The nice thing about being a seed farm is the small acreage needed to produce our seed.
You know what the tough thing about being a seed farm is? The small acreage needed to produce our seed.
Varieties of the same species can cross-pollinate: our Success PM squash could cross with others varieties of Cucurbita pepo growing in the next row over. Not necessarily a big deal if you’re growing for vegetables because you won’t notice any differences in the first generation. The impact of the cross-pollination shows up in the second generation. And this is a big deal if you’re growing for seeds: you need to make sure the squash seeds you’re selling – the second generation – actually produce the squash shown on the label, not some cross-pollinated randomness.
Isolation is critical with these varieties.
Distance is the primary way to isolate. But cucurbits like squash, melon, and cucumbers need up to two miles of separation because bees and other pollinators can range that far. We’re lucky to have several different fields throughout the Finger Lakes that we work; we can grow varieties of the same species in completely separate spaces.
But even the best-conceived plans to isolate are subject to change without notice. This season we rearranged field plans because a neighbor down the road was growing a variety of squash that could cross with one of ours. We also got access to some new varieties that weren’t accounted for in the original field layout.
Just turns out that sometimes you have to plant varieties of the same species in the same field, right next to each other.
Isolation by time is a technique to use when distance is not an option. You bring a variety to bloom either before or after the cross-pollinating variety blooms. We’re experimenting with this kind of isolation with our carrots because it’s notoriously easy for them to cross with Queen Anne’s Lace.
Physical barriers is another way to isolate. Trees and topography can create breaks on a large scale. Within a single field you can do things like hand pollinate, cover individual plants with bags or nets, or tape the flowers shut. You can even set up an isolation cage over an entire section of your field with the help of one of the smartest plant breeders at Cornell University.
There’s really nothing special about the cage that Mike Mazourek brought us. It’s just a big tent: a framework of metal pipes covered by a heavy-denier, small-weave mesh. The ground edges are all buried under soil and rocks. Each end is a zippered entry point. Nothing high tech or fancy. Not even the set up procedure: pounding 8-foot pipes into the ground with a sledge and then pulling the mesh body over the pipes.
Here’s the catch with isolation: keeping the bees away from our Success PM squash to prevent cross-pollination also means we’re keeping away the bees that the squash need for self-pollination.
We’re going to release a hive of bees into the cage to spend the season exclusively pollinating the Success PM.
You know what the best thing about being a seed farm is? All the incredibly cool shit we get to do.
Dr. Michael Mazourek, Plant Breeding & Genetics, School of Integrative Plant Science, Cornell University,