Valley Bounty: Mustard Green Seeds

Linda Enerson is on a mission to breed rare and heirloom vegetable seeds here in the Valley. Enerson has run the Ox and Robin Farm seed company in Montague since 2017. When she was growing up in the 60s, Enerson loved the wide array of plant varieties she would see in her mother’s seed catalogues. But as time went on, she explained, the major seed companies focused on a narrower set of breeds for each crop. “Everything winnowed down,” she said. “The big companies wanted to push one or two seed crops that would do well alongside some of the sprays.” Enerson, however, is concerned that a lack of genetic diversity could have negative consequences. “Our climate is changing. We want to have more genetics to play with when adapting to changes that may bring new diseases and pests.”

Most vegetable farms in the Valley focus on growing produce for market and leave the process of plant breeding and seed saving to seed companies. During Enerson’s first year running Ox and Robin Farm, she discovered the hard way that some farmers might not even recognize a field designated for harvesting seeds. Back in 2017, Enerson was leasing an acre of a farmer’s land in Hatfield. “I had some mustard greens and arugula out there. They had flowered and their seed pods were developing. They looked great!” But what might look great to a seed farmer looks like an overgrown mess to a market grower. “The woman who owned the land looked out at them one day and said, ‘I’m going to help Linda out and mow down those weeds.’ She got on her tractor and mowed the arugula and mustard greens down!” Fortunately, enough of the crop was spared to avoid disaster.

This year, Enerson is excited about two varieties of mustard greens she is breeding: Ruby Streaks and Green in Snow. She direct seeded her mustard greens back in early May. By mid-June they had reached their ‘edible stage’. Most farmers would harvest at this point but instead, Enerson began rogueing the crop. Rogueing is the process in plant breeding when the grower removes plants with unwanted characteristics. One general rule guides Enerson: ‘Get rid of the uglies.’ “You have to have an idea in mind of what the variety looks like,” she explained. “Anything that doesn’t fit that image, you get rid of it.” Over the next few weeks, Enerson’s mustard greens entered their flowering stage. Once their flowers were pollinated, the plants developed seed pods. By August, Enerson began pulling the plants out of the ground to dry on tarps. Once the pods dried, she rubbed them between her hands to free the seeds. Finally, she used a series of screens to separate the seeds from the chaff and dirt.

Enerson is in the thick of processing and storing seeds that will be sold for next year’s season. Fortunately for the rest of us, plenty of local farmers are still harvesting produce to be enjoyed this season. Enerson recommends a simple September salad: a healthy bed of mustard greens topped with fresh tomatoes and cucumbers with a honey mustard dressing.

Noah Baustin is the Communications Coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture)