Cultivariable at Five: Looking Backward and Forward

Cultivariable is officially five years old!  (In truth, we’re really closer to seven, but I can’t pinpoint exactly when the transition from hobby to business occurred and we got our first business license at the end of 2012.  Five is about right for when I really got serious.)  They say time flies when you’re having fun and I can certainly agree with that.  It doesn’t feel like five years have gone by.  In five years, we have accomplished a lot of things that I am proud of, a few that I’m not, and learned more than I ever imagined possible.  This is a good excuse to take a look at where we’ve been and where we’re going.

Looking Back

I figured it was a fool-proof business. Who wouldn’t want to grow stuff like this?

I started Cultivariable really with just one goal: to sell enough of the plants that I breed so that I can be a full time breeder.  There is an inevitable compromise between breeding and selling.  Breeding takes a lot of time and attention and doesn’t pay anything directly.  Selling takes less time and attention and makes the money.  Still, I am able to spend the majority of the growing season mostly doing breeding work.  Selling takes place during the off season.  Running Cultivariable has certainly afforded me much more time to focus on breeding work than I would have with another day job, so I consider that a success.

Financially, the business is doing OK.  I won’t pretend that we are rolling in dough.  In good years, we make enough money to survive.  In bad years, like 2017, we don’t.  The overall trend is going in the right direction though, so I am optimistic about the future.  Our ability to grow is limited by manpower.  I have reached the point where I really need to hire some help, but I can’t afford to yet.  We don’t do debt, so the plan is to hopefully have a couple of good years and save enough cash to hire.  We need someone to run the office, because packing, shipping, doing paperwork, and corresponding with customers is by far my weakest area.  We need someone to help with the farming, because I am also not a great farmer.  Many people are surprised by this, but farming and breeding are really different things.  When there is a choice to be made between breeding work and farming work, I do the breeding work, so farming suffers.  Any good farmer will tell you that farming cannot be put off, so that’s a problem.  But, again, I’m optimistic.  Once we get over the hump and can hire some help, it will be a lot easier to grow the business.

500 ulluco seeds on a white surface
Getting ulluco to set seed remains one of our major accomplishments

There weren’t really a lot of examples to follow in building this business.  Although there are plenty of seed companies and nurseries that do some breeding, it is usually a later stage development, added on once the company brings in enough revenue to support it.  There aren’t many small, for-profit breeders, certainly not of edibles.  (There are more in the ornamental business, where it is often possible to get much higher prices per plant.  People will only pay so much for food.)  There also weren’t many businesses selling the mix of plants that we grow.  The garden seed business is largely made up of companies selling the same stuff.  The most similar kind of business to what we do is the seed potato business, but those companies operate on such a dramatically different scale that it is still hard to make comparisons.  A large seed potato operation might carry 50 varieties of which they grow a small portion and contract out the rest.  And they sell largely to farmers in bulk quantities.  At last count, we were growing more than 600 varieties of vegetatively propagated root and tuber crops, all in small quantities and sold in small amounts, primarily to home growers.  If there is another business with a similar profile, I’m not aware of it.  In this way, we are much more similar to a gene bank than a seed company, although there aren’t many for-profit gene banks.

Growing vegetatively-propagated root and tuber crops is complicated.  Seeds are easy.  They store well, they don’t take up much space, they can be shipped at any time, and they typically don’t harbor a lot of diseases.  Roots and tubers store poorly and require a lot of attention – it is easy to lose what you harvest if the conditions aren’t just right, they take up a lot of space, many cannot be shipped during freezing weather, and they carry diseases easily.  There is no blueprint for this, no book that you can read that will give you the right strategy for harvesting, cleaning, storing, shipping, and managing disease in diverse root and tuber crops.  I’ve learned it by experience.  I am still learning it.  If you asked me how to do it, I’m not confident that I could give you a reliable plan yet.

