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The Good Seed

The Good Seed header image
OSU lab certifies the highest quality of Oregon seed.
inspecting seeds
Seed analyst Jackie Martain inspects a seed sample with microscopic help, pulling out weed seeds, inert matter, and other crop seeds. Photos by Lynn Ketchum.

They sit, 16 patient people, fixated on a parade of seeds marching under their magnifying lenses. Seeds tumble rhythmically past the watchful gaze of these analysts poised to whisk away any seed that is short of perfect.

Some seeds are heart-shaped, others appear to have tails and hairs. Some are richly colored in hues of ochre, umber, and crimson, as if dripped from an artist’s palette. Each parade includes 2,500 seeds of a single variety, sampled from bags of harvested, clean commercial seed. It might be a parade of bentgrass seed the size of a comma or fava bean seed 100 times as big.

Only a trained eye can decipher which seeds are pure and which are from other crops or weeds or are simply flecks of chaff. But knowing that difference, and eliminating all impurities, ensures that a shipment of vegetable seed contains no surprises.

glowing ryegrass seeds
The difference between annual and perennial varieties can be determined by ultraviolet light. The annual ryegrass seeds (above) are aglow and easily sorted out.

The seeds arrive at this final inspection through a meticulous procedure, as the pure offspring of several generations. They have been grown on uncontaminated land, isolated from other crops, inspected in the field, harvested, cleaned, bagged, and randomly sampled to represent the lot. With their genetic purity and germination rates established, and after a battery of other tests are performed by Oregon State University Seed Laboratory, the seeds ship across the nation and the world in bags permanently stenciled with their certification.

They are Oregon Certified Seed. There are none finer on Earth. “Oregon certified seeds are known the world over as the highest quality,” according to Dan Curry, director of Seed Services at OSU.

Cool, wet winters are the foundation of our seed-loving, temperate climate, and dry summers make all the difference. The result: seeds of many colors that mature and “dry down” in the Willamette Valley, while others such as garlic, carrot, and potato prefer the colder winters and dry summers of Central Oregon.

close inspection of seeds
Closeup perennial ryegrass seed
Perennial ryegrass seed (above) is not the smallest seed tested for certification. Sizes range from bentgrass seed, about the size of a comma, to fava bean seed 100 times as big.

“It’s surprising to find such a successful seed industry in a small area, but we do have a big footprint, worldwide,” Curry said. In fact, the OSU seed certification program has been authorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to participate in certification activities for international shipment of seed using the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Adriel Garay, manager of the seed laboratory, credits the people involved for Oregon’s stellar certification reputation. “All players in the process of producing certified seed are experts in their fields,” he said. “Breeders, growers, cleaners, shippers, inspectors, analysts—a lot of people know what they’re doing.” There’s been plenty of time to streamline the process; the lab celebrates its 100th birthday this year. in 209.

Last year, Oregon grossed $530 million in seed sales, primarily grass seed. But Oregon is a leader in the production of many other kinds of seed, including 95 percent of the nation’s carrot seed and much of the nation’s beet and clover seed. In addition, Oregon produces among the highest quality vegetable and flower seed, small grain seeds such as barley and oats, and most recently, native grass seed.

Like well-bred quarter horses, certified seed has pedigrees, and each generation has a chance to move up the hierarchy. Breeder seeds are the first generation, then Foundation seed, Registered seed, and finally Certified seed. Growers must cultivate them in exactly that order.

As part of the process, growers must follow strict requirements for cultivating. The seed must be planted in rows on land that has not previously grown another variety of seed, which could affect genetic purity. The fields must be isolated from other fields growing any closely related variety by at least 165 to 900 feet, depending on the class of seed.

Seed Certification Service personnel inspect the plants where they grow. They walk through the fields or fly over in a helicopter, scouting for disease, insect damage, weeds, and other threats to the purity and pedigree of the seeds.

carrot seeds on the stalk
Carrot seeds on the stalk in a central Oregon field.

After harvest, seeds can be conditioned and stored only at warehouses that ensure against contaminating one kind of seed with another. The identity of the seed must be maintained with a permanent lot number stenciled on each new, clean bag. At that point, seed samplers from the OSU Extension Service draw samples for testing at the seed laboratory on campus.

“Our results have to be not only accurate, but delivered in the shortest time possible,” Garay said. “Time is our biggest challenge. More than 60 percent of our samples come within two to three months in late summer and have to be shipped immediately for fall planting. Testing has to be timely.”

To speed up the process, the lab has adopted a new “Ergovision” system that uses a three-dimensional, high-resolution view and uniform flow of seeds, as well as ergonomic conditions for the analysts. “Now growers get results in four to six days,” said Sherry Hanning, a longtime analyst and purity supervisor at the seed lab.

To test for purity, Hanning inspects 2,500 seeds in each sample, pulling out weed seeds, bits of soil or twigs, and seeds from other crops. She weighs the contaminating material and computes the percentage of each. The required purity level depends on the type of seed and its market. Orchard grass must be at least 90 percent pure, while tall fescue must be 98 percent pure to earn the blue tag of certification.

Additional procedures test for viability, either by germinating a sample of seeds or by using a biochemical test to determine the number of live seeds in a sample based on enzyme activity in the embryo. An X-ray test can determine if the seed is empty, immature, or damaged. Vigor tests assess the potential of seeds to produce normal seedlings under less-than-optimum conditions.

Ben Withrow
Ben Withrow calibrates the seed blower that separates good seeds from bad. Empty seeds are dyed green and live seeds red. Air flow is checked every morning to make sure seeds go their separate ways, based on their weight.

These tools, developed to support an agricultural industry, are also being used to support restoration of natural areas using native plants. The OSU seed lab has tested the seeds of about 150 kinds of native species. Requests are increasing as governmental agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service use native species to re-vegetate landslides, burns, and degraded areas. In addition, conservation groups need certified, genetically diverse native seeds—wildflowers for the most part—or local prairie restoration projects.

“We see seed certification as a valuable resource,” said Amy Young, conservation biologist for the Native Seed Network of the nonprofit Institute for Applied Ecology. “Weeds are a big problem at a lot of the sites we are trying to restore. Seed certification not only allows us to promote high-quality seed, but makes us aware of undesirable weed species in the seed harvested from our production fields.”

Published in: Economics