Pollination and Pinning

Posted in Blog, Pollinators on Friday, February 24, 2023

Pollination and Pinning

Keys to Success in the Skagit Valley

Understanding how certain crops are pollinated is imperative to understanding the farming practices of the Skagit Valley.   

Few people will look at their salad bowl and consider the immense amount of research, labor, and resources that went into growing the various vegetables they are enjoying. It turns out that those veggies have a pretty cool story. 

Washington is one of the most agriculturally diverse states in the U.S., bringing commodities like potatoes, berries and flowers to the global market. The Skagit Valley provides the perfect climate for growing these specialty crops. It also allows farmers to take on the challenge of producing something equally as important, seeds.  

Sierra Hartney, the Senior Pathology Manager for Sakata Seed America, took us to a cabbage seed field to explain just how important seed production is to the global food systems we all benefit from.  

“This is a field that will be harvested for seed, then that seed will be sold to a fresh market grower that will then plant it and grow a head of cabbage,” explained Hartney. Sometimes that head of cabbage will be packaged and sent to the grocery store to be sold whole. Other times it will head to a processing facility where it will be made into a coleslaw or salad mix. 

“One of the real interesting things about the Skagit Valley is that we are growing wind pollinated crops where the pollen floats through the wind, then we have something like cabbage here that is insect [or] bee-pollinated,” she said. 

Wind Pollination vs. Insect Pollination 

Plants have adapted over time to find the most suitable method of pollination. Pollination is simply the transfer of pollen from one flower to another, in an attempt to fertilize the ovule and eventually produce seed. How that pollen travels and the anatomy of the flower depends on the crop being produced.  

For example, a popular Skagit Valley seed crop like beets is a wind-pollinated crop. The pollen grain is smaller and lighter than those of insect-pollinated crops. This allows the pollen to be easily transported by the wind from one row of beets to the next, successfully fertilizing the beet plants and pushing them to produce seeds. Wind-pollinated plants grow flowers that are typically light in color, lack smell, and have reproductive parts (stigma and anthers) that are easily seen outside of the flower to catch pollen as it floats by.  

On the other hand, crops like cabbage rely on insect pollination to complete the life cycle. The flowers on insect-pollinated crops are bright in color and often have a strong, sweet smell that is irresistible to bees flying by. The pollen grain is larger and stickier so when an insect does crawl inside, it’s covered in pollen while snacking on the flower’s nectar. That insect then visits another flower nearby, leaving some pollen behind to fertilize the flower and eventually create cabbage seed.  

Understanding how certain crops are pollinated is imperative to understanding the farming practices of the Skagit Valley. Crops must be strategically spaced out to prevent cross-contamination. With limited land available and purity of seed being the main goal for seed producers, pinning has become an annual tradition.  

“The growers and seed companies pin, we call it pinning because it’s traditionally a little pushpin in a map saying, ‘My field is here. I’m going to grow this type,” said Hartney.  Dating back to the 1940’s, Pinning Day has been an important part of the spring planting season in the Skagit Valley. Taking their knowledge of pollination, the crops they are growing, and a little bit of teamwork, farmers of the Skagit Valley put together the puzzle of seed crops across the region to ensure the success of everyone.  

Every acre of Skagit Valley land is being utilized to the best of the farmer’s abilities. Even land that sits idle for a year to allow for proper spacing is valuable. “Here in the Skagit, it's a valley, we're hemmed in by the ocean, we got the mountains, so then the acreage is set,” said Hartney. This fact makes the knowledge of farmers, research by scientists, and collaboration of the agricultural community that much more important.  

“We grow seeds that go around the world to feed people, we're feeding people,” she said. “When you go to the store and grab a salad off the shelf, there were farmers and laborers and scientists, all that to get you your bag of salad,”