Friends in the Field is an evolving collection of interviews with thought leaders who open our minds to new possibilities. Their stories connect us to our history, help us understand our present, and encourage our actions for the future. We hope that in these conversations, you’ll also find inspiration.
Matthew Dillon currently serves as the Cultivator for Seed Matters, but his work with organic seed began in earnest more than a decade ago. From 2003–2010, Dillon served as Founding Director of Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) – the first organization to engage in seed education, research, and advocacy specifically for the organic community. Below he discusses why organic practices are essential for a healthy, sustainable, and secure food system; the challenges of starting and growing a successful nonprofit organization; and the farmers who keep him inspired.
I came from an agricultural family but was encouraged to not have a career in agriculture because my family saw family farms and small-scale agriculture as a dying tradition. In my mid-to-late 20s, I was living the fast–paced urban life as an antiques dealer. I had a lot of financial and professional success, but I felt dissatisfied. I thought about my father, who’d died in my early 20s, and how he might respond to this emptiness I was feeling. I strongly felt that he would have said, "Quiet time with plants, growing your own food, and preparing and eating that food was one of the greatest satisfactions any individual could have in their life because it put you in contact with what is truly meaningful in life, which is sustenance and vitality."
So in 1996, I took time off from my business to go work on an organic farm in Philo in the Anderson Valley. The farm was also an education center where we taught people about organic gardening, farming, and seed saving. The lead farmer, Sara McCamant, was passionate about seed saving. She was the first person I’d ever heard talk about loss of genetic diversity, the loss of choices for farmers, the importance of seed as a cultural heritage, and the importance of keeping that diversity alive. I immediately became attracted to saving seed and started with the simplest plants to save seed from – lettuce, peas, and beans.
As I got into it, I realized that while we were a fully organic farm, and grew and saved a lot of our own seed, the seed we bought wasn’t organic but conventional. There weren’t many organic seed companies out there in the early '90s.
By serendipity I met Robert Greenway who was on the board of directors of Abundant Life Seed Foundation, and he encouraged me to visit the seed foundation in Port Townsend, Washington. I immediately fell in love with the farm and garden. All they did was grow seed, hundreds of different varieties and dozens of difference crop types.
I relocated to Port Townsend in 1998 and became almost a full-time volunteer with Abundant Life. This was my way of trying to serve a tradition of food and farming that I’d come from and that was important to me to see carried on. At the time I called it a way of doing service for the world as well as myself.
From that volunteering I became a member of their board of directors and in 2001, they asked me to become Executive Director. I was Executive Director till 2003, when a fire destroyed our entire seed collection – over 3,000 varieties.
In the ashes of the fire there wasn’t a lot left. I asked the board of directors for permission to launch a new nonprofit that would directly address seed diversity. We’ve lost so much crop diversity in the last 75 years, and we ourselves had just lost a large amount in this fire. How did we get this diversity in the first place? How could we save and rebuild it? How could we create new diversity?
The answer became creating community seed systems, in which farmers and gardeners aren’t just involved in saving seed, but in actually creating new diversity by breeding varieties, improving older varieties, and experimenting and innovating. In two to three weeks following the fire, we launched Organic Seed Alliance.
We had no money. We had inspiration and good teachers. The farmer-plant breeders who worked with Abundant Life inspired me. Frank Morton, a farmer with a company called Wild Garden Seed, provided moral support and education. He would host field days on his farm, do trainings and workshops – often free of charge – and share his techniques and approach to seed production and plant breeding. That generosity of spirit embodies what seeds are all about: You plant one and from that plant, you get hundreds or thousands of seeds. When you have that kind of abundance, you want to share it.
Farmers that we worked with take the fruit of their work and share it with others freely. Whereas the dominant seed industry, at the time and still today, is about proprietary information. It’s about controlling the seed, it’s about making people pay every step on the path to have access to the seed.
We wanted to create a seed movement that was more open-sourced, more community based, more about sharing seed and information. We realized we needed to create a new generation of farmers who were involved in seed work and to do that, we needed an education program. Once we had an educated body of farmers, we invested in research, getting grants to do plant breeding with farmers and land grant universities combined – having scientists involved would create more efficiency.
I’m proud of the farmers who received training from OSA and now are actively engaged in breeding, seed production, and sales. Nearly 20 farmers have their own seed companies or are part owners of seed companies. We trained them in a skill that was being lost – high-quality seed production – and gave them the opportunity to benefit economically. Now they don’t have to sell their seed as a commodity to a seed company, they can create farmer-bred, farmed-owned seed. That level of farmer involvement is changing the nature of the seed industry, specifically the organic community.
Seed is not just treated as a commodity when a farmer takes it all the way through the process. Instead it’s a value added enterprise. Farmers have self-determination in terms of what they want to do with their seed. It also brings food security to their communities.
