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Seeds of integrity

Nonprofit group works to prevent cross-pollination of local crops
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Chuck Burr, president of the Southern Oregon Seed Growers Association, walks through his garden with his ducks and geese in Ashland Monday. Burr and local seed growers have formed a seed bank to help coordinate plot locations and avoid cross-pollination.Jamie Lusch
 Posted: 2:00 AM July 17, 2013

If you don't want your garden table beets getting frisky with your neighbor's ruby chard, you may want to contact Chuck Burr.

The Ashland-area farmer is the president of the newly germinated Southern Oregon Seed Growers Association, a group of seed farmers in Jackson and Josephine counties dedicated to working together to ensure their crops' integrity by preventing them from cross-pollinating.

"Everybody wants true-to-type seed crops, high-quality seed crops," Burr said. "Even if you grow hybrid crops, you don't want your beets crossed up with something else. We all want to earn a living. And that is the point of this association."

The nonprofit group, which formed late last month following a series of meetings organized with the help of the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center staff in Central Point, is decidedly apolitical, he stressed.

"We are not political in any way," he said, noting it takes no stand on hot-button issues such as genetically modified crops. "We don't prefer conventional farming methods versus organic farming methods versus permaculture or biodynamic or something else."

"All we care about is what is the species and what is the genus," he added. "We want SOSGA to be the 'walkie-talkie' system in the valley so we can work out the isolation distances that are needed."

The isolation distance refers to the distance necessary between crops to avoid cross-pollinating. For instance, bees may travel only a mile or so in their pollinating rounds but the wind can cross-pollinate crops three or four miles distant, he noted.

To avoid the problem, the group is creating a mapping system on a crop-by-crop basis. The isolation distances being used for genus species and crop group are the same as those used by the Columbia Basin Vegetable Seed Association and the Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association, he said, noting that SOSGA consulted with those established groups.

"We took the same pinning and mapping procedures," he said of creating maps using pins to indicate different crops. "We used the same isolation distances they have because they are using generally accepted agricultural practices."

With the number of commercial seed growers now approaching 30, SOSGA will provide a necessary forum for them, said Maud Powell, the small farms OSU extension service agent in Central Point.

"The number of commercial seed growers is growing all the time," Powell said. "It's really important to have something like this. Seed companies want to know they are keeping the isolation distances needed and that the seeds have purity."

Pinning maps for pollen year 2013 will be available to dues-paying members this year, Burr said.

"This will be a confidential mapping system," he said. "We only want the genus and species. Only the map can be viewed by the membership."

A retired computer software executive officer and developer for a firm which provided computer systems for Fortune 100 companies, Burr, 51, has been developing permaculture farming for about two decades. He farms and teaches permaculture techniques on his 10 acres of rich bottomland just out of Ashland.

Farming has given him appreciation for those who carved out a living on the land, said Burr, who uses a 1949 Allis-Chalmers G tractor on his farm.

"You talk to the old-time ranchers and farmers, the kind that work on their own tractors and come up with the crop arrangements, they are the geniuses who really built this country," Burr said.

While noting that computers can be employed to help seed farmers, all farming comes down to the work on the ground, he said.

"Southern Oregon is such a wonderful place to grow seeds," he observed. "We are south of the cooler climates but we are north of California, where it is super hot. We have this lovely Mediterranean climate, which really stretches those dry summers out late.

"And we have those nice pockets of valley floor soil," he added. "So everything has come together for the small farmers."

He estimates seed farmers in southwestern Oregon now contribute to more than 90 percent of the vegetable seed companies in the nation.

Many local small farmers have began growing seeds because they can earn more money per bed foot and produce something with a longer shelf life, he said.

The problem is that close proximity to each other can be a problem when it comes to keeping seed production pure.

"When you have a lot of seed growers, you can get crops cross-pollinating," he said. "If I am growing ruby chard and you are growing ruby chard, we don't care much. But if you are growing garden table beets and I am growing ruby chard, then we would have to back up a little."

For more information about SOSGA, including how to join, check out its website at www.sosga.info. Burr can be contacted at sosgaseed@gmail.com.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.


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