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Playing mad crop-scientist | New World Seeds & Tubers

My friends and I have fun coming up with all sorts of hair-brained schemes for crops, both utilizing resources we’re aware of that are currently unutilized, or recombining traits to package them in a way to make them useful. I think we’re all dreamers.

I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing:

“Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.”
George Bernard Shaw

In a sense you can’t help but to change the world. It’s known as “the Butterfly Effect” (ie, the flapping of the butterfly’s wings influences the weather): small differences in initial conditions result in huge changes in outcome over time. The question is how to make those changes that make the world a better place.

I would like to start a project to grow out crops that are currently not utilized at all, or are under-utilized compared with what we think is their potential, and then identify obstacles to utilization and ways to work around those.

I have at least one specific objective in mind:

Identifying crops that can make local production possible where otherwise it is not

For example, hardy substitutes for tropical commodities, or easy-to-grow backyard substitutes for strictly commercial crops.

That’s sort of what we’re already about anyway; we make local production possible including of a number of staple crops rarely grown anymore other than in large-scale globalized plantation operations.

For that very reason, though, we need to make sure that our core business is getting enough attention before we experiment with crops that will take time and effort, that we’re not even sure there’s a market for. The photo by the way is of …

“…a demonstration site, embodying the principles of permaculture and perennial polyculture systems from around the world. It is a community-based garden that displays the dynamic relationship that humans have with nature”.

(That’s what the sign says)

I don’t mean to rain on someone else’s parade and I have a feeling I will be stepping on toes, but it needs to be pointed out that this project lacks credibility: the most common of plants in this “permaculture and perennial polyculture system” are mildly to extremely toxic to all mammals, while others are merely indigestible.

One of the less toxic inhabitants is Russian comfrey. I looked up online if there’s any actual use for it. Wikipedia states that it has essentially replaced comfrey and says of it:

Contemporary herbalists view comfrey as an ambivalent and controversial herb that may offer therapeutic benefits but can cause liver toxicity.

One of the country names for comfrey was ‘knitbone’, a reminder of its traditional use in healing bone fractures. Modern science confirms that comfrey can influence the course of bone ailments.

The herb contains allantoin, a cell proliferant that speeds up the natural replacement of body cells. Comfrey was used in an attempt to treat a wide variety of ailments ranging from bronchial problems, broken bones, sprains, arthritis, gastric and varicose ulcers, severe burns, acne and other skin conditions. It was reputed to have bone and teeth building properties in children, and have value in treating “many female disorders”. Constituents of comfrey also include mucilage, steroidal saponins, tannins, pyrrolizidine alkaloids, inulin, and proteins.

Internal usage of comfrey should be avoided because it contains hepatotoxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs). Use of comfrey can, because of these PAs, lead to veno-occlusive disease (VOD). VOD can in turn lead to liver failure, and comfrey, taken in extreme amounts, has been implicated in at least one death.[6] In 2001, the United States Food and Drug Administration issued a warning against internal usage of herbal products containing comfrey.[7] There are ways to remove the pyrrolizidine alkaloids from comfrey, and some herbal product manufacturers have begun doing so (although the products will still be labelled “for external use only”).

Excessive doses of symphytine, one of the PAs in comfrey, may cause cancer in rats.[8] This was shown by injection of the pure alkaloid. The whole plant has also been shown to induce precancerous changes in rats.

So it might be medicinal in some context that is not clear at the moment, but it’s not food and probably doesn’t make sense for it to be one of the main crops. Medicinal herbs I’ll cover in another blog post another day. I’m not sure how it’s supposed to get to your bones to knit them if you can only apply it externally. There may be some bugs to work out on this one.

The Hedge Morning Glory (Calystegia sepium) is edible but I’m not convinced anyone is really eating it. Young dandelion is probably more palatable.

So, we tread cautiously and rationally into unknown territory, where be dragons. Here are some ideas:

  • Fruits adapted to colder or more maritime climates than is typical of most tree crops. Also, preferably, that do not require expensive and labor-intensive grafting.
  • Wild and semi-domesticated crops that are tough enough to grow more-or-less feral, but good enough to be practical for human tastes, as emergency backup food; this becomes more critical the more reliant you are on local food versus being able to buy imports
  • Herbs and spices that are not tropical
  • Long, strong plant-fibers that are not tropical
  • Long-season, non-bolting greens that are not tropical

Some projects not quite fitting any of those categories, but still relevant to localizing production, would include Tom’s high-protein potato project and my frost-resistant potato project.

“High protein” for a potato just means that it has something like 40% more protein than a typical potato; these aren’t soy. The thing is tho that they’re a lot easier to grow in usable quantities in a backyard than soy is. Potato protein also happens to be quite good quality; it’s the quantity that’s lacking, but only relative to the calories; on an acreage basis potatoes are quite generous as protein-makers. Eat them skin and all–the protein is all concentrated in the then waxy layer right under the skin.

The idea for a frost-resistant potato is to take advantage of the fact that potatoes are easy-to-grow and surprisingly adaptable to high latitudes despite their highland tropical origins, EXCEPT that unfortunately most of them have practically no frost tolerance in the foliage.

If a frost hits, the “seed potato” (as a dealer in true potato seeds, that expression is exasperating to me) might survive in the shelter of the earth, but the foliage gets nipped back–possible too much to recover from, or at least the potatoes will be set back (but potatoes are remarkably forgiving). For growing them in places like Alaska, Montana, Finland, and even Minnesota, it would be worthwhile to have potatoes whose foliage can survive at least a mild frost. Combining that with early tuberization needed for the shorter growing season would get you a potato that is more resistant to crop failure at high latitudes–which someday soon I think will be a matter of much higher stakes than it is at the moment with the possibility of bought imported crops as a backup. Just a small difference in frost tolerance and precocious tuberization makes a huge difference in crop reliability.

In order to implement the project, I would need to organize local people willing to make a commitment to contribute labor and resources to it in consideration of their share of the food produced. I would front the land and some inputs including some transportation to and from the farm.

I’m not sure that conditions exist to make it work. When economic times are good, this type of project is a hobby people dabble in, hence the anonymous project mentioned earlier. That’s what I don’t want to replicate; there is room for failed experiments but not for a total waste of precious time, money, and resources. When times are hard as they are just starting to become (sorry, the worst is yet to come), it’s every man for himself. I point out that if you can’t find full-time employment at “living wages” then you cut down your expenses by using your free time to produce some of your own goods, to cut down on what you need money to buy in the first place. I actually know a few brave but sensible people doing this.

For me, local food production is not an abstract or ideological concept; it’s a matter of practical necessity as global finance breaks down and production is going into decline in many key crops. Already a number of countries have had food riots because they became dependent on imports of cheap wheat. Now that wheat prices have more than doubled, and because food purchases were already a high ratio of typical family budgets, people are going hungry and going broke in these countries.

I know of at least 2 of the countries that have been hit by food riots that have plenty of capacity to not only grow more than enough food for their populations, there would be enough to export, but they don’t. Instead, they’re bogged down with lack of farmers, chronic capital depletion (they “eat their seed corn”) so they can’t just mechanize it, and corruption (loans for farm equipment, seed, and fertilizer end up paying for an unearned luxury lifestyle for the ruling class).

We have the same problems on some scale. We’re next. Is there enough time left to ramp up local production? What could we come up with successful local substitutes for?

What do you think?


12 Responses to “Playing mad crop-scientist”

  1. your prophecy of someday needing, not just dabbling, in self reliance is the same one i saw in my crystal ball years back, and why we moved to a place we could begin practicing it.

    your vision for the potato is just great. but i do have a question. the climates you speak about require LONGGGG storage for seed tuber, without breaking dormancy. yet, the planted seed tuber piece would still need to break dormancy in relatively cool soil, wouldnt it? soil not much different temperature than the average storage facility the self reliant could provide, such as root cellar?

    the commercial “seed producer” has high dollar storage facilities that could likely overcome the issue i see, if i have that right. and as a commercial crop. a more nutritious potato without shipping or per-preparation storage or other unforeseen downsides is a clear win that would make GW Carver smile with glee.

    and be a clear win for humanity, in fact… but for you and i, and all the little guys in agriculture- i still wonder if true seed that breeds true and reliably is another goal the young folks should be looking at. both could be pursued. not by one man, but by the experimenters among us, and the ones the torch will get passed to.

    kudos to you for your vision, efforts and creating the conversation.

  2. oh and by the way, russian comfrey-bocking 14 strain iirc, doesnt produce seed- makes wonderful fodder and when dried, “winter hay” supplement for my dairy goats. great job increasing milk supply, they love it fresh and dry and eat it well without downsides. just one little part of trying to grow my own feed as well as food.

  3. Tom has MANY lines that are frost resistant. Prince Louis Albert, a baby of Tom selected by me, is a tater also totally oblivious to late blight and also frost resistant. I grew a few plants in a commercial field that I visited a few weeks ago, after a few frosts that had killed everything else, and it was still vibrant. The taters are small and it is a very very late producer, their flesh is almost orange, the skin is red, and oh my god are they good!!!

    In 2008 I grew Tom’s taters for the first time and had many ”way way” more frost resistant taters, especially the ones coming from a bulk seed packet of about 500 seeds.

    The genetics are there…and the genious is still alive and well…

    • Yes, you’re right that he has frost-resistant lines. I would also guess that many or most of them have at least some tropical background. Ironically, potatoes only have frost-resistant foliage if they are from high elevations in the tropics. If they’re from lower elevations south of the tropics, they go dormant seasonally and do not experience frost while actively growing. Most of the ones I am aware of are late to tuberize, because they’re from the tropics.

      We think we can do better: first of all get more frost-resistance than what they currently have (some bitter potatoes are amazingly frost-resistant); second, combine it with precocious tuberization. Imagine potatoes that tuberize in two months. We also need to make sure we get some late-blight resistance in there, because before frost comes late blight! Actually, in this part of the world–we get “late blight” in spring too!!

