Adaptive Seeds: Bringing Biodiversity Back

Sarah Kleeger & Andrew Still, Adaptive Seeds, Sweet Home, OR

­­Established in 2009, and certified organic since 2013, Adaptive Seeds is a seed company with a serious mission: to provide quality foundation material for the individual seed saving and stewardship needs of their customer base. In other words, co-founders and owners Sarah Kleeger and Andrew Still want farmers and gardeners to work on adapting the seed they purchase from Adaptive Seeds to their own locality and growing system.

While the pair recognizes that there is little to no incentive for big seed companies to encourage seed saving and selection work à la the farmer-plant breeder, this is exactly what Adaptive Seeds seeks to do. “We’re really happy when customers pick up any of the varieties we have and run with it,” said Kleeger.

She continues, “We have all these great heirlooms because people had great relationships with seed.” Still adds, “And were plant breeders.”

The name of the company openly alludes to the very core of its ethos: adaptation. A flip through the catalog shows diverse and resilient seed varieties selected for performance in the Pacific Northwest’s shorter, cooler growing season. Importantly, all of these cultivars are open-pollinated and open-source:  any farmer can save and re-plant the seed using age-old practices without threat of patent violation.

Bringing Biodiversity Back

Kleeger and Still were drawn to farming in their early 20’s and became motivated to action by the sweeping consolidation happening within the seed industry. To work towards preserving biodiversity, they initiated the Seed Ambassador Project:  traveling to Europe and collecting over 800 varieties of seed, most of which was not commercially available in the U.S. Next they began growing out the seed and distributing the varieties through established channels, like the Seed Savers Exchange. “It wasn’t getting them out there well enough,” said Kleeger.

This collection became the foundation for Adaptive Seeds’ commercial offerings, as well as several of their original farm-bred varieties. They have supplemented their European acquisitions with Pacific Northwest-bred cultivars and seeds collected in Asia. They have  also made requests through the Seed Savers Exchange yearbook and the USDA National Clonal Germplasm Repository. Kleeger notes that Still scours the internet for small seed companies selling unusual varieties. “If there’s an obscure source of seed, we’re trying to access it.”

However, Adaptive Seeds isn’t aiming to showcase the boutique. “We want to bring varieties that can really contribute to our food system,” said Still. As former market vegetable growers, they are looking for cultivars that are not only botanically suited to their particular growing region,  but will also appeal to commercial growers and their customers. Vigor and high yields in low-input organic systems are a must. As is flavor.

Oregon’s Zone 7-8 growing region presented two specific needs:  cold-hardy crops, like kale, that could withstand winter temperatures in the mid-teens (˚F), and hot-weather crops, like eggplant and tomatoes, that would ripen in their notoriously cool summer conditions. “This was one of the main reasons for our seed ambassador trip,” said Kleeger.

Seed Stewardship Education

Along with varietal diversity, Adaptive Seeds also prizes diversity within a variety. A pedigreed  variety selected continually over time  will be a stark contrast to a landrace, said Still. The latter has been stewarded as a population, instead of being selected for uniformity. “That variety is more resilient… It can adapt better to localized conditions,” he said.

Adaptive Seeds offers a number of “crossed-up selections” or “gene pools” to encourage participation in the plant breeding process. Their ‘Kale Coalition’ is a prime example. Instead of a singular kale cultivar, this is a genepool mix of 17 B. oleracea kales and their crosses, with roots reaching back to the old world: the parental lines include specimens from the United Kingdom, Denmark, Italy, and more.

They offer several other diverse mixes of different crops in hopes that farmers and gardeners will continue the selection process for themselves. ‘Purple Keepers Modern Landrace’ tomatillo, ‘Adaptive Early Thai Grex’ pepper, and ‘Open Oak Party Mix’ dent corn are among the Adaptive Seeds originals.

Still said, “It needs to be more of a grassroots decentralized seed system.”

Adaptive Seeds looks to education as critical to the participatory plant breeding they are encouraging. “It’s promoting seed stewardship and the ongoing relationship between people and seed,” said Kleeger.

They annually teach 4 to 6 classes a year, and also publish a seed saving zine. Kleeger and Still are the keynote speakers at the upcoming Friends of Family Farmer’s “Farmers Rising! Beginning Farmer and Rancher Convivium” on October 17-19, in Springfield, OR.


This is part of our new series celebrating the organic family farmers whose important organic  seed work is integral to OSGATA’s mission of protecting, promoting, and developing organic seed. Sign-up for our Seed News blog feed and follow OSGATA on Facebook to learn more about our organic seed farmer and seed company members. OSGATA needs your help to build organic seed. Please donate today!


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