I want to talk about landrace varieties, a big topic lately in the permaculture, organic gardening, and regenerative ag worlds. To set the stage, I'm going to digress a minute, but bear with me. I'll be back to gardening in a couple of paragraphs.
Much of the modern world is made possible by standardization. From construction to cars, from computers and medicine to shoe sizes, a safe and reliable product needs to be precise and predictable. To make that predictable result, we reduce the number of variables. In our technologies, we want the simplest process, the fewest components, and the most uniform result. Like any successful formula, this approach has limitations.
In the living world, long-term reliability emerges instead from complexity, uniqueness, and unpredictability. The more species in an ecosystem, the more stable it is. The more genetic diversity in a population, the more chances it has to adapt to new conditions and stresses. We understand this with animals: inbreeding leads to problems down the road. That applies to plants as well.
Much of modern seed production has focused on producing a very uniform, predictable plant every time. We can all see the worth of some predictability, at both a farm and garden scale. If you have a raised bed that fits 45 plants and 10 of them taste bad or don't produce, you've wasted a lot of time and space. A higher level of uniformity might be needed by a farmer with a contract for 1000 heads of lettuce on a specific date. Taken to an extreme--and the market tends to take any trend to an extreme--this has led to a focus on predictable behavior in the field and cosmetic uniformity in the market, to the exclusion of other traits.
Many of us got into gardening to escape this situation. But we are discovering that even if we grow our own lettuce in organic gardens, it's going to taste much like grocery store lettuce if we use the same seeds that the guy who sells to the grocery store uses. I see this at my farmers market--lettuce that is locally, organically grown, looks gorgeous, and tastes like cardboard. Or varieties at the local hardware store that only do well if the temperature never goes above 85 degrees, while the temperature outside the store is in three digits much of the summer.
Landrace varieties are a big topic right now because they offer an alternative backed by a long tradition. They are a way for ordinary people to start breeding plants that cope with big survival issues like drought and climate change rather than the market issues that most professional breeding programs are focused on. And, to be honest, they offer a name that's more catchy than "open-pollinated, locally-adapted, public-domain varieties," which is what those of us who care about this stuff have been limping along with.
A landrace is a plant or animal variety that has been grown in one region for a long time and is adapted to the physical (soil, temperature, rainfall) and cultural (planting, harvesting, storage, and cooking) needs of that region. It is normally not the product of formal breeding programs, but of farm-based seed stewardship and often of geographic and cultural isolation. Mexican corns, Peruvian quinoas, Italian greens, Sri Lankan rices, Afghani cannabis, African melons, and Turkish tobaccos are some types of landrace crops that you may have heard of.
With traditional landraces, local farmers select seed plants with several important traits in mind (perhaps earliness, cold-hardiness, or suitability for a certain recipe.) What the community values might not be obvious to a seed company or university breeder. For example, there are corns in Guatemala with stalks almost as hard as wood. They have been selected by the farmers because it allows them to grow both food and fence posts with the same crop. Other traits that are not important to the community can vary widely, because uniformity is not the goal. There may also be some gene flow between cultivated crops and wild relatives near the fields. Thus landrace crops often preserve traits that allow them to adapt to changes from season to season.
Landraces typically have yields somewhat lower than modern high-production varieties, but they are able to produce that same yield under both favorable and unfavorable conditions of weather and pest pressure. (In their home region--no landrace is adapted to every environment.) Landraces offer predictability not of size, looks, or days to maturity, but of survival--that there will be a modest but dependable harvest in both good years and bad. This is the kind of predictablity needed by subsistence farmers in the past and by all of us now.
What we call heirloom varieties are sometimes landrace types that are being grown outside the land that shaped them (an example might be Kaslasa quinoa.) Most heirlooms available on the American market are more highly selected and uniform in maturity, color, flavor, yield, size, and so on, but the line is a hazy one.
While landraces are more diverse than the typical variety, they are not random. Nor are they wild plants. Farmers select their landrace varieties very carefully for traits that are important to them. For example, some parts of Central America have two traditional landrace corns--one that produces small, early, dark-colored ears on short plants; another with long, white ears on taller, later plants. They have maintained these two landrace varieties side-by-side over centuries by careful selection and maintenance, in spite of the fact that corn is wind-pollinated and crosses easily with other corns even at long distances. They prevent crossing and mixing of the two by using only the seed from early-matured dark corn and late-matured white corn, carefully excluding seed from plants of medium maturity that might have have been pollinated when pollen from both types could be in the air. Seed from these medium-maturity plants, and from both ends of the cob where the kernels are smaller, are used for food rather than seed.
