“If you can figure out what you really want, it’s like molding clay… You’re sculpting every step of the way.”DR. JENNIFER KLING
Dr. Jennifer “Jenny” Kling is a seed breeder who has worked on developing crops such as corn, meadowfoam, and oats. In a collaborative project, she’s working with Shannon Welsh, a textile designer and regenerative textile systems advocate, and Angela Wartes-Kahl, a farmer and organic certification specialist, to develop and distribute flax seeds with particular focus on production in the United States. They are each employing their own expertise in this work with selection and growing methods that differ from large-scale breeding programs. Flax is a crop with many uses: it produces nutritional seeds, oil, and fiber for fabric. Historically, linen was arguably the first textile woven by humans, and it spread around the world for thousands of years until very recently as industrialization, cotton, and synthetics began to change the textile industry. The flax plant requires very little irrigation and is a good ecological alternative to synthetics and cotton, but more research is required for larger-scale contemporary production.
That’s where Jenny comes in—she starts with one type of seed and combines it with other types in order to create new varieties for each of the plant’s different uses. Shannon, Angela, and Jenny are doing this work to produce seed for domestic flax linen production, which can’t happen at the moment because there currently isn’t enough seed to import. Large quantities of seeds don’t just come out of nowhere, and there is a lot to know about the process of building a crop. It involves thinking about plant systems, ecosystems, and human systems all together at once.
This interview accompanies an exhibition in the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Portland, Oregon, which opened in May 2022. It’s part of a project called One Day of Seeds, in which I learned how to plant flax test plots in Alpine, Oregon for one day along with several other people. This year’s crop was planted to overwinter in the field, which uses autumn planting and spring or summer harvest to take advantage of the region’s cool-season rains. During the activity of planting, I realized that this one day of working represented many years of preparation. In a plot 97’ wide and 73’ long, Jenny organized a grid of 2’ x 3’ rectangles which contained dozens of individual test crosses. The process to get from one initial seed to a potential standardized crop takes seven to ten years, and shaping plants for the future requires significant creativity.
After that day, I kept all of the leftover labeled seed envelopes to use as a device for storytelling — laying them out as a map in the same arrangement in which the seeds were planted in the field. I am interested in this narrative because it connects work, time, and place using a simple visual method to describe a complex and largely social process. I’m also viewing seed breeding conceptually as one example of many natural processes influenced by people’s hands for worldwide material consumption. There is much hidden activity behind the physical world we occupy every day, and relationships are intertwined with all of it.
Mo Geiger: If I didn’t know anything about seed breeding, how would you describe it to me?
Dr. Jenny Kling: Basically, you’re just trying to make new combinations of things and it’s a numbers game, because you can’t predict how things will go. You make a cross between two parents that are maybe complementary to each other. And you’re hoping to get progeny—offspring—that have the best of both parents. We keep the ones that look promising for the traits we’re looking for.
Mo: How do you think about your relationship to all these little plants?
Jenny: Oh, they’re like your babies. I do have an attachment and I can tell you, one student worker—I sent him home with some seed to work on and then I didn’t hear back from him. And it got to the point, after a couple of months, I was getting to be like a mother with a lost child! I was going to where he worked, I was calling him, and it was just that he got behind, but I got really crazy. So yes, you get very attached to your seed. It’s just a pleasure to go out in the field when they’re in full bloom and say, “Wow!” And to see something that looks really promising; it’s pretty exciting.
Mo: Totally. Since you think about seeds this way in your own work, when you’re out in a wild space where that kind of manipulation isn’t happening, how do you feel?
Jenny: Oh, that’s interesting.
Mo: Or, manipulation by humans, I should say.
Jenny: If I’m out in the wild I’m probably in a forest somewhere. And so I’m looking at big trees. I’m not thinking too much about seed.
Mo: Not too much?
Jenny: It is interesting what different seeds require, depending on how long they’ve been domesticated. Some plants have all kinds of dormancy mechanisms so that they don’t germinate at the wrong time. With domesticated seeds, the dormancy mechanisms are much less. We can harvest, then we can go in and plant, and it’ll grow. But if you were working with something that was from the wild, you might have to wait a year before it would germinate. For example, meadowfoam (a flowering plant used for oil) is a winter annual in the wild. It would drop its seeds in June and then wait until it’s cooler in the fall. There’s mechanisms in the meadowfoam seed to prevent it from germinating, even if conditions appear to be optimal. It knows from its genetic memory that it has to wait till it gets enough rain to wash out some inhibitors or something that would allow it to germinate. Pretty cool.
Mo: I like thinking about seeds and memory.
Jenny: Genetic memory. Yeah, that’s exactly what it is, really.
Mo: How do you picture that?
Jenny: Well, I think of it more in terms of the genes, because I’ve been looking at textbooks—pictures of chromosomes and that kind of thing. I think in terms of very specific genes and what happens when you make a cross. But I do have a sense, I guess, about how the plant is coping and what it’s doing to survive.
Mo: Is that understanding of memory and behavior connected to the way you look at these flax test plots when they’re growing?