      By the way–we’ve got a precious few tubers that seem to tolerate a little frost AT THE TUBER. Some of them are survivors from one of our many fiascos (their comrades all DEAD), and another is S. ajanhuiri.

  4. I’ve been growing ‘Desiree’ potatoes for the past few years, and think that they have promise as the kind of potato you described. I saved seeds last year and will plant the most promising tubers from them this coming spring, so we’ll see. They store well, not sprouting too early, produce well under short season conditions, but the foliage is frost sensitive like all the rest. I’d be interested in running a trial up here if you had seeds. I should mention that I live in Canada, in a remote location in the mountains, so a good place for trials. As far as edible berries that are somewhat feral, how about edible Honeysuckle (Hascaps)?

    • Hello. I tried Hascap. I bought two plants, under the assumption that they need to cross-pollinate. Both got horrifically diseased and one died. Now I don’t have a pollinator! :(

      I don’t know what the disease was, but it might have been one of our Phytophthoras. We get it really bad here…especially in my yard for some reason.

      Trialers in Canada would be good. Stay in touch and be patient.

  5. The use of comfrey for healing has historically been in the form of the white root mashed or grated into a poultice for external application. Helps with the healing of cuts as well as broken bones, and can even be made into casts. If you ever get a chance to read Flora Britannica by Richard Mabey there is an informative couple of pages on comfrey with some interesting tales.

    Searching google books for “comfrey boneset knitbone” also brings up a couple of good reads. This is a link to one, hope it works:

  6. Sounds like a project. A good book on rarer fruits is Glowinski’s Fruit Growing in Australia. He’s a real enthusiast, and has grown a remarkable number of fruits in his Melbourne backyard, from tropical to northern European things.

  7. I live at 1800ft in the foothills, just north of Los Angeles. We can grow a lot of stuff year-round, but are just outside of the range of many tropicals. Thus, we are in a great position to experiment with stretching the hardiness of certain tropicals. We get a fair number of frosts (first one of the year tomorrow night!), but we also have warm, sunny winter days, and winter just doesn’t last that long.

    I’d be thrilled to have a potato that could grow year round here.

    I am currently collecting seeds to experiment this season crossing a rocoto pepper (somewhat hardy perennial hot pepper) with sweet peppers to try and come up with a hardier perennial sweet pepper.

    Two other projects I want to work on would be a hardier moringa oleifera and hardier pigeon pea, both plants with great potential, but not frost tolerant.

    Also thinking about crossing local wild mustard with garden brassicas to come up with something drought tolerant that will self-seed itself as the wild mustard does, but is more palatable. Maybe x daikon for a larger, juicier, less-fibrous taproot and milder greens.

    Another potato project for you would be to breed a potato that did well with intensive methods like potato towers. The potato would need to tuberize along the length of the stem, whenever buried.

    Anyway, love your site planning on buying some seed soon.

    • Good to hear from you, Jonathan.

      I have long been wondering if Moringa would be possible in California. The Mediterranean rainfall pattern would throw it for a loop–it wants to be dry in winter, which would trigger dormancy and probably slight frost resistance. It probably experiences mild overnight frosts in its native eastern Himalaya foothills, followed by warm days.

      All other species seem hopeless as they are all more tropical, most of them deep-tropical around the horn of Africa.

      Chaya would have the same problem of difficulty going dormant in rainy winters. Chaya does, interestingly, have one hardy cousin of the same species, the Bull Nettle of the southern USA. Looks like a tiny Chaya. Grows from a tuberous root.

      Pigeon pea would make an interesting crop. For one thing it is a lot less thirsty than most other pulses, especially when grown as a perennial.

      Some of my associates have done a lot of Brassica work. I wish I could just get a “Tree Collard” (a perennial collard) that can be propagated from seed. It is a most amazing crop; bears for about 9 months of the year in my climate. But near-sterility is dooming it. A few folks have gotten seeds, but I’ve yet to hear if the seedlings were perennial. Seems to me that if it bloomed regularly, that would interfere with its very long crop season; the leaves would probably turn bitter whenever it bloomed.

      The potato would need to tuberize along the length of the stem, whenever buried.

      One of Tom’s exotic potatoes–I don’t remember if it was from Mexico or Peru–did something really weird like that. Very odd looking plant.

      Anyway, love your site planning on buying some seed soon.

      Thanks. We were supposed to have some new listings up but we’re late again as usual. :(

  8. Oops, they were Honeyberries. I thought the names were equivalent. Wikipedia led me astray–though when I looked up the article again, I see that it has been revised–but still gives “Haskap” as a name for “Lonicera caerulea” where they have consolidated the Honeyberry entries. Though they also specify “Haskap” for Lonicera caerulea var. emphyllocalyx specifically.

    Anyway, I’d bought the Honeyberries before you had told me that. I suspect it was a species of Phytophthora that killed one and damaged the other. Whatever it was, killed numerous other shrubs and small trees in my yard. Extremely virulent and non-specific as to prey. Kills Blueberries too but the blueberries were older plus they’re in pots–it seems to flow with water and plants in pots are safe for a while.

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