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The Nonsensical World of Idaho Bean Seed Laws

Ahh, tis the season for bean seed bureaucracy. For those unfamiliar with the confounding runaround that are the Idaho Bean Seed Laws, allow me to elaborate on why you don't see the diversity of oddball and heirloom beans in our seed Co-op that you find in other small seed companies around the US.
In short, it comes down to globalized agriculture. Idaho exports a large amount of bean seeds to other states and countries, so like potatoes and alliums (other important Idaho export crops) there are laws in place to protect the seed from being contaminated by diseases. This is all well and good--we should protect our region's excellent reputation for producing wonderful, disease-free seed. But unlike the laws for potatoes and alliums like garlic, the bean seed laws are poorly written and haphazardly enforced, which makes navigating them very difficult for tiny producers like us. 

The basic process shakes down like this: If you want to grow beans in Idaho, you are only supposed to buy and plant certified (tagged) seed. It doesn't matter whether they are for fresh eating or for seed. So, under the law, it is illegal for anyone to plant seed grown outside the state, unless it has first been inspected by the Idaho State Department of Agriculture (ISDA) and given a phytosanitary certificate. This rule technically applies to home gardeners as well as farmers of all scales, but it is not necessarily enforced for everyone. This law also applies to some non-Phaseolus  species like fava beans, soybeans, noodle beans, and cowpeas, but not other types of peas, and not all legumes, but some. When I asked the ISDA whether many of the odd species and varieties I have been growing on my farm for seed need to be inspected, they weren't sure. The process of just figuring out which species fall under the law has been difficult.  

If you want to grow beans (or other bean-like plants on the list) for seed, you are then supposed to get them inspected multiple times through the growing season to make sure they are free of diseases. It doesn't matter whether you intend to sell the seed to someone else or replant it for yourself. At the end of the process, you are supposed to apply for tags for your inspected seed, and then affix those tags to whatever container you're selling or using to replant your seed.

Idaho gardeners might notice that they likely have never bought a package of bean seeds that has a big green tag attached to it, and this would be your first clue that all is not going according to plan.

Unlike the potato and allium laws, this rule is not enforced at all points of seed sale. If you go to a nursery to buy seed garlic within the southern Idaho quarantine area, you can guarantee the garlic on those shelves has been inspected and has a certificate that accompanied it to the garden center. Same with the seed potatoes sold around the area. However, retailers can literally buy bean seed from anywhere and sell it in their stores without it being inspected or tagged, in blatant violation of the law. 

This haphazard enforcement extends into the farming realm as well. How many of you are small-scale farmers who routinely buy and plant green bean seeds for your farmer's market or CSA booth, and didn't even realize these laws existed? I know I didn't realize them for a long time, until I started hearing of some friends who'd gotten targeted by enforcers, even as I or other neighbors hadn't. Rest assured, rule followers, now I am squarely on their radar, so no more flying low for me!

OK, so you're a small farmer who reads this post and goes "Whoa! OK! I don't want to break the law. I should get me some certified, tagged bean seed."  How do I do that?

The bean seed industry the ISDA is trying to protect with these laws is a global one, which makes it hard for small, local farmers to even get a hold of tagged seed to plant for food. All the bean seed being grown is grown for export, not for local markets. It is possible that there are two different scales here, and that the rules should be made to serve farmers of all sizes, not just the big guys. As small farmers, we are willing to buy and plant certified seed, but we have to have access to it. The only reason I now have access is because I run a seed company which can buy enough seed from the smallest of the big growers to make it worth their while, and then use some of that to plant on my small market farm. Most small farmers don't even know where to access tagged seed, and most of them are looking for 1-5lbs of seed, which no big bean seed grower wants to sell to an individual.

And here is perhaps the craziest part of all of this: As a seed company, I am allowed to buy any amount of bean seeds from any grower outside of Idaho without them having been inspected, put them into packets, and sell them on the shelves at Idaho nurseries to Idaho farmers and gardeners. In this way, I'm actually encouraged as a seed company to buy non-certified seed from outside Idaho and sell it to other Idaho gardeners, even while still not being allowed to plant that same seed on my own farm.

