TRAVERSE CITY — Spring planting time is still months away, but it’s not too early for devout backyard gardeners to plan their plots, peruse seed catalogs, research and dream.
And Mike Kiessel, a seed saver and plant breeder is one of them. He stretches “backyard gardener” to the max. He has many backyards – his own, his nearby brother’s place and his parents’ cherry farm in Leelanau County, where he grew up.
Kiessel recently joined five other hardy gardeners who braved slippery Saturday morning roads to go to a seed saving workshop at Grow Benzie.
Kiessel is a man who learned from early experience why breeding a new variety of pumpkin should not be attempted near a zucchini patch. His pumpkin garden produced an orange zucchini the size of bat.
“It looked like an orange log,” he said.
Kiessel has created 50 varieties of watermelon and almost 110 kinds of tomatoes since the 1990s, when his interest in seed saving, plant breeding and preserving heirloom seeds germinated.
Gardening and seed saving takes up most of his free time in the summer, he said. He also takes daily field notes about plants, weather conditions, insects and other factors that can affect fruit or vegetable quality, taste, color and other characteristics. He reviews the notes in the winter when he begins selecting seeds from the best plant varieties in his harvest.
He calls this avocation a hobby. His day job is working for Binsfeld Engineering in Maple City.
Kiessel likes to eat fruit and vegetables, but that is not the primary reason he breeds and develops new varieties.
He wants to harvest and select the seeds of healthy, hardy plants that grow well here in Michigan’s short growing season.
He wants to help preserve plant diversity itself in a world where corporate seed companies want to make one seed variety for the whole world.
“A lot of the big seed corporations have bought up small, regional seed companies and then dropped a lot of the lines,” he said. “We’ve lost a lot of varieties in the last 20 years.”
He sends yearly packages of his seed varieties to Seed Saver Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. It is the largest nonprofit of its kind in the nation. Founded in 1975, the exchange is a seed-saving group organized to preserve heirloom plant varieties through regeneration and distribution in North America.
Seed saving and breeding new varieties are ancient farming practices that only began to change in the 1880s when seed companies started making hybrid seeds widely available at inexpensive prices.
Today, a variety of reasons exist for seed saving, said Jim Sluyter, retired Get Farming coordinator for the Michigan Land Use Institute who organized the Grow Benzie seed meeting. For some, it’s a fun and interesting hobby. Some do it to ensure they are using fresh seeds that will grow well in this area. Some do it to save money. Others seek organic seed varieties.
The only time Kiessel sells seeds is when he gives talks or to other seed savers who find him in the exchange’s annual guidebook.
Life is slower for Kiessel in the winter – at least part of the time. He packages his new seeds in envelopes and carefully writes the name of the new variety, the year and his seed exchange code number on the outside. He prepares his plant room for those days in early spring — about six to eight weeks from planting time in May — when he’ll start growing tomato, pepper, broccoli, cabbage and eggplant seedlings that will eventually be moved outside and planted after the danger of hard frost is over.
“Over the years, you develop strains that fit this region and climate,” he said.
Upcoming small farm conference on Feb. 1 The 15th Annual Small Farm Conference will be held Feb. 1 at the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa in Acme Organizers expect as many as 750 conference attendees, 80 trade show vendors and 25 educational sessions. 2014 Keynote speak is John Ikerd, author of "Small Farms Are Real Farms" and professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri Columbia. He was raised on a small dairy farm in southwest Missouri and earned his bachelor of science and master's and doctorate degree at the University of Missouri.