So what's the story with the modern "landrace gardening" seeds that are showing up in seed companies, books, and online forums?
A number of us see genetic diversity as key to a more dependable food supply and a more sustainable agriculture. One approach to preserving and re-introducing diversity is to deliberately create new landrace varieties. This usually involves gathering many varieties of a crop that are available from companies, libraries, seed banks, and swaps, then letting them cross. (Many breeding projects start this way, not just landrace breeding projects.) The idea is that this "wide cross" or grex, will provide a lot of possibilities. If the cross is wide enough, it will include most of the traits available to that variety, which you can select from. Some will work, some will die, and some you'll keep for seed. This is called "mass selection". Once you've grown and saved seed for several seasons in one place, you'll have a variety better adapted to that place. If the selection process has allowed quite a bit of diversity while adapting more and more to thrive in your conditions, you might have a new landrace for your region.
This is a big deal if your situation has unusual stresses that common varieties are not prepared for. An example of this process is Dave Christianson's Painted Mountain Corn. He gathered every corn he could find in the 1970's, including some that are now extinct, and allowed them to cross, then subjected the subsequent crops to his brutal Northern Montana climate. The result is a short, early flour corn that can sprout in cold soil; survive heat, cold, and drought; and mature very early in spite of terrible conditions and low fertility. If you can't grow Painted Mountain, you probably can't grow any corn at all. On the other hand, it's not the best-flavored flour corn, and the ears are quite small--the price of extreme earliness. Carol Deppe has used it in her breeding work, this time selecting for her (also difficult, but different) Oregon conditions and for flavor, leaving in as many other variables as possible.
If you live somewhere that more closely approximates great corn growing conditions--good soil, plenty of water, and a long season--you don't need Painted Mountain's particular strengths. You might want a landrace for your climate, with resistance to the pests and diseases that often come with more moisture, but variable for color and other things. Maybe you need a taller, later variety that can support pole beans in a Three Sisters garden with very strong side roots to prevent lodging (falling over) under the weight of those beans. Over time, the new variety emerges from the interaction of your soil and climate with your goals.
Note that the original wide cross is not the landrace. (It's a cross, a grex, a genepool--there are several related names.) The genepool is the first step toward developing a new variety. It becomes a landrace after it's been shaped by the soil and climate to fit the land where it grows. A landrace variety, like any other variety, is formed both by climate and by human choices.
For the farmer or gardener--or for a farming and gardening civilization--there is a balance to be struck between the undeniable economic and culinary benefits of breeding for consistent traits and the adaptability of a more variable population. We know that a mutt may be more vigorous and trouble-free than a highly inbred and specialized breed. However, we also know that if we want a duck fetched out of a freezing lake, we need to have a retriever on hand.
Landrace gardening is one facet of open-pollinated, public domain breeding, one that prioritizes diversity and adaptation to local conditions. The most hard-core landrace gardeners use little or no soil amendment, irrigation, or pest control, because that's the fastest way to arrive at a variety that doesn't need those inputs. They are working toward future survival, and it's a very worthy goal. Other breeding projects might prioritize something more immediate, like flavor, ease of preparation in the kitchen, storage without refrigeration, or a crop that's ready to harvest when the farm isn't swamped with other work. Any breeding program that selects plants under organic, small-farm conditions is a positive gain.
At a time when herbicides, chemicals, and identical F1 hybrids are the norm in agriculture, it's important to recognize the value of all who are working toward a resilient organic future. We need a diversity of people and projects as well as of genes! Dogma is not adaptive. We need many hands, many minds, many cultures, many approaches and many goals to build a food system that is flexible enough to be viable now while adapting gracefully for the future. Landrace gardening is one tool toward that end.
Quail Seeds carries a number of older heirlooms or landrace varieties, modern genepools, breeders' mixes, and variable species. You can see several here.
If you'd like to participate in developing a modern landrace, I suggest getting in touch with the folks at Going to Seed, a non-profit that helps people with both seeds and training, most of which is available at a sliding donation rate. Or donate to help further their work.
You can also access wide crosses at the Open Source Seed Initiative's website. Their OSSI Varieties page has a filter feature that allows you to see just finished varieties or just "breeders mixes." Choosing breeders' mixes shows you varieties and genepools that the breeder considers variable enough for further selection. Again, consider a donation to further their work.
Jamie Chevalier lives and gardens on a river in the Coast Range of Northern California. She has gardened professionally in Alaska and California, as well as living in a remote cabin, commercial fishing, and working with seeds. She is the proprietor of Quail Seeds.