Spending time with the data

I recently noticed I spend a lot of time with my data. I sometimes think it’s a type of procrastination. As I review focus group notes and interview notes and document review notes I find myself exploring and writing about the process and sometimes feel like it is a strategy which delays progress in my research.

But that’s not quite true. While it is not a strategy which moves along at a pace that we expect from the modern world, I find it is a good strategy to pull insight from just a relatively small amount of information.

This came to mind as I was doing a document review of website content for BC Seed companies. As I processed the data using NVivo software I kept thinking that this is telling me things that I already know or just telling me the obvious, but that’s not really how it works or what was happening. When we immerse ourselves in something we give ourselves an opportunity to think about it in many different ways; see patterns we couldn’t see before; and have insights that wouldn’t arrive if we didn’t see things over and over again.

I have just finished my NVivo coding for the document review of BC seed company websites, I have been writing up the process and methodology and I’m just about to start a discussion of the results. Many things have stood out, which came to mind while writing up the process and methodology.

One thing that stands out is the term “open-pollinated”. It is a term that is found on basically every website I reviewed. (Actually there’s two websites that did not appear on, though I don’t think it is a reflection of those seed companies values being against open-pollinated crops, but rather it is more due to poor website design than anything. But I digress.

“Open-pollinated” is a concept that is very important to seed growers which is obvious by the widespread use of it in their website communications. So this leads into the bigger issue of why it’s important. One of the aspects of open-pollinated seed is that gardeners and farmers can safely save that seed and know that it will come true when they grow it out again. This is important in the context of the common use of hybrid crops which, in contrast to open pollinated seed, cannot be relied upon to produce true-to-type plants.

In contrast, there is another “open” type of a term that I only saw on one website – “open-source”. This term is used in software for software that is free for people to use in whatever way they see fit as long as they do not restrict others’ use of it. And to paraphrase someone within the open-source software world – “it is not free as in beer but rather free as in speech.” People still buy and sell open source feed and software, they just do not prevent others from doing so through various legal or biological or technical barriers.

But the term open source only appears on one website of the 15 that qualified for review. And this leads me to the question of why. And it makes me wonder if BC seed companies and seed growers are putting too much value on the concept of open-pollinated, and not evolving their perspective of seed to move to the newer concept of open-source.

One of the things that led me to this potentially “delayed evolution” within our perspective on seed in BC was actually the lack of evolution in website design I came across. Most of the BC Seed companies had a web presence and online stores which definitely demonstrates use of modern technologies to promote and sell their products. But many of the websites I reviewed are the same ones that were online 5 or 10 (or more) years ago with only a few “modern” types. The content has been very much the same over the past two years and from my recollection has not changed very much in several years. So it is that which prompted me to ask: How much is the BC seed community evolving?

So back to open-pollinated versus open-source. One of the distinctions I make in the seed world is between seed saving, seed production, and plant breeding. As we move along a continuum the process becomes more and more technical and complicated. In short, I consider seed saving is a gardening activity basically being the physical act of gathering seeds from plants. In some of those cases the seed saving is as an afterthought, though not always so. Seed production is a higher level activity or process where the thought of harvesting the seed comes at the time of planting the seed. While there can be some selection and roguing in seed production, which is very much a plant breeding technique, seed production is mostly just growing crops to seed either for on-farm use or for sale. Plant breeding is more advanced still. Not only does it start at the planting of the seed but also with the selection of the seed type(s) to plant to facilitate (or be subject to) cross-pollination for the development of varieties

Admittedly this is a very simple summary as one could be both seed saving and plant breeding quite successfully. So we will admit this is a generalization. But perhaps an important one to understand the seed grower community here in BC.

While open-pollinated may be a suitable term for seed saving, seed production, and plant breeding (where it applies), open-source is a term that applies mostly to plant breeding and the resulting seed. The reason I think this is so important is because there is not a lot of plant breeding happening in BC within the small-scale vegetable seed producer community. It is a community which is  primarily growing small amounts of seed and selling them in packets to gardeners via web sales and at Seedy Saturday and Sunday events throughout the province. While this process has value, one question is: how does this activity contribute to change in the seed system overall? In BC and in the world? When we talk about the problem of seed becoming more and more corporatized and consolidated and privatized, we have to ask if the approach we are taking is having an impact or creating change.

And we do also have to ask, which also came out of this process of document review of websites: How much does the corporate consolidation of seed drive the values of small-scale vegetable seed companies in BC? While in conversation with seed growers this does come up often, and it is very prevalent in the literature around local seeds systems and community seed networks (Helicke, 2015).  But it is interesting that this issue did not show up very much in BC seed company website content. These websites talked about local, and open-pollinated, and non-GMO, and adaptation quite frequently, but they did not talk about anti-corporate goals or anti seed-consolidation goals as a driving force for their existence of their seed companies.

So these are some insights I have had in the past few days. So back to the original point of my rambling: spending time with data.

It is through spending time with data, and not trying to act quickly and simply move on to the next thing, that is giving me a better understanding of the seed grower community here in BC.

Now, I’m sure I have read in the qualitative research literature that spending time with data is important and that is why I’m doing it, so I’m not making any claims to discovering some new approach to qualitative research here. Rather, I’m sharing my experience for two reasons. One, is to demonstrate that the literature has a very good point here and that my experience is very much in line with that. Spending time with your data brings insights, so don’t rush through it. Having experienced this, I see much more value and importance in this idea. The other point is that in spending more time with their data (instead of their friends, family, or loved ones) one may feel that they are procrastinating or not moving forward with their research. Well this is a possibility one only has to look and ask themselves the question: Am I learning more by spending more time with this data? And if the answer is yes, then the time is well spent. Although we do live in a time where everything is expected to be completed at a fast pace and we are expected to deliver results and outcomes as much as possible, sometimes deeper outcomes at a slower pace have much more benefits and more impact. That is certainly my experience in my research thus far. And I am definitely one who moves quickly and looks for outcomes. But I also value depth and insight and I’m glad to slow down my pace to find it.

This is somewhat analogous to training for a sport or learning a musical instrument. The more time you spend doing the same thing the better you get at it. There is definitely a point at which you need to move on and only each individual researcher will know where that point is for them.

With this insight comes a need for self-awareness, and being able to tell when you are procrastinating and when you are delving deep into an issue.

One of my next topics will be to explore regional seed systems in different parts of the world to see where BC fits in and how it compares. On the list right now is northern Italy and Washington State and I will explore one or two seed systems in developing countries as a contrast as well.

 

References

Helicke, N. A. (2015). Seed exchange networks and food system resilience in the United States. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 5(4), 636–649. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-015-0346-5

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