only works with one variety and then cleans everything up before moving on to a new variety.

Cleaning Up Between Varieties

Cleaning Up Between Varieties

Since the primary purpose of our work is preserving old varieties, accuracy is a key part of our mission.  Starting with proven seed, our grow outs are carefully monitored throughout the season and compared to the historical record for the particular variety as well as to our past grow out data.  Neat, tidy and following procedure is critical during the seed saving stage.

Fermenting Tomato Seeds

Fermenting Tomato Seeds

Those of you that have read my thoughts on the subject of repurposing or have watched the videos know that I am a big fan of keeping useful “trash” out of the the garbage stream and even out of the recycling bin.  If you can find a new use for an old item, it is just plain smart.

So in that vein, we have our friends and family save their plastic salsa, sour cream, and humus containers for us and use them for fermenting the tomato seed harvest.  (FYI – The containers last four or five years but the lids only only about three)  I have found that the perfect place on our farm for fermentation is in our potting shed.  If the temperatures are just right, the seeds are ready to be washed in three days.

Washed Seeds

Washed Seeds

Aren’t they pretty?  :)   This happens to be a nice batch of ‘Millet’s Dakota‘ seed.

Tomato Seeds Drying

Tomato Seeds Drying

Folks have different methods for drying.  My way of doing it is to place the wet seeds, about a cup of them, onto a paper coffee filter, gently wring out as much water as possible without tearing the filter, and then spread the ball of seeds out and allow them to dry.  As a rule, I let them start the drying process in the potting shed that first day and move them into the barn that evening where I have fans going.  And to prevent any possible disasters from happening, I keep different varieties far away from each other.  All of the seeds in the above picture is the same variety.  After about week, the clumps of seeds can be crumbled and screened to remove and small seeds and dust.  And that is the process in a nutshell.

If you are interested in more detail about how to save your own tomato seeds, click here.  And as always, thank you for supporting our seed variety preservation work.  We could not do this without you!

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Therapy in a Pile of Peas

This is a time of year when every open square foot of covered space around the farm begins filling up with screens of various seed crops.  The old chicken coop becomes a drying house.  The shop, a drying house.  The barn where my office is located, a drying house.  Even my office fills up with seeds.  (Yes, I need to build a drying house!)

So this evening, after all the staff had gone home and suppertime was past, I headed back out to work.  As I was walking through the old barn on my way to the office, I passed a screen of blue-podded peas and started shelling them.  It is a new variety for us; our second year at increasing out our stock, so the screen was not very full.  That small quantity, which I quickly calculated would not be a great time commitment to complete, is what I suppose lured me to the task.

Now if any of my peers from other seed companies are reading this, and I am sure that they will, they are probably thinking, “That was a thorough waste of time.  After all, there is staff and machinery for that task.”  And yes, that is true.  But there is something deeply relaxing and therapeutic about performing jobs like shelling peas.

Most of my other duties require thinking.  When I am in the office, all of my business responsibilities require my undivided attention.  It is just the nature of the work and once your brain is engaged, it is hard to keep from thinking about work.  This is not unique to me, you can probably relate.  This is especially true if you live where you work.  Even when you are not physically in your office, you are at work.  And since you are at work, it is hard to shut that part of the brain off.

(Next time you are at your job having a bad day and thinking how cool it would be to own your own farm-based business, remember my anecdote above.  Still don’t believe me?  Move into the office for a week.  If you hate it, don’t quit your day job.)

So, on occasion, I find those somewhat menial tasks to be awesome.  Driving tractor and working the soil.  Potting seedlings in the early spring.  Tilling or hoeing weeds in the summer.  Garden cleanup and compost pile building in the fall.  And yep, shelling a pile of peas.

Even if only for a short time, gone are the thoughts of meetings, appointments, tasks that need to be completed, etc.  My mind is allowed to wander; to be free.  I think about friends I have not talked to in a long while and need to call.  Reminisce about when the kids were little and how their children are so similar and different.  Daydream about lofty goals like building a tree house.  And then realize that I am not as stressed as I was before tackling the peas.

So if you end up deciding to grow a small patch of these cool, blue-podded peas in your garden next spring, as you are planting them and enjoying your gardening therapy session, you can remember mine.

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