Jenny: Yeah, like this year, we were sad that we got so much rain that our plots don’t look great. And it was a new field, so it had a lot of organic residue and it wasn’t the best conditions for planting. And the field is naturally pretty wet. But now, you look and you can see checkerboard out there—the plots that can take it and the ones that can’t. In the Willamette Valley, it’s not unreasonable to expect that you might get a lot of rain if you’re planting a crop in the Fall. And flax is not known for being water-tolerant. They say it does not like “wet feet,” but maybe we’ll select some that are able to tolerate wet feet. The thing about seed breeding too is: if you can figure out what you really want, it’s like molding clay—that’s what it’s like. But if you don’t know what you want, then you’re going to get whatever you get, and that’s the way it is. You’re sculpting every step of the way.
Mo: And you’re looking for?
Jenny: For whatever characteristics you think are important. You’re allowed to indulge a little bit in aesthetics, but you also have to be measuring things. And you can’t necessarily translate what you see on one individual plant into what you see in a full stand.
Mo: So the connections to the other plants are a big part of your process too?
Jenny: Absolutely. You have to learn. You have to get to know your crop and you have to know the different traits.
Mo: I want to ask you about what the process of crossing is.
Jenny: Well, we’re going to be doing some of that this Spring. That’s because I’ve planted 36 different genotypes. “Genotype” means a plant has its own genetic characteristics and genetic makeup. So different traits, different characteristics. It’s pretty easy: you go in the night before and you can tell that the little bud is about to come open and then you just take out the anthers (the male flowers). And then you come back the next morning and you get some pollen from another plant with a different genotype, and you just come and brush it right on the female (stigma). By noon or one o’clock when it’s all done, it drops petals. And if we’re lucky, we will get up to ten seeds.
Mo: For each cross?
Jenny: For each cross. But usually it’s more like five or six seeds. But even so, with five or six, you plant that out, let it self-pollinate, and you harvest that seed. And then by the time you do that a couple of times, we get to what we call the F3—three generations.
Mo: How many years are represented in these test plots?
Jenny: (points to one section) These are probably F3. And then these (points to another section) are more like F5s, so those are farther along.
Mo: Three and five years. And each one of these seed envelopes is a different cross?
Jenny: I have some checks in there, so if it’s got a name on it, those are “checks”— standard varieties. We can compare the test plants to them. We’ve got some checks that are seed (food) types and some checks that are fiber types.
Mo: So when you’re seeing all of these traits, do you think about the things that you did before and the things you might do later? And do you see a timeline in your head?
Jenny: I’m still learning, finding my way with flax.
Mo: This feels less familiar?
Jenny: You have to get to know the plant. And the more plants you’re trying to work on, the harder it gets. And the older you get, the harder it is to remember things! But I would say I’m intimately familiar with corn. I’m intimately familiar with meadowfoam. Flax—I’m getting better acquainted.
Mo: When you are in physical contact with one of the plants you’re really familiar with, do you feel that?
Jenny: Oh, yeah. Some of them are just beautiful! Gorgeous. And sometimes it just looks like grass growing—you know, really wide leaves and standing there. Or maybe the shape is just so attractive.
Mo: In getting to know the flax better, do you converse with it?
Jenny: No, no, I wouldn’t say I converse with it. With the flax, we have to be careful about how it matures. I have a lot more to learn. I was trained by meadowfoam breeders and I was trained by corn breeders, so that expert knowledge was passed down, and I’ve got bits of others’ expert knowledge on flax, but you have to understand that there’s things you don’t know.
Mo: So this is the first time that you haven’t had a human mentor?
Jenny: I didn’t have a human mentor, other than some casual conversations with a friend who sadly passed away, Daryl Aronsing. He was extremely passionate about fiber flax. He knew quite a bit about its agronomy and history. I’m not sure if he knew all the details, because he wasn’t a breeder. But certainly he knew how to grow it, as well as how it is processed. He was passionate, so I think I got a little bit of the bug from him. That’s the thing, when you’re a plant breeder, you have to have an emotional attachment to your crops. You learn from them. You have to.
Mo: Because there’s an exchange happening?
Jenny: Yeah, absolutely. So I’m looking into a few new crops, little things. Like I always like the idea of working on medicinal things. I’m pretty sure, apart from the oats, that flowers are fairly important to me. I also like things that can be grown during the winter because I don’t like the whole idea of having to have irrigation to grow a crop here.
Mo: Yeah, I was going to ask, since this test in particular is a wintered-over crop, I had to kind of retune my brain to think about the growth cycle in that way.
Jenny: I definitely have a preference in this environment for winter. There aren’t enough options for growers in winter, and they need break-crops. They need crops that all have different diseases, different insect pests. There’s a limited number of break crops in this area, and you need to have something on the field in the winter.
Mo: So your concern is ecological?
Jenny: Partly, yeah. And just making best use of the rainfall. Why irrigate when we have all of this successive rain in the winter? We shouldn’t have to irrigate fiber flax, and you don’t have to irrigate meadowfoam [a winter crop]. So that’s kind of part of my interest.
Mo: Is your interest based on this place, based on living in this climate?
