Theresa Podoll was raised on a conventional seed potato farm in North Dakota’s Red River Valley. She had dreams of becoming a science teacher, but after her Ecology of Land-Use professor showed slides of his organic farm in Minnesota, she was hooked on the idea of farming. She and her husband Dan are second-generation owners and operators of Prairie Road Organic Farm in Fullerton, North Dakota, where they produce organic garden seeds. Theresa also actively works in the non-profit sector to end seed concentration.
In 1984 Theresa and Dan Podoll moved onto the 480-acre Prairie Road Organic Farm, which was originally purchased by Dan’s parents in the 1950s and certified organic in 1977. Along with Dan’s brother David, the Podoll family raised turkeys organically until their poultry processing plant closed in 1995. “Dan and I weren’t about to leave the farm so we had to take a look at what else we were good at,” says Theresa. “We basically inventoried what other skills and resources we had on the farm. When David took over [the farm] he and Dan expanded the gardens and began selectively saving seed. We decided to take those resources and produce certified organic seeds.”
The Podolls began marketing varieties of seeds from their own garden to Garden City Seeds in Montana. Gradually they grew their seed business and today they are marketing under contract with a number of organic seed companies. The Prairie Road Organic Farm produces a variety of vegetables for seed production, in addition to small grains such as rye, oats, millet, and buckwheat for the organic grain market. While each seed crop is different and the process of seed production varies, Theresa’s favorite seed to produce is tomatoes. The process begins by slicing the tomato in half and sucking out the seeds, which are left to ferment for twenty-four hours to break down the gel surrounding each seed. The tomato pulp is then poured off and the seeds are washed and drained before being dried on a screen.
Seed production has not only become a livelihood for the Podolls, it has become a personal mission for Theresa. While organic farming is one of the fastest growing segments of US agriculture, Theresa notes that even though demand is growing, “the availability of organic seed is an issue for a lot of producers. Having access to suitable varieties for organic farming systems is crucial.”
In addition to her on-farm work, Theresa serves as the Interim Manager for the Family Farm Seed Cooperative (FFSC), a producer-owned marketing co-op focused on establishing new markets and contracts with seed companies for open pollinated seed producers.
Theresa points out that historically plant breeding and seed saving was done by farmers. During the later half of 1900s, that role was largely left to professional plant breeders at land grant universities (LGUs), which were established in part to do research in the agricultural field and pass along knowledge to all farmers. Today’s LGUs negotiate research contracts with proprietary companies. These “seed conglomerates,” as Theresa calls them, privatize the research so that it is not accessible for further plant breeding efforts, failing to fully meet the original mission of LGUs.
According to Theresa, her biggest reward is “empowering farmers to take control of seed. It is a critical issue given the consolidation going on within the conventional seed industry, proprietary intellectual property regimes, and the resulting loss of agrobiodiversity.” Theresa feels that a solution to the challenges that organic seed producers face lies in the development of a system to effectively market and coordinate supply, as well as to share information on seeds that are in short supply, and working with seed companies to improve seed systems as a whole.
“We are trying to create an alternative system. The organic environments and farmers’ needs that we are breeding for are so diverse and ecologically specific that the commercial seed industry is not going to address them. Participatory plant breeding allows organic farmers to get involved and take ownership of their seed needs. Organic farmers need to pay attention to their seed sources just as they pay attention to the quality of their soil. It is a key to sustainability”.
Theresa Podoll very much lives a dual life. Hoe in hand, she works side by side with her husband, Dan, coming in from the fields to take up her non-profit work helping to build organic seed systems. Her experience helps both missions; she uses her personal experiences as a farmer to enrich her work as an advocate and puts her own policies into practice to enhance her livelihood as a grower. Everyone in a given food system—from the breeder to the eater—is a stakeholder in the movement for organic seed production. Theresa urges producers, consumers, policymakers and the public to remain engaged and active on the issue in order to end seed concentration and to grow the organic agriculture system from the ground up.