Demystifying Hybrids with Cha-Ching F1 Zucchini
By: Kate Spring
In 2014, High Mowing Organic Seeds introduced a new hybrid to their catalog -- the Cha-Ching F1 zucchini. Bred by High Mowing specifically for organic growers, the new addition marked another step toward the seed company’s goal of making high-quality organic seeds commercially available. Cha-Ching F1 offered a high-yielding fruit, with an open habit that allowed for easier harvests and increased air flow to decrease disease. High Mowing’s founder Tom Stearns joked that he wanted to add an organic zucchini to give the conventional zucchini market standards of Payroll, Payload, and Paycheck a run for their money, and Cha-Ching seemed like that seed.
At the same time that Cha-Ching arrived on the marketplace, the GMO debate had heated up in Vermont and across the country. High Mowing was a leader in demanding clear labels, becoming the first third party certified Non-GMO seed company. In spite of their prominence in this debate, however, some customers were suspicious that hybrids might be like GMOs. They called High Mowing confused about the difference, some upset that the company would offer hybrids at all. And High Mowing wasn’t the only seed company facing questions. Andrea Tursini, Director of Sales and Marketing at High Mowing, recalls, “In the winter of 2014, we attended a conference in Oregon and noticed that there were people attending who were concerned about the use of hybrid seed, even equating hybrids to GMOs . . . we see education as a big part of our business and it seemed like there was a lack of education around what it means to be a hybrid.”
Hybrid seeds are not the same as GMO seeds. So, why the consternation?
In the non-GMO seed world, there are three classifications of seeds: open pollinated, heirloom, and hybrid. Open pollinated seeds are pollinated by wind or insects and, when saved from the parent plant, they are true to type. Breeding true means that the next generation of seeds will produce a variety identical to the one you planted. Heirloom seeds are open pollinated, but are distinct in that they’re old varieties passed down through generations. Today, we typically think of heirlooms as varieties that pre-date modern breeding work, which began at land-grant Universities in the 1920s and ‘30s.
Hybrid seeds are the result of two open pollinated varieties being intentionally cross pollinated. Cross pollination happens in nature when a plant receives the pollen of a different variety with the help of wind, birds, or insects. Humans can help this along to select for characteristics we want. Hybrids are created by planting two varieties of the same crop next to each other and then cross pollinating them by hand. Hybrids are indicated by “F1” which means filial 1, or first children.
Breeding new plant varieties in this way is very different from the sort of genetic engineering found in GMOs, which introduces foreign genes that could not cross pollinate in nature. Where GMOs must be created in labs, hybrids are created in fields.
The comparison between hybrids and GMOs comes primarily in what happens to the second generation. Farmers and gardeners can’t save seeds for the next year’s planting. For GMOs, that is usually a choice made by the seed companies. For hybrids, the reason is more botanical; seeds from the F1 plants don’t produce a second generation true to type. Seed saved from a hybrid will revert to characteristics of the two parent plants, and each seed may produce a variety with a different look and taste. To get the same plants, farmers must buy a new batch of seeds each year, making them dependent on the seed companies who have the parent lines for their supplies. This dependence, some people argue, puts hybrids in the same corporate sphere as GMOs.
Over the past 100 years, seed breeders have largely focused on hybrids and through this work have created varieties with increased disease and pest resistance, higher uniformity, and higher yields. On the other hand, over the last century we’ve also seen a shift away from regional seed saving, to a larger dependence on seed companies. Where it once was common for farmers to save their seed year after year, today it’s more likely that farms buy in all of their seed.
Seeing the concern about these trade-offs and the confusion about what hybridizing means, High Mowing decided to take a bold move. In 2015, they introduced their Create a Hybrid Kit, sharing the parent lines of Cha-Ching F1. This was radical in the world of seed companies where parent lines are kept securely in the domain of their breeders, sometimes even being patented to protect the company’s rights to the variety and its profits.
Maggie Higby, Marketing Manager at High Mowing, shares the company’s take: “High Mowing had an understanding that there sometimes is a demonization of hybrids that can happen. There are a lot of our customers who are into seed sovereignty and decentralizing the food system and really taking control of where their food comes from—those people tend to choose OPs [open pollinated varieties].”
That doesn’t mean hybrids are necessarily a bad idea for others.
“High Mowing saw this divide that isn’t that well understood, because the process of hybridization isn’t well understood. The idea behind [the Create A Hybrid Kit] was to lift the veil . . . to say ‘this is a natural way of creating a plant that produces the characteristics we want to see. You can do it in your own backyard, this is what we would do,” Higby explains.
The move was bold, and the response from farmers was. . . muted. The biggest response in fact came from educators. The main excitement wasn’t from commercial growers looking to save their own hybrid seed, nor from other seed companies looking to capitalize on the breeding work from High Mowing, instead the excitement was around teaching plant biology.
“I think that’s a really interesting reflection of where the seed industry stands right now,” Higby says, “You’re asking ‘Why did High Mowing choose to share their parent lines?’ That seems like a big risk, and there’s a whole lot of controversy in the seed world about secrecy and patents. But in fact, we didn’t have a lot of commercial farmers lapping it up and saying ‘yeah I want to create my own hybrid, this is great, finally I don’t have to depend on seed companies.’”
Ironically, lack of interest in the hybrid kit from their farmer customers is a good sign for High Mowing, Higby notes, because it indicates a healthy relationship. “The people that we serve are often small-scale growers, and it makes a difference when you have a really healthy relationship with your seed company. . . so you can say, ‘I don’t actually have time, energy, or interest in creating my own high performing hybrid, but I really want to use that high performing hybrid on my farm, and I trust my seed company to produce this for me.’’
As for the reaction of other seed companies, who were facing similar confusion from their customers around hybrids, Andrea Tursini heard more appreciation than anything else. She thinks the kit did its job “. . .my hope is that [customers] understand just a little bit more about plant biology and how it impacts what they see on their plates. Hybrids are an important part of any grower’s toolkit and shouldn’t be seen as something scary.”
Over the last three years, far more customers have wanted to buy the finished product in seed form rather than create a zucchini themselves. Based on its sales performance, the kit won’t be making it into the 2019 catalog, although it’s still available through the end of this year. Cha-Ching F1 seeds will remain available.
With Cha-Ching F1 well established, the High Mowing breeding team is moving on to new projects. Look for a new early slicing hybrid tomato next year, Wicked F1, along with returning open pollinated varieties also bred at High Mowing, including Picnic Peppers and Nutterbutter Butternut Squash, plus heirloom favorites like Brandywine Tomato, Bull’s Blood Beet, Bloomsdale Longstanding Spinach, and more.
Further Resources on Hybrid Seeds: