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Commercial Seed Production

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My interest in seed production began when my son started working on an Arizona farm growing plants for seed; onions, broccoli, radish, arugula, bok choi. Seeing a field of broccoli in full bloom was both a delight and a surprise. It never occurred to me to wonder where those seeds came from.

The process I’m describing is a small family-owned specialty seed production farm. These days, commercial seed production is done with sophisticated equipment—computerized, regulated, and demanding of long hours and meticulous care. Fields are turned over, then leveled to within one inch of level using laser and satellite imaging connected to computers within the tractors. Rows are pulled and measured to within 1/2 inch of variance based on the crop being planted. Most tractors use GPS to facilitate this precision.

Only the best seed is used. Many of the crops on the Arizona farm are commissioned by a Japanese group that provides seed personally selected from a trusted firm. They regularly send representatives to check on the state of the crops and come to take delivery of the seed once its harvested.

The family-owned farm where my son works plants in 36-acre plots, maintaining distances of up to two miles between crops that may cross-pollinate, like different strains of onions. Unlike a home garden, the seeds are planted more closely together to maximize seed production. Irrigation is precise, as is weed control. Weeds like pigweed can grow taller than the seeded plants which compromises harvesting.

Harvesting entails determining the readiness of seed pods. There are instruments for this, but my son says that the farmer-owner picks a few heads (of say, broccoli), slaps them against his jeans and determines readiness! Harvesting is then done in the evenings, from sunset to sunrise due to the desired increased humidity to prevent the seedpods from exploding.

Most crops, like onions, are cut with a swather, a machine with blades adjusted to the height requirements of the crop. (Radish raised to seed apparently can be five to six feet in height!) Crops are laid to dry in wind rows on the ground. Then a combine, a massive machine, picks up the crop, separates seeds from chaff, moves the seed up a conveyor belt, and spits it into a bin or a tender. Each bin holds up to 2000 pounds of seed or a truck and trailer can hold the contents of the entire 36 acres. The seeds are then transported offsite to be tested, cleaned, and measured, using much more sophisticated machinery, to provide us with reliable seeds to grow crops of our choice. Amazing to me; one acre of onions produces 80 to 200 pounds of onion seed! That’s a lot of seed.

Hot and dusty work, long hours, and marvelous, expensive machines keep my son outside, which he loves, He makes minute adjustments so that high-quality seeds can be harvested to provide our farms and gardens with the vegetables we need and love.

Nancy Bliss is a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener of Tuolumne County.