Greg Ramsey bows his head over a magnifying lens. With the prong of his tweezers, he scrapes a few grains of wheat into his view. He scans them, then sweeps them over the edge of his desk into an open drawer.
The technician continues with the tedious process, looking for any impurity.
This seed quality lab is the only one of its kind in the state, said John Armstrong, secretary/manager of the Ohio Seed Improvement Association. It’s also part of a nationwide movement that took root in the late 1800s to help sustain America’s food supply. And, Armstrong notes, the continued development of seed “is extremely important for our food supply going forward.”
Putting seed under the microscope
Today, seed improvement organizations like this one still operate across the country, providing a framework to get better seeds into the hands of farmers. In Maine, the focus is on advancing potatoes. Oregon is a leader in developing grasses and legumes. Much of the work done in Ohio aims to improve soybeans, wheat and other grains.
Ohio-grown seed that passes inspection by the nonprofit association gets marked with a blue tag to let farmers know it has met high standards for purity and proper handling. It’s an effort aimed at producing a more resilient crop and ultimately a more secure food system.
But these associations aren’t the only ones putting seeds under the microscope. The advent of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, has stirred an often heated public discussion about food technology and sustainability. And some businesses that buy crops are demanding more information about where the product originated.
In both cases, the Ohio association has taken on a new role. It can now help a buyer from Japan find high-quality, non-GMO, food-grade soybeans.
“We always tell our Japanese clients ‘(Ohio) is the place to come. This is the promised land,’” Armstrong said.
At the same time, the group’s inspectors work with farmers who grow GMO crops to ensure environmental requirements are met. Farmers who plant corn that has been modified to help plants fight off destructive rootworms, for example, agree to grow plots of non-GMO corn to maintain a balanced insect population.
For farmer Matt Aultman, the association’s ability to shed light on the seed supply contributes to more diversity and transparency in food production.
“It goes back to knowing where your food comes from with me,” said the Darke County Farm Bureau member. He started growing Ohio-certified seeds in high school and now produces soybeans and wheat from state-certified varieties. He hopes to turn his crop into livestock feed that can be sold to area farmers who want to market local meat.
“Everything you’re putting into it comes from Ohio,” he said.
Aultman also believes that by planting Ohio-certified seeds, he is supporting a wide-ranging approach to growing food. He likes exploring how new varieties will respond to his local soils and growing conditions. He sees it as an important alternative to his GMO crops, which have been supported by billions of dollars of research and development and are protected by patent.
“In farming, you get so many opportunities. You get to try something new every year,” Aultman said.
So while he sees a place for the big seed companies to make high-dollar investments, he also places high value on the network of individual growers who are steadily advancing Ohio agriculture one crop at a time.
“I think that no matter what market you have, you need diversity. The more players you have, the better competition you have who are going to strive to make a better product,” he said.
And being part of that effort keeps him enthused about growing food. As he puts it,
“You’ve got a blank slate every spring. It’s just a great life.”