Now remember, a neighbor in the Magic Valley who lives right next to a commercial bean seed field can go to their local nursery or big box store and buy a packet of non-certified bean seeds, take them home, and plant them right next to the commercial bean field. This is obviously much more risky to the agriculture the laws are trying to protect than me doing it in the middle of Boise, around exactly zero bean seed production (other than potentially my own, which would amount to a couple pounds at most) for dozens or hundreds of miles in any direction. As a small-scale urban farmer, I am not a threat to the massive bean seed industry, and the laws don't allow any leniency here even though they're full of so many other loopholes.

But beans, being selfers, are some of the easiest vegetables to save seed from, not to mention that they're nitrogen fixers and chock full of vitamins and protein, so there is a growing interest for home gardeners and small-scale farmers alike in raising a diversity of heirloom beans. It makes sense as a seed producer for a small, local seed company that I should try to give folks access to more of the amazing array of this valuable agricultural and culinary crop.

The ISDA has something called a "trial ground" and you can apply to turn a portion of your farm into a trial ground, where you can bring in a small amount (like, less than a pound) of seed of as many varieties as you like, and pay to have them inspected throughout the season. If they are found to be free of disease, you can then replant the seed or sell it. Last year I wanted to do a soybean trial, to figure out which soybean varieties are most productive here, so I tried to get my field designated as a trial ground.

It turns out that you can't use overhead water to water beans for a trial ground plot, even though you can use overhead water to water them in subsequent years, after they've already been inspected the first time. I get that in areas with lots of bean seed production, sprinkler irrigation might increase the likelihood of disease that could potentially spread to neighboring fields and crops. But for numerous already-tested reasons, drip irrigation does not work on my farm, and it is not set up for furrow irrigation.

In addition to the obvious fact that water falls out of the freaking sky, a healthy agriculture breeds varieties that are resistant to diseases. Isn't the point of a trial ground is to trial varieties under actual field conditions to assess their fitness? If the bean seeds can in subsequent years be planted under sprinkler, what is the point of requiring them to be planted under furrow or drip irrigation the first season? That doesn't allow us to trial the varieties in actual field conditions. And irregardless, isn't it the point of the inspections to inspect for diseases and make sure the crops don't have them? If that's the case, what does it matter how the crops are grown, and under what type of irrigation? If I'm paying ISDA to come out and look for pathogens, wouldn't the inspections they do identify them before they were transmitted via seed to the next generation in another field? I thought that was the whole point of the inspections. 

This gets to the bigger issue surrounding variety trialing, biodiversity, and the future of Idaho agriculture. It seems to me we should be employing a number of rigorous trials to identify and propagate varieties that are actually disease-resistant and/or adapted to low-input systems to ensure that Idaho agriculture remains increasingly relevant and sustainable amid a changing climate where resources become ever more scarce.  Instead, as a policy we're eschewing the opportunity to trial for low-input and disease-resistant varieties and instead trying to create more sterile environments to coddle ill-equipped varieties. Oregon plant breeder Frank Morton actually has fields he's dubbed "disease nurseries" where he inoculates the soil with a myriad of diseases and then plants his varieties into those fields to see who is truly disease resistant. I'm not asking to inoculate my field with pathogens. But I am willing to throw the dice and see if any show particular resilience, which seems like a real benefit to ISDA.

In a changing culture where seed saving is more appealing to home gardeners and small-scale farmers, bean seeds are some of the easiest to save seeds. These laws risk criminalizing this vital skill, in which the public has growing interest. I have said it before and I'll say it again: the resources of the Bean Commission and ISDA would be better spent educating home gardeners and small farmers on ways to identify the diseases you're on the lookout for. We could actually help you do the enforcement if we knew what we were looking for. We could be of real value to you, and to the larger agriculture of Idaho. We could be trialing a diversity of varieties, becoming passionately involved in disease identification and breeding resistant varieties, and using our smaller scales to scale up stock seed for larger-scale plantings. But there has to be a way forward that takes logic into account.