By Joseph Dittman of Wild Ridge Farm
Our farming livelihood rests on the success of seeds. But how strange to hold something so small in the palm of my hand and realize I’m investing a lion’s share of days, dollars, and ideas in a speck of organic matter that appears so lifeless. And yet, time and time again, the seemingly powerless soon pushes through soil, and the seemingly lifeless yields fruit in its season. If we wish to finish well, we must begin well. If we desire good fruit, we must plant good seeds.
Our farming season begins with seeds. Ordered when the soil lies locked in ice and snow, we wrap ourselves in layers of wool sweaters and dream of August evenings when thousands of seeds planted in February, March, April and May will grace our dinner table with crisp greens in clay bowls, sliced tomatoes on maple cutting boards, purple eggplants, roasted cauliflower, mashed sweet potatoes, and all manner of bounty. In large measure, we choose the seeds and the varieties we, ourselves, will enjoy eating and preparing, because when we are excited about our vegetables, how much easier it is to excite eager market-goers when lines queue up Saturday mornings in Fox Point or Whitefish Bay or Tuesday mornings in Thiensville
Flavor, however, cannot be our only consideration. With over 75 CSA members already invested in Wild Ridge Farm before even our first head of lettuce matures, we need to know the seeds we plant will deliver the beautiful produce everybody expects. Thus, many of the varieties which have become our mainstays, were first the mainstays of the farmers who taught us. The seeds which we rely on year after year, were first the seeds our mentors relied on year after year. With so many aspects of farming dictated by forces out of human control—rainfall, field conditions, temperatures, disease pressures—we strive to eliminate as many variables as possible; thus, if we know Carmen peppers are consistently beautiful and delicious, Carmen peppers are the peppers we plant.
We source almost all our seeds from either High Mowing Organic Seeds or Johnny’s Selected Seeds. These two companies have been reliable and timely and carry the varieties we like to grow. Since we are not a certified organic farm, we are not strictly limited to organic seeds, but both High Mowing and Johnny’s carry organic seeds and this is our preference. Close to 90% of the varieties we grow are hybrids. We choose to grow hybrids for their reliable germination rates, consistent maturation rates, and dependable yields—in order to serve our CSA customers, our market customers, and our restaurant customers our timing must be impeccable, ensuring weekly quality and quantity of harvests remains sufficient from week to week.
Produce farmers are constantly balancing the scales of quantity and quality, hoping always to have an abundance of both. With this goal in mind, Wild Ridge has the privilege this season of collaborating with several local farmers, chefs, and plant breeders under the direction of Julie Dawson of UW Madison’s Horticulture Department in a project to develop vegetable breeds which optimize both flavor and productivity—seeds which thrive in the growing conditions unique to our Wisconsin landscape. At Julie’s invitation, we’ve selected several varieties of lettuce, carrots, and winter squash seeds to grow specifically for taste trials conducted by a panel of Madison chefs led by Tory Miller of L’Etoile and Graze.
We believe the collaboration of regional farmers, chefs, and plant breeders has great potential to elevate local food cultures and local economies, eliminating over-reliance on long-distance shipping, reducing fuel and energy spent in transport and refrigeration, and enhancing the vitality of our existence on each singular corner of the earth where we’ve planted these tiny seeds and daily work for their growth.