'Seed keeper' Phil Seneca strives for hearty stock

March 3, 2012 12:00 am
  • Phil Seneca with some of the seeds and crops he's grown on his family's fourth-generation farm in Marshall.
    Phil Seneca with some of the seeds and crops he's grown on his family's fourth-generation farm in Marshall.
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Phil Seneca is a gentle soul.

As we sit at the kitchen table of a farmhouse that has been in his family for four generations, he carefully slips a piece of paper under a ladybug and gently carries it to the front door, where it flew away.

Mr. Seneca is the "seed keeper" and founder of Good Mind Seeds, a local company that offers an eclectic variety of flowers and vegetables bred for toughness and genetic diversity. Seed keeping is different than seed storage, he says.

"Every single year the weather is changing, the soil is changing, species are dying out. If we don't have the strongest gene combinations from our crops being selected every year, our crops won't learn how to be in the new world they wake up into the next year."

That means careful selection of plants in the field and using plants that are the same variety but different enough to grow under a wide range of conditions.

The quiet 24-year-old turns intense when talk turns to genetically modified organisms. He thinks it's "the corporate takeover of food." Mr. Seneca can't stomach companies that are splicing genes of other species into plants, then patenting them.

"We have not seen one case of one genetically modified product benefiting anybody except the corporate interests behind its creation," he says.

This is what drove him to create a collection of seeds that are grown locally and under tough conditions. The self-taught plant breeder is working on all sorts of interesting varieties using conventional breeding techniques.

"I'm offering people seed that is from authentic sources that has been tested in very real situations with no tilling, chemicals, compost or irrigation."

That's right -- no watering or digging. It's called dry farming, and one of his biggest successes last year was a tomato called 'Punta Banda.' He thinks its origins are Spanish. With only three plants in the field, it produced more tomatoes than any other variety.

"It's the most drought-tolerant tomato I've ever grown," he says. "The hotter, dryer and brighter it got, the more they loved it."

First Published 2012-03-02 23:52:37

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