Photo by Scott Terrell
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A field of cabbage going to seed in Burlington, Washington. The white boxes are bee hives placed next to the crop for pollination.
Photo by Scott Terrell
The Plate

Brass Tacks: How Seed Suppliers Pick Their Fields

Twice a year, a handful of representatives from as many seed companies gather ‘round a toy-sized tractor to draw numbers from it. It’s the NFL draft of the seed-growing world tucked into a fertile corner of Washington state–and it’s pretty mild-mannered, in comparison.

The numbers drawn from the tractor determine who gets first pick in the field, represented by a sprawling map on the wall, marked with–you guessed it–brass thumbtacks and red yarn, the same way it has been done for the last 60 years.

This biannual “pinning day” emerged to replace the land grabbing and fist fighting that once determined where seeds were sown in Northwest Washington. The region’s moderate climate and long summer days place it among a global handful of spots ideal for coaxing certain plants to put forth seed. In many years, 50 percent of the world’s cabbage and spinach seed crops have been grown in and around the state’s Skagit Valley, a region that boasts the top 2 percent of the most productive soil in the world, not to mention a big tulip festival every April.

Seed production began here in the 1880s and reached a critical mass by mid-century, making it necessary for growers to work together. “Even though these companies are competing with each other, they have to cooperate in order to grow seed crops in this region that is so suitable, climate-wise, for these crops,” says Lindsey du Toit, a plant pathologist at Washington State University’s Mount Vernon Northwestern Washington Research Extension Center. The research center emerged early on as a neutral third party in the seed-pinning process, and growers can reference the pinned maps on its walls year-round.

To grow in much of Northwest Washington, companies have to send a representative to pin the map in-person. Spring annuals like spinach are pinned in early March and fall biennials like cabbage in early June, but it hasn’t always been cordial.

“The question always came up, ‘Who gets to pin first?’” says Kirby Johnson, president of the Puget Sound Seed Growers’ Association. “There were some nasty tempers, so it was decided that they would draw out of a hat.” Johnson married into the family behind Tillinghast Seed Company, the first to bring seed crops from Pennsylvania to the valley as they settled here in the 1880s. He’s been involved in the industry for decades.

A few things have changed over the years. Representatives from the seed companies are now internationally owned instead of local, and the toy tractor replaced the old farm hat years ago, because it got too dirty. But the need to coordinate plantings fairly remains the same.

For seed crops that are cross-pollinated by wind or bees, placement is crucial to isolate the plants and avoid unwanted hybrids. (There’s not yet a market for teenage-mutant baby spinach.) The closer the crops are genetically, the farther they have to be planted apart to avoid anomalies. Hence the need for pinning out each seed company’s territory.

The growers also have to consider factors like disease. Spinach seed can’t grace the same soils for up to 15 years because of Fusarium wilt, for example. This requires dozens of other crops to be rotated through those fields in the meantime, with seed crops setting the pace for the rest of the valley’s agricultural system.

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Photo courtesy Kim Binczewski, Washington State University

Similar “pinning days” take place in seed-growing regions across the world, such as New Zealand or Denmark and, increasingly, countries like South Africa, Argentina and Chile. Most of the organizers have moved away from in-person meetings with paper maps in favor of virtual systems that plot out the symbiotic, if reticent, relationships forged by the world’s seed suppliers.

California, for example, uses an Isolation Pin Map System to provide real-time tracking of cross-pollinated seed crops online, allowing representatives to “pin” fields from their desks. Speaking of California (and drought), international seed companies often spread their seed crops — and their risk — among several countries in case bad weather decimates a particular growing region.

In 2009, the Skagit Valley’s typically mild winter got just cold enough to kill about 60 percent of the cabbage seed in the area, which represented a large portion of the world’s supply.“That’s why most seed companies will [plant seeds to grow in] different regions,” du Toit says. “But this area remains one of the favorites.”

Growers in Northwest Washington still major in spinach, beet and cabbage seed crops. But the percentages of each changes every year depending on how the crop did elsewhere, du Toit says.

Northwest Washington has considered taking its pinning online, too, but decided paper worked better for its particular mix of players. “There’re too many shenanigans online,” says Johnson. “In the same room, you’re face to face with everybody. And that’s a pretty good buffer.”

Though the actual pinning transpires like the quickest of board games, its participants synthesize decades of growing history to make each move, hoping to claim the best fields first while strategically spacing those at the most risk of cross-pollinating.

Follow Whitney Pipkin on Twitter.