Why did you begin farming?
I like working in the dirt. I like being outside physically working, and I like the quiet of the field. I began plant breeding because it is a way a person working in the dirt can make a lasting difference and contribute to the quality and diversity of the food supply for many people.
Have you always been an ecofarmer, or did you make a change?
I have always used organic practices.
What was the biggest hurdle you have overcome?
Finding land to farm. It took until I was almost 50 years old.
What do you enjoy most about farming?
I like physical work outdoors. I like mud between my toes. I like producing high-quality food and new seed that will produce more high-quality food, and that open source will mean others can reproduce that food and those seeds into the future. Looking to create new open-pollinated varieties of sweet corn, I planted a 100-foot row of each of 14 sugary enhanced f1 hybrids and picked a favorite. Eight generations later, Top Hat, one of my first releases, was selected out of Tuxedo, one of those 14. Tuxana (white corn) Festivity (multi-color corn) and Ana Lee (yellow corn) all come from a cross between Tuxedo and an Anasazi landrace corn.
What is your biggest current challenge?
My current biggest farm hurdle is the slow process of building up poor soil, particularly on the field I have leased.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received about farming?
Don’t be afraid to try something new, but grow a little before you grow a lot.
What learning opportunities have helped you become a better farmer?
Information and advice from experienced plant breeders, Dr. Alan Kapuler, Dr. Carol Deppe and Dr. Jim Myers, to name a few. These people and others have freely given of their extensive knowledge. Conferences, mostly organized by the Organic Seed Alliance or NOVIC (Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative) have included workshops that have taught me a great deal about my specialty of vegetable breeding. There are also excellent reference texts available.
What do you see in store for the future of sustainable farming?
Unsustainable farming cannot be sustained and it cannot sustain us. I think our farms will become more sustainable voluntarily, or we will eventually be forced to it by catastrophe. The current dominant model may hold on for a little while longer due to government subsidy and externalized costs (toxicity, pollution, etc.), but sustainable ag is the only way if we seek a positive future.
This article appears in the November 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.