We started Cultivariable in 2012 as an experiment to see if I could survive as a full time, independent plant breeder. The experiment is, of course, ongoing, but the results so far look positive. As a hobbyist plant breeder, my initial plan for the company was to offer diverse mixes and breeding lines that would make it easier for other people to get into plant breeding (thus the name “Cultivariable”, a play on “cultivar”). That idea has evolved considerably over the time, as there was much more customer interest in the results of my own breeding projects. Although I now put more focus into producing and selling new varieties, we continue to offer seed mixes and breeding lines for the crops that we specialize in. While I get a lot of enjoyment out of creating and sharing new varieties, I think that the more valuable project in the long run is helping to encourage new plant breeders who want to work with these crops.
Cultivariable is currently mostly a one man operation. My wife, Moira, helps in her free time with harvest, shipping, and dahlia breeding. Otherwise, I am the one breeding the plants, pulling the weeds, cleaning and packing, and shipping your orders. The result of this arrangement is that things get backed up a lot, particularly shipping orders and responding to questions. All that I can do is ask for your understanding. We do catch up eventually, but it frequently takes a lot longer than I would like. Farming is unpredictable.
I work primarily with root and tuber crops. This was not an intentional area of specialization, but came about because of the climate in which we live and because mastering the techniques involved in maintaining clonally-propagated crops made it more efficient to keep adding more roots and tubers rather than expanding in different directions. We’re located on the central coast of Washington state, about 300 yards from the ocean. We rarely see temperatures above 70 degrees or below 30. We average 110 inches of rain per year, most of it between October and May. The low summer temperatures make it hard to grow a lot of crops that people take for granted in the rest of the country and the rain makes it difficult to grow things like grains and other seed-based crops that need to dry out at the end of summer. Roots and tubers just work better here.
Cultivariable probably holds the largest collection of Andean root and tuber crops in the United States. These plants, such as oca, mashua, ulluco, and yacon, are not commonly grown outside the Andes, but have great potential to become valuable crops in North America and the rest of the temperate world. I consider myself privileged to live in a climate that allows breeding of these crops. There are very few active breeding programs for these unusual crops anywhere in the world.
My interests aren’t restricted to Andean crops or even to roots and tubers. I work with tuber crops from other regions, including the North American native root crops dahlia, Jerusalem artichoke, groundnut, and yampah; European roots like root chervil and skirret; and some non-root crops like sea kale, rhubarb, and tarwi. There is no real rhyme or reason to these choices; they are just plants that caught my interest at some point and with which I had some breeding success. There is a much longer list of plants that I work with but haven’t yet produced anything noteworthy. Maybe someday.
Because we grow so many root crops, we very often get questions about why we don’t grow sweet potatoes, taro, ginger, turmeric, lotus, true yams, etc. The answer is simple: it is too cold here in the summer to grow tropical lowland root crops. In a few cases, I am experimenting with lesser known varieties that might survive here, but don’t get your hopes up. There are a lot of seed and nursery businesses trying to supply everything to everyone, but you’ll have a better experience if you buy from people who really specialize in growing warm climate root crops. I prefer to specialize in plants where I can really provide some unique value.
My primary goal is to identify uncommon edible plants that will grow well in the Pacific Northwest, to learn how to grow them and distribute that information, and finally to breed the plant for improved performance. The world has no deficit of plant breeders working on most of the common crops that you can find at the grocery store (although their objectives may not be ideally suited to small and organic growers, but that’s another story). For a variety of reasons, most of the crops that I work with are not going to be grown on large acreage in North America in the foreseeable future. Instead, these crops are of greatest value to individual, subsistence growers and small market farmers looking to diversify their offerings. Most of these crops aren’t particularly suited to mechanical harvesting, don’t mature evenly for a mass harvest, and have complications with post harvest processing or storage that limit their mass market appeal. I’m not breeding to solve these problems in most cases. I am breeding for wider climate tolerance, flavor, appearance, and improved yields. If I do a good job at that, then others can take over and keep developing these crops for more commercial appeal.
We grow most of what we sell, although we are beginning to contract out some of the higher volume items to other farms in the immediate area. We are not an Organic operation, but we don’t use any herbicides, pesticides, or petrochemical fertilizers. (Organic is a USDA program that involves a lot of paperwork and people looking over your shoulder. I have no interest in that.) We require the same of growers that we work with. We fertilize primarily with composted horse manure and locally obtained seaweed. Roots and tubers are not treated in any way – we eat them out of the same bins that we ship orders from. None of our products are GMO and our breeding work is all done with traditional methods. All of our original varieties are released under open source terms through the Open Source Seed Initiative.
If you actually read all of this blather, you might also want to check out our five year progress report.
Bill & Moira @ Cultivariable
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