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Bill Braun Shares Passion for Seed Breeding at Upcoming Workshop

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2017 September Issue Newsletter

By Julie Rawson

On October 22, NOFA/Mass will be hosting a seed breeding and sovereignty workshop at Round the Bend Farm in Dartmouth. Bill Braun, seed grower and farmer, is a main organizer of this, and there will be a number of seed breeders at the workshop. Read more about this workshop and learn how to register here

Bill and his partner Dee Levanti, and now their new son Bernard, grow vegetables, herbs, flowers and fruit on about five acres at Ivory Silo Farm in Westport, MA, using sustainable practices and with great respect to biological diversity. When I interviewed him for this issue we were both in the throes of July and all that means – lots of heat (though less this year), lots of weeds, lots of pie in the sky dreams of the spring dashed as the reality of all of the challenges of the farm year have set in, but also looking forward to August where a lot of the early work starts to pay off in heavy vegetables, cooler nights and the calm that impending fall brings. We ran into one another again at the Summer Conference and shared a brief moment being chauffeured in the golf cart to Bill’s seed intensive. August was here and all was right with the world.

Bill is full of a lot of musings and thoughtfulness. Upon digging, I found that he had been a philosophy major in college. I likened him to Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables. His effervescence about life and all that exists around him in the natural world is indeed inspiriting. Ivory Silo Farm is situated on land owned under an APR, with owners who want their land handled sustainably. Says Bill, “One sibling dedicated the last 10 years of his life to cleaning the place up and amending organically. We are co-developing the farm into a working farm again - not contingent only on me and Dee, but along with the family.”

The family has invested in tractors and other infrastructure. Bill and Dee are also using the market garden area for seed saving. Bill says this about their seed work: “We have sort of been arm chair breeders historically. Aside from varietal maintenance – i.e., selecting the best of the best under appropriate conditions – our breeding work thus far has been about letting nature reveal what she has, rather than imposing what we want, and selecting from there. This was the ‘farmer’ approach. Now, teaming up with John Navazio (senior plant breeder at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and co-founder of Organic Seed Alliance) and Hannah Traggis (plant physiologist and senior horticulturalist/educator at Massachusetts Horticultural Society), we are going deeper.”

Bill launched the Ivory Silo Seed Project at the time of starting the farm operation, with a mission to foster a regionally adapted seed stock for growers along the South Coast of MA and RI. The farm is currently building infrastructure to serve as a hub for seed processing and education, and partnering with farmers and gardeners to expand seed saving efforts. This year, the project is transitioning into the Freed Seed Federation, a 501c3 nonprofit dedicated to place-based organic breeding and crop improvement for the public commons. The idea behind the Freed Seed Federation is “to unshackle the good work from the stream of commerce,” meaning contributing to the important and necessary diversification and crop improvement for organic systems.

Both of Bill’s parents were educators. He was on a trajectory to teach philosophy and religious studies; but he became disillusioned with academia, where the insularity had little resonance with direct correlations to the “real world.” He took a trip to Eva’s Garden in 2008, where the immediacy of knowledge of getting his hands back in the soil from his gardening days provided a direct response to the void left by his philosophical pursuits – questions of self-reliance, social justice, environmental stewardship, and so forth. Resolved that this was his future, he walked away from grad school with insurmountable student loan debt to work for $7/hour. Commensurate with his plunging into farming, he fell in love with seeds.

According to Bill: “Teaching people to grow seeds is fundamentally democratizing. Politically speaking, as you are addressing the question, so too are you are participating in the solution. What I am trying to do is ‘render the broken system irrelevant,’ to borrow a quote. To say ‘this is what it could be, instead of sticking our fingers in the dam and expelling all our energy fighting’.

“We got to the point where the market garden and seed work were in competition with one another,” shares Bill. “We decided to pursue 501c3 non-profit status for the seed work, at the imploring of peers and potential investors, so we could be funded for what we are already doing and do it in a broader and deeper capacity. The market garden will continue as a living lab for this work, as the relationship we have with our chefs is a vital link in the process.”

Bill shares some background on their business model and the farming community in his area: “We initially thought we would wean off the Boston market, which I inherited from Eva [Sommaripa]. The irony of our area is that as young farmers continue to cultivate relationships with available land in the South Coast, the market for CSAs, farm stands, and farmers’ markets has become somewhat oversaturated. On any given Saturday, you can go to 8-9 places to get vegetables in a few miles’ radius. We frankly don’t want to compete with our peers, but instead pursue further the question of how we can complement one another. The excitement around seed work nationally and beyond, and the advantage of being on a farm where we can collaborate with the family on infrastructure, has made our current model a viable one.

“We are now the primary supplier of Giulia restaurant in Cambridge. The chefs have invested in us beyond just buying vegetables: they sit down with us during the off-season and together we review our production plan, make notes on quantities and seasonality, and geek out over new varieties to experiment with. It takes a certain genius to work with produce in this way; it is, in a sense, the next evolution of farm-to-table, going deep with one farm and having the flexibility and wherewithal to ‘call the audible’ week to week. There is a constant evolving dialogue, the so-called rising tide that lifts all boats. Like the original spirit of the CSA model, they are invested in us and our season, and willing to take the ride with us. The chef and crew even come to participate on the farm – planting tomatoes, harvesting garlic and potatoes, gleaning greens before the greenhouse is turned over for the season, and so on. The chef/owner just opened up a second restaurant in Harvard Square called Benedetto, in the old Rialto spot. We plan to scale appropriately to accommodate both restaurants – talk about job security. Going forward, as we are developing new varieties, we will send them new things to play around with. All that cannot be absorbed in the restaurants for variety trials and development of new crops we will donate. We have been connected with the Daily Table in Boston, donating surplus to them to feed their community; and will continue finding outlets for surplus that will come as a result of the seed work. But at present, our market garden is so honed in that there is next to no waste.”

Some goals of the new Freed Seed Federation non-profit:

  1. Preserve historic and culturally relevant varieties.
  2. Bring OP (open pollinated) varieties “up to speed”. Various forms of proprietary ownership have eroded the public commons of our food supply. Open-pollinated means seed can be saved from crops that will grow true to type, without any risk of legal recourse. Institutional breeding work has largely favored proprietary varieties, with heirlooms and OPs often not receiving the TLC of varietal maintenance.
  3. Breed the “heirlooms of tomorrow”. Increase diversity and stabilize varieties. Share with peer farmers. Diversity breeds resilience!

Like many, Bill is interested in inputs available nearby the farm. “I am not sure how we can call our agricultural practices truly sustainable while blowing up mountainsides and digging up dinosaurs,” asks Bill. “Though there is undoubtedly merit to nutrient density, we do our best to search out and incorporate localized sources. In addition to the early stages of making our own compost, we have an arborist who drops off hardwood chips regularly. Being in a coastal clime, we utilize ocean-based amendments wherever possible – fish emulsion, crab and oyster shell, and kelp meal. We have collected seaweed as well, to incorporate into our compost. Additionally, we have maintained a relationship with Equal Exchange, who roasts coffee in West Bridgewater and generously donates their coffee chaff to us for mulch and a carbon boost for compost.

“We are, as farmers, just on the fringe of understanding soil biology. The microbes are the true heroes – the workhorses of the soil. There are millions of microorganisms in 1 tsp of soil. We must focus on them first. Cover cropping is indispensible to our operation. We don’t leave the soil bare, even if it is weeds as a last resort. One advantage of the farm is that it came with baling equipment. Ed (the farm’s owner) used to help the tenant farmers when he was 13, and now at 73 he is still doing it. In addition to baling winter rye for straw, we have a low field that is a monoculture of reed canary grass and harvest that as well, if we can get in before it goes to seed.” Already practicing conservation tillage, Bill and Dee plan on experimenting with no-till systems and hope to transition parts of their operation to no-till ultimately.

“When we grow seed crops, we are de facto providing habitat for beneficials,” explains Bill. “With no pesticides used on the farm, we have seen great results with keeping habitat around.  We have been seeing new insects each year, which Dee often sends to Heather Faubert form URI – she is a great resource. There has even been stuff she hasn’t seen before! ”

Interested in learning more? Check out the Seed Sovereignty Field Day on October 22 at Round the Bend farm. This field day will bring together growers, veteran breeders, and seed experts to discuss how we can reclaim seed systems while also diversifying enterprises.


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