A foundation to grow on Washington's certified seed program helps ensure top quality for growers

By Trista Crossley

Ritzville farmer Derek Schafer uses approximately 20% of his acreage to grow seed for the certified seed system.
Ritzville farmer Derek Schafer uses approximately 20% of his acreage to grow seed for the certified seed system.

Washington wheat is known all over the world for its quality and keeping that quality high is due, in large part, to growers like Derek Schafer, who’s been growing registered and certified seed for more than 20 years.

Schafer, who farms outside of Ritzville, Wash., said he uses approximately 20% of his acreage to grow seed that will eventually be planted in other growers’ fields for commercial production. 

“I think (the certified seed system) helps maintain the quality and purity of the crops we produce,” he said. “Also, the certification process helps ensure growers are growing clean seed, not contaminated with weed seeds or off-type wheat varieties.”

Washington state’s small grain certified seed system is administered by the Washington State Crop Improvement Association (WSCIA), which works with public and private breeders and seed dealers to develop, produce, and distribute seed. The system helps ensure genetic purity of the seed and makes sure the seed is free of weeds and meets the standards for certified seed.

Once a variety is approved for release, it’s a multistep, multiyear process to produce enough seed for growers who want to plant it for commercial production. WSCIA receives seed from the breeder, and through its Foundation Seed Services, uses that seed to produce breeder seed or foundation seed that meets foundation class standards. Seed dealers buy the foundation seed and contract with their seed growers to produce registered seed. Registered seed is planted and used to produce certified seed the next year, which is sold to the public. Each step is designed to increase the amount of seed available for the next class, and each step has to meet standards for the class being produced.

“There’s significantly more effort placed on clean fields, taking care of boundaries and borders, and inspecting the field throughout the growing season,” Schafer said. “There’s also a special effort during harvest with cleaning equipment. You have to take all the proper care to make sure you don’t have any contamination from non-seed fields.”

Aaron Jeschke, WSCIA manager, explained that in order to grow foundation seed, a field can’t have grown a small grain on it for at least two years. The field must also be at least 50 feet away from any other species of the same genus, and the fields are rogued and inspected by WSCIA to assure they meet standards. 

Aaron Jeschke, Manager of the Washington State Crop Improvement Association

Once harvested, foundation seed is cleaned and thoroughly examined for physical purity and germination by the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s seed lab. How much foundation seed is grown depends on demand from seed dealers.

“Part of what drives the production that we are shooting for is our ordering system,” Jeschke said. “A seed dealer will be aware of new releases from Washington State University, and we like to have year-in-advance agreements. The seed dealer will list how many pounds they want to order. That will help dictate and drive how much seed we are trying to increase.”

The standards for registered and certified class seed aren’t quite as strict as foundation seed standards, but each field is still inspected by WSCIA before harvest. Certain weeds, like Canada thistle and bindweed, are so noxious that if found in a field, that field is immediately denied certification. Growers have to rogue the weeds, and the field has to be reinspected before harvest. Jointed goatgrass is also a major concern, and if found, the field is unconditionally rejected. In order to grow certified seed again, the field must go through a reclamation process that takes at least five years in a dryland cropping system.

“WSCIA takes issues like that very seriously,” Jeschke said. “That’s why we have standards to follow to make sure growers using certified seed for commercial grain production have high quality seed to plant to help them maximize their yield potential.”

All certified seed classes are grown on both dryland and irrigated ground. Jeschke said it takes a different mindset to grow certified seed, and some farmers just don’t want to deal with the extra work or smaller acreages that are usually involved, especially with the foundation seed class. But for all the extra time, trouble, and paperwork, growers are paid a premium for growing certified seed crops.

“The premium generally outweighs the cost of growing certified seed,” Schafer said. “It’s not a windfall, but it’s enough to justify doing the extra work. Plus, it really keeps us on our toes to make sure we have clean fields.”

Schafer pointed out another advantage; as a certified seed grower, he gets a look at new varieties before they are available for commercial production.  

Geoff Schulz is the manager of seed operations for HighLine Grain Growers. The company manages grain and seed handling warehouses in eight counties along Highway 2 in Eastern Washington. Schulz works with nearly two dozen growers to grow registered and certified seed.

Geoff Schulz, Manager of Seed Operations for HighLine Grain Growers

“Some of the seed growers that I’ve worked with have said it (growing certified seed) can be a pain. It can slow things down. But what they are finding is they are doing an overall better job on the farm by paying that extra attention to that detail, by taking care of some of their weeds and things they’d normally live with,” he said.

The time involved in bringing a new variety to market can be upwards of 10 years or more, and seed dealers have to make some educated guesses on what varieties they think growers will want to grow in order to have enough certified seed ready. Schulz keeps a close eye on what’s coming through breeder pipelines; HighLine also has their own research program and test plots. For a new WSU variety, seed dealers request seed a year in advance so WSCIA knows how much foundation seed to produce.

“I’m constantly looking, making decisions — or at least initial plans — now for what we are going to offer three to five years from now,” Schulz explained. “I’m looking at a group of varieties that’s been released this year and deciding what I’m going to buy foundation seed of to put out there. I’m deciding what is going to be very popular and beneficial to these growers in four and five years and hope nothing changes. It’s a very tedious, arduous process. We make a lot of calculated gambles that we think something is going to work.”

Schulz said that sometimes they pick a variety that “knocks it out of the park.” But for every hugely successful variety, there’s two or three other varieties they end up hauling off to a commercial grain channel for one reason or another, such as a quality issue, low falling numbers, or a fatal agronomic flaw.

“Once a variety is released, if we are fairly certain that it’s something that’s going to be beneficial and growers are going to want to grow it, we want to have enough (foundation) seed year one to have enough seed to cover enough market to make it worth the release,” he said.

Like Schafer, Schulz says the certified seed system gives growers peace of mind that they are getting the wheat they are paying for.

“As long as crop improvement, breeders, and the seed industry can work together on realistic expectations and what we write into these variety descriptions is attainable, while ultimately achieving a crop that meets market demands, I think it is very important that growers understand that what they are buying from seed dealers has been taken care of properly and brought forward with the highest level of purity possible,” he said.