As far as I know, the first harvest from a seed grown oca plant on this continent. Although we never sold this variety, I kept it for a long time before we finally lost it in last year’s flooding.

Figuring out how and when to harvest without damaging and losing a lot of stock in storage was the initial problem, but we seem to have pretty well licked it at this point.  I know what order to harvest things, how best to clean them, what storage conditions keep them in the best condition, and how long I can reasonably expect them to remain saleable.  That’s a big improvement.  Shipping was another big problem.  I think I lost as many shipments to damage in the first year as arrived in good condition.  Different methods of packaging matter a great deal.  The wrong packaging will deliver the customer rotting, molding, or mummified product.  Trial and error was the only way to learn what worked.  Timing shipments so that they don’t freeze or get cooked in the mail is an art, not a science.  But the biggest problem, and the one that I haven’t conquered yet, is disease management.

If you were a plant pathologist and wanted to create a really difficult challenge for yourself, you couldn’t pick a better one than growing a large collection of Andean roots and tubers.  I knew this going in, but I didn’t appreciate it as keenly as I do now with a lot more experience under my belt.  These crops all have overlapping diseases.  Many of them are not very significant, but others are pretty nasty and will spread like wildfire through the crop.  Like so many things about this job, there is no book that you can read to learn this – experience is the only teacher.  I know, in theory, how to manage disease in these crops.  I have the technical skills to do it.  I have some good successes in cleaning varieties of viruses to restore sexual reproduction.  But, I am overwhelmingly limited by time, money, and equipment.  This is one of the areas where I will need to free myself of office and farming jobs to make a lot of progress.  I look forward to a future where I can spend most of my time breeding, doing lab work, and writing, while somebody else stuffs packages and pulls weeds.


Wishkah, probably our best new oca so far. More in the works!

The problems of the past will define our future challenges, but first lets review some of the high points!

  • One of the most satisfying accomplishments for me is that I really now feel like a professional plant breeder.  When the idea of starting this company first occurred to me, I was a skillful enthusiast, but I knew that there was a great gulf of experience and understanding between where I was and professional and academic plant breeders.  I think I have crossed that gulf now.  I get up and start my work each day really feeling that I know what I am doing.  I don’t have all of the answers, of course, but I know how to find them.  There comes a point in any field where you suddenly realize that the knowledge you have amassed is no longer disparate – it is integrated.  At that point, everything speeds up.  You are no longer learning incrementally, but exponentially.  Of course, that doesn’t last forever, but it is sure a great feeling while it does.
  • Ulluco!  Ulluco is my favorite plant and it has rewarded me by revealing some of its secrets.  I have not just been successful in breeding ulluco, but I can now do it routinely.  It’s still a supremely uncooperative plant for breeding work, but at this point that only limits the pace, not the potential.  We have introduced four new varieties in the past few years and have now more than 100 seed grown varieties.  I have plans to introduce as many as 30 of those in the near future.  They are clean of viruses, have significantly improved sexual reproduction, and span most of the phenotypes that were available among heirloom varieties.  The next big breakthrough I am hoping for is that someone else in a less ulluco-friendly climate will get seeds from some of these.  Once that happens, the future of ulluco breeding will be much more secure.
  • Yacon: from barely fertile to fully fertile in just two years!
    Yacon.  Three years ago, conventional wisdom said that yacon was a genetically sterile plant, or nearly so.  Today, I have a flat with dozens of seedlings coming up in the greenhouse.  I have grown and evaluated nearly 300 seedling varieties.   Many of the seedlings are extremely fertile and people are growing new varieties from our seeds all around the world.  I have some varieties under evaluation with valuable traits like heavy pollen production, early tuber formation, and yellow/orange flesh.  The future looks particularly bright for this crop.
  • Oca.  We have released four new oca varieties that are much superior to the heirlooms.  I am screening seedlings heavily for earliness and gaining about three days each year.  If this continues, we will eventually have varieties that yield early enough to be grown in much of the US.  Beyond that, we have produced tens of thousands of seeds, allowing people all around the world a chance to breed this crop from a diverse gene pool.  Between our efforts and those of other organizations like the Guild of Oca Breeders, I really think that oca has a shot at becoming a widely grown crop in the next 10 years.
  • Open source.  I’m really more a pragmatist than an idealist.  I’m not inclined to joining movements.  But I really feel that intellectual property is bad for many things and particularly for agriculture.  So, I am proud to be part of the Open Source Seed Initiative and producing varieties that will always be unfettered by restrictions.  I firmly believe that other people can do what I do and should.  The genetic diversity that we inherited did not come about through centralization and government-backed monopoly protections – it came from people breeding for the traits that were important to them and sharing the results.
  • Adele, a superior variety selected by a customer from our seeds. I’d definitely like to see more of that!
    Writing.  The writing that I have done about growing and breeding these plants might actually be my proudest accomplishment.  It doesn’t make me any money, but of course it brings people to the site.  When I started growing these crops, there was very little information available.  There were some stand-outs, like the Radix blog, but basically no other procedural information to get you from sowing to harvest.  I’ve scoured the literature, learned by trial and error, exchanged information with hundreds of other growers, and produced the best information that I could so that others don’t have to climb such a steep learning curve.  And the more I learn, the more I write.  This goes hand in hand with my feelings about open source breeding.  If you have the same tools and information that I do, you can do the same things.  That ensures that this whole project doesn’t just disappear one day if I get hit by a bus.

