Guy’s news: Devon Champion lost forever

Sally Tripp, the coastal farmer whose clifftop field is home (amongst her sheep) to my ancient converted bus most summers, invited me to try one of her swedes last weekend; “They aren’t organic but they eat well… though not as well as the Devon Champion we used to get from Tuckers”. Sally favours eating them with clotted cream and pepper. I will stick to butter.

Tuckers, our local agricultural merchant, stopped selling horticultural and agricultural seeds this year. For thirty years, Geoff Penton, the seeds manager, provided advice on varieties, sowing and harvest dates specific to our local soils and climate. Like so many things in life, we took it for granted until it was gone. This will be the last year we grow the flavoursome and floury Cosmos, my favourite roasting potato; with modest yields and a tendency for growth cracks when grown quickly it has been dropped by the breeders. Likewise Diana potatoes (good flavour but a tendency to bruise if machine harvested) and the carrot variety Junior, which helped Riverford to build a national reputation for the best tasting organic carrots, but is too brittle to handle mechanically.

Three companies now account for almost half of the global seed trade. They are not interested in local varieties with tiny specialist markets. Instead the same varieties are promoted globally; many GM, most hybrids, high yielding, increasingly sweet and uniform; ideal for the well-marshalled shelves of the globally uniform retailers. Like most highly bred specialists they give up at the smallest hardship, so it becomes the farmer’s job to maintain ideal conditions, often at high environmental cost. One might be reassured that many of our old varieties are preserved in an ice vault in Svalbard, but I take more heart from the emergence of a ragtag bunch of small scale maverick breeders and obsessive plant collectors (see Real Seeds in Wales and Incredible Vegetables in Devon) who observe, enthuse and swap seeds, building a dispersed depth and diversity of knowledge lost to Monsanto and, incidentally, maintaining a British tradition stretching through Kew Gardens and the Victorian plant collectors.

Guy Singh-Watson

13 responses to “Guy’s news: Devon Champion lost forever

  1. I was eating some of your carrots at the weekend and they are the sweetest tasting carrots I’ve ever eaten, sublime. I do hope you can find something as fabulous as the Junior variety. Long live the maverick seed breeders, do any of them have websites? I don’t like putting money into Monsanto’s pockets!

  2. this is indeed sad. I had some carrots in your UK box last week which I didn’t so much enjoy – ? a bit bitter – but not sure they were Juniors – or perhaps I don’t cook them right – had some raw in fact.

    I seem to remember Cosmos are nice – shame to lose a good floury potato. I’m not always clear which variety I’ll be getting when I order from you – but perhaps you do have this information these days – which is great if so – I’ll check the bags things come in – though sometimes things are not bagged, or are they?- can’t remember – will try to concentrate harder.

    anyway, many thanks for all your efforts.

  3. Dr. John Simpson

    Thank goodness for seed banks, plant collections and single-minded conservators like William Douglas Cook. Who he? The creator of ‘A Man’s Tall Dream’ – Eastwoodhill in New Zealand. The only place outside of Mount Mlanje where I have seen a Mlanje cedar tree. The ones on Mount Mlanje have all but disappeared because the wood is so useful. Apparently all the Irish yews in the world trace their origins to a single tree in Florence Court, Co. Fermanagh. ….And to give an example of today’s monoculture: thirty years ago a new red-skinned variety of potato was being trialled in Ireland with huge success. Now more than half the potatoes on Irish supermarket shelves are Roosters.
    This subject is so important – important enough to find a place on the primary school curriculum.

  4. I agree with Dr simpson – hooray for the seed banks and maverick seed collectors. Will Riverford be collecting its own seeds? I have to confess that I replant seeds from my vegbox quite often, and they ussually do very well! In my back garden…

  5. I echo Penny Cloutte – why not collect seed this year? Possibly not enough for what you need next year but you could be building it up for the future.

    I remember talking to a farmer we knew in Cornwall, just about 55 years when I had just started working on a farm in Herefordshire. A very forward-looking real farmer who loved the land, he was telling me that he believed in ‘natural farming’ – the only fertiliser he used was produced by his own animals, and he saved seed and swopped it with other like-minded farmers so that he was not growing the same seed on the same land every year.

    I often think of Bob Down when I read your blog.

  6. A real sad lose to everyone who loves swede, like myself and carrots and vegetables with real flavour and mud on them.
    May I suggest, Brown Envelope Seeds. And, how about offering Geoff Penton a job at Riverford to be your seeds buyer and researcher if you don’t have such a person on board. Helping to grow different vegetables is essential and i hope Riverford will continue to source real seeds.
    http://www.brownenvelopeseeds.com/pindex.asp

  7. Oh how sad. Not a swede fan but there’s been nothing so delicious as your marvellous carrots. I do hope you can find a source.

  8. I use Duchy seeds when I can get them, perhaps they could supply you with what you need?

    • I got the impression from Guy’s article that there is a difference in volume – that the guy retiring is dealing in volume; whereas these other guys are more for smaller growers???

  9. I shared this blog on Plants For A Future facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/plantsforafuture/) adding that PFAF (pfaf.org) are very keen to seek out and support those ‘maverick breeders and obsessive plant collectors’, and help them discover, grow and supply many unusual and useful plants. Our database has details of 7,700 unusual useful plants including info on how to grow and propagate them. We need more information on suppliers to help more people adopt edible perennials in their gardens, allotments and – importantly for the carbon drawdown initiative – food forests of all shapes and sizes.

  10. we will fight them in the trenches, in the allotments and the green houses, as we have done before. There is always some firm wanting too much, this is not the first time that we have had Monsato trying to starve us out with their false ideas of using bad seed to feed the bank accounts of people who actually achieve the opposite hence the uprising of organic farmers. You hang in there Guy you a are feeding the people good health for less. Thank you. all of you who are working so hard.

  11. Here’s a source of open pollinated seeds from a co-operative dedicated to seed diversity and sustainability: https://www.seedcooperative.org.uk

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