In the last 30 years, seed has become a commodity that’s bought, sold, and traded like any other commodity – like oil, like minerals – when really, seed is a resource that’s best shared, stewarded, and governed within a community. In creating regional farmer seed systems, we’re returning seed to a place in a community instead of being a bottom line, market-driven commodity.
There are both public and private breeders. Private plant breeders usually work with seed companies to breed new varieties. Sometimes they’re just independent individuals who then try to partner with private companies. Often they’re farmers trying to improve crops that are important to them.
For the last 150 years, public plant breeders from our agricultural research universities have been the real leaders in plant breeding because, until changes in patent laws, seed didn’t lend itself to privatization. When you buy a seed, you buy the means of production. Imagine buying a computer that self-replicates, you would never need to do anything more than buy one computer. It was the public sector that engaged in plant breeding because there wasn’t an economic return in the private sector. Patents are changing the way we engage in seed, making it more difficult for the independent farmer, plant breeder, or public researcher to innovate – and seed innovation is desperately needed in order to feed our planet more sustainably.
When Clif Bar Family Foundation became interested in creating a seed movement within the business and private foundation community and the public, I saw it as a way to take the seed message to a much broader community of people, and to talk about the risks that seed systems have been under for the last 30 years and the opportunities we have to improve those seed systems.
If your passion is there to serve a need in your community and you’re willing to make many personal sacrifices, including economic – because it’s rarely economically rewarding in the early years – it’s highly rewarding on a personal level, on an emotional level, to create cultural change.
There’s also a danger in starting a nonprofit. An individual can treat it like a private company and feel too strong a sense of personal ownership. Any good founder of a nonprofit should plan for succession, should plan for handing off that nonprofit to the next generation of leaders and thinkers and doers. When you start a nonprofit, you’re not starting something that you own or that you have, in the end, control of. Rather, you’re starting something that’s an organic community process. You have to make way for new voices and new leadership.
The thing that made OSA successful, without a doubt, was the team of people that joined me and I felt, from the very beginning, that I wanted to be able to pass OSA on to the great staff I worked with. Micaela Colley, John Navazio, and Kristina Hubbard devoted a lot of time and hard work for very little pay because they believed in the vision. I felt that they needed to be part of the next generation of leadership of the organization, and they are doing a phenomenal job leading it.
I think that in the end, classical plant breeding will be shown to be more stable, more reliable, and more economically viable than genetically engineered seed. It costs less money and it creates greater benefits.
I should probably define classical plant breeding, which means plant breeders working with farmers in the field to improve crops, whereas biotechnology is molecular biologists working in the laboratory to engineer new genetic combinations.
The complexity of plant and environment interaction demands that we do our plant breeding in the environment of intended use. These plants are meant to thrive in complex ecological agricultural environments. Breeding them outside of those environments in the long run simply will not work. It’s not working already. Many of the biotech traits are losing their supposed gains. Insects are becoming resistant to the insecticides that genetically engineered crops produce.
Out of necessity – resource depletion and degradation – we will fully embrace a truly sustainable agricultural system and it will require a resiliency in our crop genetics that can only be created through classical plant breeding and breeding in organic systems. I think that is the long-term future of plant breeding. We’re going to have a slow road getting there initially. We are recalcitrant to embrace the major transition that needs to come, from energy intensive agriculture to sustainable agriculture. We will be forced to make those changes.
The best thing we can do, as a community of researchers and advocates and consumers, is to start to make those investments now – to start the breeding, and continue the education of the new generation of plant breeders and seed producers – so that we’re prepared when the transition goes into full swing.
"There is nothing more satisfying than putting a seed in the ground, nurturing that plant with your own hands, harvesting that plant with your own hands, preparing that food with your own hands, and eating it. It’s the best medicine. It’s the first medicine for healing yourself and healing the planet."
– Matthew Dillon
Selecting specific plants with desirable characteristics out of a population of plants in order to improve successive generations.
The individual plants may have everything you want, or they may have one or two characteristics that you want. You may not like the overall size of the head of lettuce but you may like the blush color of red, so you’ll cross the red blush lettuce with a larger head of lettuce.
You pollinate. It’s a natural process of reproduction, but you ensure that the reproduction happens, either by growing the plants side by side or by manually rubbing the flowers of one plant with the flowers on the other to ensure that the genetic material is exchanged via that pollen.
Seed saving is simple: you allow a plant to go to seed and you save that seed. For some plants, like wheat and corn, the seed is what we harvest, so harvesting seed isn’t much different than harvesting the crop. For vegetables, you have to go through the vegetative phase that we normally harvest out of, then allow bolting, flowering, and the setting and maturation of seed. Gauging seed maturity is essential – you get bad seed if it’s harvested too soon or lose seed from shattering if it’s harvested too late.
The complex part is, depending on the kind of crop, you have to save seed from a certain number of plants in order to have genetic health. The timing of planting the crop is important, and you need to know if it will produce seed in your bioregion. But the complexity should encourage folks to experiment, not discourage them from trying.