Laura Parker’s boots are thick with mud as she moves slowly down the row of sorghum on her farm, High Desert Seed, in the Upper Uncompahgre Valley of southwest Colorado. Hidden on each stalk, beneath a spray of dried flowers, are seeds that can be eaten or saved for planting.
“I’m using natural systems [to adapt seed varieties], and I want my seeds to be resilient in those systems,” Parker says. “A lot of the seed available right now has been grown in the most gentle climates in the country; what I am doing is making hardy seeds.”
Parker carefully clips each stalk at knee level and hands armfuls to Mae Turner, one of her four employees, who will transport it to a greenhouse where the seeds will be separated from the chaff.
Since 2015, the 35-year-old Parker has been producing open-pollinated seeds on roughly 4.5 acres near the town of Montrose, which—along with the entire Western Slope of Colorado—is experiencing a historic drought.
While thirsty crops like alfalfa and corn dominate the region, Parker has emerged as a leader in revitalizing a wide variety of crops that grow well in arid ecosystems. She uses real-time growing conditions to develop drought-hardy vegetable, grain, and legume varieties that farmers across the Southwest can grow in the conditions created by the changing climate. Currently, she has 133 varieties of vegetables and grains available, with about 50 more in development.
Farmer Mark Waltermire, owner of Thistle Whistle Farm in Hotchkiss, Colorado, sources many of the seed varieties he grows for his community supported agriculture (CSA) program from High Desert Seed. And he has seen the value of this local breeding first-hand. “Having someone who is willing to adapt seeds to our climate allows me to be better at growing food for my community,” says Waltermire.
Breeding for Drought Tolerance
Growing up in a ranching family near the town of Rifle, Colorado, Parker has spent her life surrounded by farmers and ranchers who have had to be responsive to ecosystem pressures. Before beginning her own farm, Parker worked on many levels of the food system and seed landscape, which gave her the perspective to understand where she could drive positive change and empower small farmers to remain productive in dry environments.
The region’s arid climate means that crops benefit from abundant sun and low pest and disease pressure. But it also means water is a constant concern, not only for crop yields, but also for downstream communities relying on the Colorado River.
“That’s our water,” Parker says, pointing to the mountains that rise behind her farm. High Desert Seed takes its water from the Uncompahgre River, a tributary to the Gunnison River, which itself flows into the Colorado. Approximately 80 percent of all Colorado water comes from snowmelt, and Parker can keep track of the snowpack and predict drought years with her own eyes.
“There are years where it’s looking bad, then we get saved by a huge snowstorm,” Parker says. “But most of the time we know by February what kind of year we’re heading into.”
While snowfall was in the average range this year, a hot spring created early melting conditions. The general trend of lower snowpack continues to be a concern for farmers and other in both the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basin.
Though Parker flood-irrigates her production fields, she strategically stretches the time between waterings to look for plants that are more drought tolerant than others. Then she saves their seeds.
“With some of the crops, I’ll try to irrigate every 15 days, which is really stretching the level of what they can handle,” Parker says. “There are different benefits in intentionally restricting water. In certain crops, I’m seeing a different root morphology, and that’s one of the things that I’m most excited about.”
Parker explains that a big piece of developing drought tolerance is breeding and selecting for plants with stronger taproots that can dig deep into the soil to find water. Plants with a taproot tend to do better in drier soil conditions, creating more resilience and self-sufficiency.
Region-Specific Seed Production in the Face of Big Ag
While the global seed industry continues to develop novel disease- and drought-resistant varieties, much of the seed available to farmers isn’t produced for microclimate-specific challenges. The uniformity of the global seed industry also leads to the development of products that specifically fit into the distribution mechanisms used to move products around the globe.
“There’s not a lot of flexibility for farmers to be able to grow crops that can’t be mechanically harvested or have a shorter shelf life,” says Emily Rose Haga, executive director of Seed Savers Exchange, the nation’s largest nongovernmental seedbank dedicated to preserving and sharing heirloom varieties.