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like a dream come true, i was able to spend an afternoon touring the johnny’s test farm – with our host johnny’s seed rep ken fine.
but before we are able to get to that, we went on a quick tour to check out the warehouse! most of it was what you would expect, loading docks, shipping area, bins full of cardboard boxes. the real difference was in the cave. the cave is the cold storage area for bulk seeds. seeds, seeds, seeds. so many seeds packed floor to ceiling, row after row. seeds from all over the world, purchased by breeders and grows from across the us, japan, china, and italy. the smell of carrot and parsley seed pervaded the air. i found it both delightful and overwhelming.
while seeing the warehouse was fascinating, the real focus of the tour was to see the research farm where the breeding and trialing happens. flower trialscarrot and chicoriesleek and onions trialsfall lettuce trials – testing for cold hardiness. radicchio trials
what is going on with all these trials? two things. the first is to compare the johnny’s breeding projects against other varieties to make sure they are performing as well or even better than competition. that’s only a small part of the trialing. the majority of the trials are comparing varieties that are not breed by johnny’s but they sell. tons of new seed offerings come on the market, some are improvements over old ones, some are not, the only way to know for sure is to grow them and compare.
tons of seed varieties are taken off the market each year. often old favorites that are popular with small growers are deemed no longer to be worth the trouble to grow by the companies that supply johnny’s. so they need to find a replacement. many of those growing and breeding seeds are looking for things like uniformity, disease resistance, and a yield. while all of these things are important, johnny’s is primarily interested in eating quality. as ken is quick to point out it’s not johnny’s seeds – it’s johnny’s selected seeds. one of the main reason to grow all these seeds out is to actually taste them and compare flavor side by side.
we stumble upon this testing in the melon patch where the discards of the mornings testings were left.like fine wine tasters they just cut out a chunk, taste it, and spit it out moving on to the next one. the remains are left to the yellow jackets and butterflies. a lot of food gets wasted on the farm.
moving from the trial plots to the breeding plots we come upon row after row of what look like the same varieties, but are carefully tagged and/or flagged for easy id of the different breeding stock.acres of tomatoes ripening in the field, soon to be picked and processed. an ocean of squash, the selected flowers are bagged to keep out pollinators, then hand pollinated with the prescribed cross, and tagged. its hugely labor intensive work, done by local hired hands that act as “bees”while we are touring one of the farmers was out making notes about which lettuce seed to select. since bolting lettuce is so unpalatable, it always gets ripped out around our gardens, but its nice to see how beautiful the lettuce is as it goes to seed.
on the way back to the car we look at the construction of these small hoop houses, made with just a pipe bender, chain link fencing top rail, and a couple of other parts. we have been thinking of trying to put some up at work, and i wanted to look more closely at the construction. seeing my interest in these, ken shared the next trick johnny’s has up its sleeve, a homemade rolling greenhouse. they were still working out the kinks in the design but i’d expect to see the tools and plans in next years catalog. it will be very similar to the hoop house seen above constructed from fence top rail.
after a couple of hours is was time to head out and get on with our travels to visit family, and enjoy some relaxing on the maine coast. ken was kind enough to guide us to the coast, and point us in the direction of our next stop.
you don’t have to have a tour guide to check out johnny’s test farm – it’s open daily for self guided tours!