MOUNT VERNON — Skagit Seed Services co-owner Jack Hulbert tromped between rows of waist-high cabbage seed plants Monday at his field near Mount Vernon, his boots leaving imprints in the damp soil.
He stopped at a plant and grabbed the tip of its stalk, pointing out its tiny yellow flowers.
An early bloom spurred by warm weather has created cross-pollination concerns among local farmers, putting Skagit County’s $2 million cabbage seed industry at risk.
The primary concern is ornamental kale, a popular plant grown by homeowners throughout the county. When those plants survive the winter, bees can cross-pollinate them with cabbage, potentially ruining entire cabbage crops.
Other plants, such as beets, can be a problem too, Hulbert said.
“It’ll make something that is not true to type and we won’t realize it until we take it all the way to harvest,” Hulbert said. “It’d be like a mutant.”
Cabbage seed farmers space fields about a mile apart to prevent contamination between varieties. Farmers often survey the perimeter of their fields, checking for nearby plants, such as ornamental kale, that can contaminate their crops.
“We notice a little more kale around this year because they survived the warm winter,” Hulbert said. “This time of year, people think I’m weird driving slow looking at their yard.”
Both the kale and the cabbage seed plants are starting to blossom with yellow flowers. Cross contamination is possible because the plants are related and have the same number of chromosomes.
After harvesting cabbage seeds, a farmer submits seed samples to potential buyers for DNA testing, Hulbert said.
If the DNA is contaminated by cross-pollination, the crop is rejected. That could result in losses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for each lost crop, Hulbert said.
Cabbage seed grown in Skagit County accounts for 24 percent of the world’s supply, according to the Washington State University Skagit County Extension’s 2014 Agriculture Statistics.
Gary Picha, a field representative for seed contractor Syngenta Seeds, said the company spends a lot of time patrolling for kale plants.
“We stop and talk to the homeowners and most of the time they are happy to comply,” Picha said. “It’s just a matter of letting them know.”
Home gardeners with kale plants should remove the yellow flowers every couple days or destroy the plant, Picha said.
He said home gardeners should contact the Washington State University Skagit County Extension for information on how to safely grow their own seeds.