The Good Seed

The Good Seed header image
OSU lab certifies the highest quality of Oregon seed.
inspecting seeds
Seed analyst Jackie Martain inspects a seed sample with
microscopic help, pulling out weed seeds, inert matter, and other crop
seeds. Photos by Lynn Ketchum.

They sit, 16 patient people, fixated on a parade of seeds marching under their
magnifying lenses. Seeds tumble rhythmically past the watchful gaze of these
analysts poised to whisk away any seed that is short of perfect.

Some seeds are heart-shaped, others appear to have tails and hairs. Some are
richly colored in hues of ochre, umber, and crimson, as if dripped from an
artist’s palette. Each parade includes 2,500 seeds of a single variety, sampled
from bags of harvested, clean commercial seed. It might be a parade of bentgrass
seed the size of a comma or fava bean seed 100 times as big.

Only a trained eye can decipher which seeds are pure and which are from other
crops or weeds or are simply flecks of chaff. But knowing that difference,
and eliminating all impurities, ensures that a shipment of vegetable seed contains
no surprises.

glowing ryegrass seeds
The difference between annual and perennial varieties
can be determined by ultraviolet light. The annual ryegrass seeds (above)
are aglow and easily sorted out.

The seeds arrive at this final inspection through a meticulous procedure,
as the pure offspring of several generations. They have been grown on uncontaminated
land, isolated from other crops, inspected in the field, harvested, cleaned,
bagged, and randomly sampled to represent the lot. With their genetic purity
and germination rates established, and after a battery of other tests are performed
Oregon State University Seed Laboratory
, the seeds ship across the nation
and the world in bags permanently stenciled with their certification.

They are Oregon Certified Seed. There are none finer on Earth. “Oregon certified
seeds are known the world over as the highest quality,” according to Dan Curry,
director of Seed Services at OSU.

Cool, wet winters are the foundation of our seed-loving, temperate climate,
and dry summers make all the difference. The result: seeds of many colors that
mature and “dry down” in the Willamette Valley, while others such as garlic,
carrot, and potato prefer the colder winters and dry summers of Central Oregon.

close inspection of seeds
Closeup perennial ryegrass seed
Perennial ryegrass seed (above) is not the smallest seed
tested for certification. Sizes range from bentgrass seed, about the size
of a comma, to fava bean seed 100 times as big.

“It’s surprising to find such a successful seed industry in a small area,
but we do have a big footprint, worldwide,” Curry said. In fact, the OSU seed
certification program has been authorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture
to participate in certification activities for international shipment of seed
using the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Adriel Garay, manager of the seed laboratory, credits the people involved
for Oregon’s stellar certification reputation. “All players in the process
of producing certified seed are experts in their fields,” he said. “Breeders,
growers, cleaners, shippers, inspectors, analysts—a lot of people know what
they’re doing.” There’s been plenty of time to streamline the process; the
lab celebrates its 100th birthday this year. in 209.

Last year, Oregon grossed $530 million in seed sales, primarily grass seed.
But Oregon is a leader in the production of many other kinds of seed, including
95 percent of the nation’s carrot seed and much of the nation’s beet and clover
seed. In addition, Oregon produces among the highest quality vegetable and
flower seed, small grain seeds such as barley and oats, and most recently,
native grass seed.

Like well-bred quarter horses, certified seed has pedigrees, and each generation
has a chance to move up the hierarchy. Breeder seeds are the first generation,
then Foundation seed, Registered seed, and finally Certified seed. Growers
must cultivate them in exactly that order.

As part of the process, growers must follow strict requirements for cultivating.
The seed must be planted in rows on land that has not previously grown another
variety of seed, which could affect genetic purity. The fields must be isolated
from other fields growing any closely related variety by at least 165 to 900
feet, depending on the class of seed.

Seed Certification Service
personnel inspect the plants where they grow. They
walk through the fields or fly over in a helicopter, scouting for disease,
insect damage, weeds, and other threats to the purity and pedigree of the seeds.

carrot seeds on the stalk
Carrot seeds on the stalk in a central Oregon field.

After harvest, seeds can be conditioned and stored only at warehouses that
ensure against contaminating one kind of seed with another. The identity of
the seed must be maintained with a permanent lot number stenciled on each new,
clean bag. At that point, seed samplers from the OSU Extension Service draw
samples for testing at the seed laboratory on campus.

“Our results have to be not only accurate, but delivered in the shortest time
possible,” Garay said. “Time is our biggest challenge. More than 60 percent
of our samples come within two to three months in late summer and have to be
shipped immediately for fall planting. Testing has to be timely.”

To speed up the process, the lab has adopted a new “Ergovision” system that
uses a three-dimensional, high-resolution view and uniform flow of seeds, as
well as ergonomic conditions for the analysts. “Now growers get results in
four to six days,” said Sherry Hanning, a longtime analyst and purity supervisor
at the seed lab.

To test for purity, Hanning inspects 2,500 seeds in each sample, pulling out
weed seeds, bits of soil or twigs, and seeds from other crops. She weighs the
contaminating material and computes the percentage of each. The required purity
level depends on the type of seed and its market. Orchard grass must be at
least 90 percent pure, while tall fescue must be 98 percent pure to earn the
blue tag of certification.

Additional procedures test for viability, either by germinating a sample of
seeds or by using a biochemical test to determine the number of live seeds
in a sample based on enzyme activity in the embryo. An X-ray test can determine
if the seed is empty, immature, or damaged. Vigor tests assess the potential
of seeds to produce normal seedlings under less-than-optimum conditions.

Ben Withrow
Ben Withrow calibrates the seed blower that separates
good seeds from bad. Empty seeds are dyed green and live seeds red. Air
flow is checked every morning to make sure seeds go their separate ways,
based on their weight.

These tools, developed to support an agricultural industry, are also being
used to support restoration of natural areas using native plants. The OSU seed
lab has tested the seeds of about 150 kinds of native species. Requests are
increasing as governmental agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service use native species to re-vegetate landslides, burns,
and degraded areas. In addition, conservation groups need certified, genetically
diverse native seeds—wildflowers for the most part—or local prairie restoration

“We see seed certification as a valuable resource,” said Amy Young, conservation
biologist for the Native Seed Network of the nonprofit Institute for Applied
Ecology. “Weeds are a big problem at a lot of the sites we are trying to restore.
Seed certification not only allows us to promote high-quality seed, but makes
us aware of undesirable weed species in the seed harvested from our production

Published in: Economics