North Dakota seed breeders safeguard the future of food
By Marianne Landzettel
Theresa Podoll breathed a cautious sigh of relief. The harvest on her North Dakota farm had gone well and, at the time of our conversation in early October, snow was absent from the forecast for the rest of the month.
“In 2018 and 2019, we had snow on the ground by October 10,” she says. “Both those years were incredibly wet; we had water everywhere.”
Climate change has brought a host of challenges to Prairie Road Organic Seed, a family business comprising 480 acres close to the South Dakota border.
Rising temperatures mean more hot and humid days, increasing the risk of unseasonal storms and the presence of fungi and other plant pathogens. The region’s short growing season now starts earlier and ends later, posing the possibility of late frost hitting spring crops or early snow ruining the harvest. Area wetlands are increasing and the groundwater table is rising. That isn’t to say the risk of drought has disappeared; north of the Podolls’, farms were far too dry.
Prairie Road Organic Seed was founded in 1997. All seeds are open–pollinated, certified organic, and grown on the farm. The hallmarks of good seeds are plant vigor and yields, but because of the climate crisis, the Podolls also select for resilience.
“Plants need to experience whatever goes on in the environment,” Podoll says. “That’s why a bad production year is a good year to select stock seed.”
She and her husband Dan carefully observe the growth of the plants, which can then be correlated with the year’s weather data. At harvest time, they are able to see what traits individual plants express particularly well and select accordingly.
In spring of 2017 and 2018, temperatures remained low. Plants that grew well had therefore been better able to tolerate the cold soil.
In years with unseasonal storms, only plants with strong root systems remained standing. And in hot, dry years, plants that produced a healthy leaf canopy were selected for their ability to protect the fruit against sunburn.
“You need to have a relationship with the plants,” Dan Podoll told me when I first visited the farm. He believes that each seed holds in its genes a record of everything its forebears endured and, therefore, can adapt to changing conditions in a relatively short span of time.
This view is backed by science—epigenetics can silence or activate genetic sequences as a response to changes in the environment.
Genetic and crop diversity are crucial for food security. By selecting exclusively for yield, we risk losing the vast genetic pool inherent in varieties that are less productive and therefore not maintained.
Already, the same varieties of carrots, lettuce, or peppers can be found in just about any US (and European) supermarket. If one of them fails because of a new pest or disease, the impact will be experienced on a global scale.
“Seeds need to be grown for the area of intended use,” Theresa says. “We need genetic diversity spread over the landscape.”
Prairie Road Organic’s seeds are perfectly adapted to the climate of the North Central Region of the US. And some may well flourish “out of area”: The Dakota Sisters muskmelon, for example, is doing just as well in Texas.
Every Prairie Road Organic seed variety first has to prove its credentials—flavor, yield, and resilience—in the Podolls’ farmhouse garden.
Their business ensures that they eat well. That livelihood also provides thousands of home gardeners and farmers with the seeds, genetic diversity, and knowledge to feed themselves and others.
To read more profiles of authentic organic farmers, check out our Farmer Spotlights.
Marianne Landzettel is a journalist and author who lives in London.