Jenny: Well I got my undergraduate degree here. I was not a farm girl growing up, so I had all my classes on how to identify plants here. Looking at all the seeds and being able to identify seeds. So I know more about the ecology here, than I do in Pennsylvania where I grew up. Because I didn’t have a connection to the farm community when I was growing up.
Mo: That makes sense.
Jenny: I have an emotional attachment to this area.
Mo: And you respond to that by working with those long winter rains.
Jenny: Yeah. And I think it’s important, you know—you spend so much of your time working in your life—I do believe it’s important to pick something that you feel passionate about, even if it’s something that you’re not the best at. Like, I’m kind of spastic, you know? I’m not that athletic. My vision isn’t even that good. So I have things that would not make me the most likely candidate for being a plant breeder. But I found that it’s rewarding to me. It helps me to notice things more. I could drive the same route 20 times and still not be able to find my way. So it’s actually sort of therapeutic to be out there looking closely at things and taking notes. It does a lot for me in different ways. Does that make sense?
Mo: Yes. I’m just thinking about it, using what you’re doing to finetune your experience.
Jenny: I try to be more aware of my surroundings.
Mo: That is really beautiful.
Jenny: And one of my talents is spreadsheets. I may not be that good at hand-eye coordination, but I am extraordinary at spreadsheets.
Mo: And observation, let’s not forget that.
Jenny: I take all the measurements and there is no end to my patience when it comes to measuring the smallest detail. And then I just, I crunch it all in there into the spreadsheet and I come up with a selection. That’s part of the molding process for me.
Mo: You’re looking at the whole.
Jenny: I’m looking at the whole thing. I get all the information and I actually do a magical thing where I decide how much influence one trait will have more than another in my selection.
Jenny: And I’ve had a lot of success with it. I really do believe it’s my interest in numbers and being able to measure things and make those judgments about what’s most important.
Jenny: Yes, patterns. And by the way, I compensate for being a klutz. Like working on corn. One of the things you have to do in corn research is you plant two seeds in every hill and then thin back to just one plant. They wanted to have perfect stands, no plants missing. So the plants were about this high (lowers her hand to ankle-height), and I mean, everybody was faster than I was! I’d have a migraine at the end of the day from bending over. But, you know, it kept me going. Kept me moving.
Mo: Is that part of it too? Being outside and moving around?
Jenny: Going outside, and I want to keep mobile. But basically it’s just exciting to see, hold in your hand, you know, your little seeds that you’ve made.
Mo: And see them multiply.
Jenny: Yes, and see the change of things over time. We started at this point, now we’ve gotten to this point.
Mo: Did this number of seeds come from a very small amount to begin with?
Jenny: Each one of these crosses would have come from a single plant. Yes. By the end of the day, in my study, I start with a thousand things and then you may end up with six things. Even if we can’t do big fancy field trials, we might be able to at least give a grower two different varieties and say which one do you like better?
Mo: Keep testing it?
Jenny: Yeah. You say, here’s two things, A and B, you don’t tell them which is which, and then they tell you which one they like better. And then you do that with enough growers and you can get an idea about which ones are preferred. That’s the modification I’m making because we aren’t mechanized.
Mo: Building community out of necessity.
Jenny: Yeah, yeah. We’re not mechanized and we’re on a shoestring budget, which is like no budget. And part of my experiment is, can this work, doing it this way? I think that we’re going to get enough payoff from being in the zone—that we’ll get something out of it. Compared to taking something that was developed somewhere else.
Mo: So it starts with you and your little plant and then becomes all these millions of plants.
Jenny: I did have some that were still kind of variable, but they were a fairly advanced generation. So I gave that to Shannon and then to three different people. A little jar of seed, so that they could grow it out in a small plot and pick their favorite plants. So that’s another option: to recruit assistant breeders! There are little tricks you have to learn.
Mo: Which is where all the years come in!
Jenny: I’m still hopeful that we can do something if we have keen observation. For me, it’s also motivating to have nice people to work with! That makes all the difference. Angela and Shannon, you know, I just get a charge out of working with them. That’s why I do it.
Mo Geiger (she/her) Mo Geiger’s artwork is interdisciplinary and often collaborative. In this combined and context-specific approach, she explores how the ingredients of labor and what people “do” affect various relationships, telling stories that use tactile learning with and from others as a relational tool. She has a background in technical theater, where she learned to value collaborative processes. Her artwork has appeared in galleries, theaters, museums, public spaces, and local organizations, and she is a co-founder of the south-central Pennsylvania performance collective Valley Traction.
Dr. Jennifer G. Kling (she/her) is a Senior Research Professor at Oregon State University as well as an Agricultural Consultant. Jennifer’s current interest is in developing specialty crops for niche markets in Oregon. In 2012-2013 Jennifer was the Principal Investigator for the OSU Agricultural Research Foundation, in Breeding Dual-Purpose Flax Varieties for Emerging Textile Markets in Oregon. Jennifer G Kling has a Ph.D. in Genetics from North Carolina State University, a M.S. in Agronomy/Plant Breeding from the University of Nebraska, and a B.S. in Crop Science from Oregon State University.
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