Dunton Family Farm News

What's Happening Around the Farm as well as a Soapbox for head farmer, Mike Dunton

Harvest in a Hurry

As nearly everyone around the United States will attest, it has been a very odd year weatherwise.  The week before last I was lamenting the early arrival of cool, wet, Fall weather and then this week we were setting record high temperatures.  But judging from the forecasts, it looks like our hot days are now behind us and wet weather is returning.

This creates many challenges when attempting to harvest the seeds that you all are counting on for your gardens next spring (and that we count on to support our continued seed variety preservation work).  The optimist in me is thankful that we are looking at impending periods of showers and not freezing temps.  We can put on rain and mud gear and continue our work . . . it is just not very fun.

All of this aside, we have all hands busily doing the harvest dance.  John is out in the field picking and documenting, the main part of the crew is squeezing tomatoes into containers to ferment, and I am trying to keep up with the washing, drying, and preparing the seeds for storage in preparation of germination testing and getting them ready for packaging.  And that is jut the tomato seed harvest.  Everything else is being picked and hauled into buildings and put on screens to finish drying.  It is always an exciting time bustling with activity.

A group of my immediate family members and cousins working on harvesting tomato seeds.

A group of my immediate family members and cousins working on harvesting tomato seeds.

I have posted several more harvest related photos on our Facebook page - Click Here. Folks at most other seed companies probably will find it funny how we do everything by hand.  Yes it is expensive and laborious.  But it is the only way that I can come up with to maintain our quality standards and maintain so many diverse varieties.  If folks think it is silly that we toil manually, I look at it this way, I do not have to pay for a health club membership and I think of the product we produce as something akin to a craft beer or a limited edition,, reserve or boutique wine. :)   Small batches, all by hand.

My break is over, the sun is finally breaking through the clouds, and it is time to get back out and wash tomato seeds for several more hours!


posted by Mike in Company News,Farm News and have No Comments

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.

   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.

posted by Mike in Farm News and have No Comments

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!

posted by Mike in Company News,Farm News and have No Comments

Saving Heirloom Tomato Seeds

This is just a quick blog entry to answer a very common question that we are asked . . . How do I save tomato seeds?   This really is a two part question that I answer with a qualifying Q & A followed by a description of the process that I use.

Firstly you need to decide if the tomato that you have in hand is actually worth saving.  If is it just some anonymous, generic tomato from the supermarket, it is likely a hybrid and unless it was super spectacular and you have about a decade of growing seasons to stabilize its genetics, it is probably a smarter use of your time to pass on saving its seeds.  Spend two bucks for a pack of seeds for next season.

If, on the other hand, the tomato is an older variety, an open-pollinated family heirloom-type and grown in relative isolation, then definitely go for it.  Saving seeds is what we are all about and I highly encourage folks to make the practice a routine to their gardening cycle.  Remember, saving seeds = freedom!

Hopefully you noticed that I included a reference to isolation in the previous paragraph.  Although there are folks out there that will tell you that since tomatoes have “perfect flowers” and that they don’t cross, as someone with experience in this area, I can assure you that they do.

There are many reasons tomatoes can cross, and yes I will agree that the instance is relatively low, but they still cross.  It is my opinion that if you are going to save seeds, you should strive for accuracy and therefore, do all that you can to replicate varieties true-to-type.   In the case of tomatoes, try and isolate varieties from each other by 15 to 20 feet with tall and / or flowering plants in between them.

O.k. – We got all of that out of the way and you have in your possession some tomatoes that you really like and that you want to grow in a future garden.  Saving tomato seed is not super difficult, and some folks simply squeeze some seeds out onto a paper towel, dry them down, and plant seeds with bits of paper and all.  But if you want the highest quality, professional grade seed for your personal seed bank, I would recommend making the effort to perform the fermentation process that I describe in detail on our informational website at http://www.vintageveggies.com/information/seedsave_tomato.html.  I just updated it today, cleaned up some of the wording and added large photos to make the process clearer.  Good luck!

Saving Tomato Seeds

Saving Tomato Seeds

posted by Mike in Gardening Tips and have No Comments

Click for Heirloom Tomato Seed Selection Save Seeds - Victory Horticultural Library matersearch.com - online tomato resources