“They are growing things that can’t be replaced”: Extreme wildfires in western Oregon threaten valuable seed supplies. They may take over a year to recover.

For Northwest plant breeders and seed savers, warming temperatures due to climate change are a “selection opportunity.” But it’s nearly impossible to select varieties with genetics adaptable to fire.

On the morning of September 8, Andrew Still posted a photo on Instagram of pumpkin-colored skies over Adaptive Seeds, the organic farm and seed company he operates with Sarah Kleeger in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The caption read, “Smoke sunrise.”

A dozen miles to the southeast, the Holiday Farm fire raised the evacuation order to level 1 (READY). “I thought, ‘We need to protect the seed,’” Kleeger said. But they had no vehicles to transport their entire seed bank to safety—years’ worth of rare seeds they have bred, collected, and stored in the garage, greenhouse, and outbuildings.

The next day, when the evacuation status jumped to level 3 (GO!) friends arrived unbidden to cart over six truckloads of seed stock off their property—Volga German Siberian Bean, Noong Ta Klong Eggplant, Winter King Savoy Cabbage, Open Oak Party Mix Dent Corn and other heritage seeds that are not commercially available anywhere else.

“We got every seed out,” Kleeger said. Then, the pair loaded their hatchback with their three cats and some clothes, leaving behind vegetable seed crops in the fields to burn or to rot.

Around Labor Day, 10 major fires ignited in western Oregon. Over the next two weeks, catastrophic blazes consumed over one million acres in the state’s most populous region.

Stretching south of Portland to the California border and west of the Cascade Mountains, the area is also mega-rich with farmland. This includes a small but vital collection of organic specialty seed producers. A wave of panic buying in the spring—people who sought solace and food security through planting— caused a run on the nation’s vegetable seed supplies, most of which are Oregon-grown.

A man wearing a mask packs up an office due to a wildfire evacuation. September 2020

On September 9, Adaptive Seeds’ home, farm, and office location was upgraded from a Level 1 to a Level 3 evacuation. They packed up and harvested as much as they could.

These Northwest plant breeders and seed savers live to steward plant diversity, preserve cultural heritage, and ensure seed sovereignty. And unlike growing wheat or soy, cultivating select vegetable, fruit, and flower crops demands specialized knowledge, careful observation, and years of plant selection to grow quality seed.

Global seed production is dominated by four companies that exert control over 60 percent of seed sales through proprietary patents. That makes the open-source, open-pollinated organic vegetable seeds cultivated by Adapative Seeds and other organic farmers in western Oregon “precious,” according to Lane Selman, director of the Culinary Breeding Network in Portland.

“It’s based on a ton of biodiversity,” she said. “They are growing things that can’t be replaced.”

Plant breeding and climate chaos

Celebrated plant breeder Frank Morton has operated Wild Garden Seed in the Willamette Valley since 1994. But this is the first time he’s made an emergency plan to protect his seed bank or to set up a fire defense. “I’ve never thought about evacuating my livelihood,” he said.

About 70 percent of Morton’s seed production is repackaged by catalog companies in Maine, Virginia, Wisconsin, other states and in Canada for resale. Morton is still busy fulfilling an unseasonably high demand for vegetable seeds. “Because people are worried, they’re buying,” he said.

Western Oregon ranks as one of the top five vegetable seed producing regions in the world. The climate, featuring mild winters and dry summers, makes it ideal for onions, beets, carrots, spinach, swiss chard, the whole cabbage family, and other crops to overwinter for harvest in late summer.

But September’s fires interrupted the typical window for harvesting.

Thick, toxic smoke prevented Morton from working outside for four days. “It was foul,” he said. Diminished sunlight cut temperatures by 10 to 20 degrees. This delayed crucial ripening for lettuce seed, which depends on temperatures in the 70s, and Morton expects that he’ll face yield losses.

When he returned to work in clouds of ash, the plants were coated black, adding to the labors of seed cleaning. “I don’t want to make a big deal of it,” he said of his lost time and money. “It’s just another year of farming.”

Selecting plants for extreme weather conditions is Morton’s expertise. The stresses of low water, hard frosts, and heat waves introduce diseases to help him select for the heartiest plants and produce the best seed stocks. “As an organic breeder, I want my plants to have the worst life possible,” Morton said.

Warming temperatures due to climate change are a “selection opportunity.” But it’s near impossible to select varieties with genetics adaptable to hurricanes, tornadoes, or fire. Morton is resolved and said, “It’s another climactic event we’ll have to plan for.”

Online vegetable seed demand

In 2020, Siskiyou added 80 new seed varieties, including the Tangerine Pimento Peppers.

Living in southwestern Oregon for 24 years, Don Tipping of Siskiyou Seeds knows the risks of wildfire. But this year the danger felt “very palpable.” The Slater Fire, devouring one acre every second, reached within 10 miles of his farm south of Grants Pass. Tipping didn’t need to evacuate, but his two farm workers fled the smoke and stress during his heaviest month for labor.

The Siskiyou Seeds catalog offers 700 varieties of vegetables, cut flower growers and medicinal herbs. “Every year we’re adding new things,” Tipping said of his family-run operation that contracts with 12 growers, mainly located in the Northwest. In 2020, Siskiyou added 80 new varieties, including Tuscan Arugula, Tangerine Pimento Peppers, and Oregon Spring Tomatoes.

The company’s seed CSA (community supported agriculture) model offers monthly shipments of seed varieties to encourage more people to grow organic, open-pollinated, resilient vegetables. “It’s one of the more important tools of addressing climate change.”

Like all specialty seed producers this year, Tipping was dealing with an order backlog before the fires. The run on the supplies by home gardeners tripled Siskiyou Seeds’s online sales, and he is still weeks behind.

And while the increased revenue means that he can buy larger seed quantities from growers and provide better contracts next year, Tipping expects that there’s going to be less seed quantity and variety available for staple crops like beans, corn, and squash.

Most home gardeners don’t realize that seed growers don’t produce every variety each year. For instance, Tipping grows lettuce seed every three years and plants like squash and peppers every five years, so it will take time to re-stock his seed bank.

“The seed world is hidden,” said Selman of Culinary Breeding Network, who works with plant breeders and seed growers around the country. “People open up a seed catalog and expect that it will magically be there.”

Securing the seed supply

After evacuation, Kleeger and Still dashed back to the farm. Wearing respirators in the eerie daylight, they harvested as much of their dry bean crop as they could. And when favorable winds quelled the fire 10 days after evacuation, they re-settled at Adaptive Seeds, which was smoky but unharmed.

Although recent rains returned air quality close to normal, Kleeger is uncertain how long it might take to re-assemble the farm for their business to recover. “It’s too soon to tell.”

They have suspended all seed orders to focus on processing and germination testing their volume of unique, organic seeds. “We might need to build up our seed crop again,” she told me. “It’s going to impact what we have available in 2021.”

Lynne Curry is a food journalist and the author of the grassfed beef cookbook Pure Beef who writes from her home in eastern Oregon.