Looking Forward

What’s to come?  More of the same, I hope!  More new varieties, more learning, and maybe a little more money. ;)

We will be expanding the amount that we grow.  We have much more land than I can use right now.  It is rough ground, not yet converted to farmland, so a lot of work needs to go into it, but as I can make the time, we will increase our footprint.  That will be a big help for breeding and an even bigger help in producing larger quantities for sale.

I am evaluating varieties and anticipate releasing more ulluco, yacon, mashua, potato, Jerusalem artichoke, and dahlia varieties in 2018.  And there will probably be a few other surprises as well.  I have put some more focus into breeding some of the more difficult crops like ahipa, mauka, maca, and root chervil and I’m starting to see results.

The big clean is coming.  I have stopped growing a lot of heirloom varieties and retired them to tissue cultures due to uncertainty about what viruses they might be carrying.  I’m paying to have fairly expensive comprehensive PCR testing done on those.  I will then attempt to clean them up and they will gradually be reintroduced as they test clean.  That will probably take several years.  Nobody has ever done this with these varieties before, so I expect to learn a lot.

Cultivariable growing guide book front cover
More books in the works! I don’t know if I’ll do physical books again though. They’re fun, but not very practical in the electronic age.

New books.  I expect to release an updated version of the Cultivariable Growing Guide which will focus only on the Andean crops.  I have greatly expanded most of the chapters and included a lot more breeding information.  I’m tentatively calling it the Cultivariable Guide to Andean Roots and Tubers.  I have also been churning out work toward a book on amateur potato breeding, which is probably two years out, but could come sooner if I get my act together.  That will be the Cultivariable Potato Guide.  This will leave all the other crops that I have previously written about orphaned for the moment, but I have longer term plans for a third and much expanded volume with other miscellaneous roots and tubers.  There, I’ve said it!  I have no choice but to get it done now.

Change in structure?  More than a few people have suggested that we go non-profit.  It certainly seems a sensible decision when you aren’t making much in profits anyway.  So, that’s a possibility.  This company was never designed to make us rich and there might be advantages to going the non-profit route.  Of course, there are also headaches like more paperwork and the potential for losing control over what I started, but we’re looking at the possibilities.  It’s not a decision we’re going to make without a lot more careful consideration and it is more likely that we’ll opt to keep things simple.

Here’s to another five years!  If they are anything like the past five, it’s going to be a hell of a ride!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *