Sunday, July 26, 2009

Seed Saving Presentation at the Blue Sky Room

On Tuesday night, a couple of friends, Heather and Eliza, gave a presentation on seed saving out at the "Blue Sky Room" at Sweet Earth Farm.

Everyone brought desserts: Lucy and her visiting friend brought a delicious bread pudding, I contributed zucchini bread, Elaine had warm fresh country loaves with butter, garlic scape pesto and hummus, there were some mystery Vegan cookies, and a bowlful of luscious red cherries from Eliza's tree.

We convened at a bright blue canopy in one of Sweet Earth's outer fields, past the orchard, listening to the pair recount their experiences from a workshop they attended at Michael Ableman's Foxglove Farm in BC.

Seeds are fundamental to what we do on the farm; so fundamental, in fact, that they barely register on my consciousness. After all, as an apprentice, I'm not doing the ordering or choosing varieties. I see seeds every day, but they're a fact-of-farming life that's I take for granted. That they come from a packet from Johnny's or Fedco or Territorial, or some other such company, that they appear outside the barn door out-of-the-blue, from the hands of the delivery man some afternoon, that they'll germinate when planted, and produce whatever was promised by the glittering prose of the seed catalog: all these things are assumptions I make without thinking.

But if I've learned anything from my recent forays into food and farming, it's that nothing should be taken on assumption, or taken for granted, and the same can be said for seed supplies, especially of heirloom and "rare" varieties. As seed companies continue to consolidate, as new seed technology changes the bounds of "intellectual property," as farmers lose the knowledge to save and breed seeds, and as universities continue to focus on research that benefits large corporate donors rather than small organic growers, it becomes more and more important to pay attention to the alternative seed-saving networks and businesses.

Some particularly interesting tidbits I came away with in our little discussion:
  • The state of heirloom seeds may actually be degrading because large-scale growers don't tend to select carefully or maintain "pure" lines of heirloom seeds. Instead, they tend to invest more time and effort in keeping hybrid varities pure.
  • Some plants need huge isolation distances (miles!) to decrease the chances of cross-pollination and subsequent deterioration of the line. So in places like the Skagit Valley in WA, there are pinning maps to keep track of farmers growing certain types of seeds, and extension offices have the responsibility of figuring out who'll have the right to grow certain seeds, where, in a given year.
  • Seed packet dates are the packing dates not the dates the seeds were grown or harvested. Seed growers often pack and sell seeds at least one, and up to three years after the seed is grown.
  • Obvious, but also not so obvious: Seed growers have to actually "grow out" their seed to make sure it's going to perform as expected. For most seeds, this isn't a problem -- farmers grow seeds one year, test them the next year, then sell them in year 3. For things like onions that don't keep, farmers must send seeds directly down to the Southern Hemisphere for testing so they can sell them immediately.
  • Most seeds aren't really selected for flavor, but more for germination, disease resistance, cosmetics, ease of harvesting, and other "efficiency" factors.
Apparently, there are already about 1,400 seed banks worldwide. This doesn't appear to include informal seed exchanges or small-scale heirloom breeders and producers. The 1,400 "banks" that are accounted for operate under all sorts of models. Some are distributed, with members across a country or region sharing and documenting particular varieties, while some are consolidated at one site. Some are "working" banks where seeds are propagated and possibly bred and improved, while some are simply vaults.

The world's largest seed bank for edible plants is on a remote Norwegian island near the North Pole. It was opened in February 2008, and its operational costs are covered by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an organization which has received funds from various governments, as well as philanthropic organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. So far, the vault contains approximately 400,000 of 1.5 million known edible plant species.

After our own island discussion, we discussed a couple of options: creating a seed "coop" where farmers take responsibility for growing and saving seed from particular varieties well-suited to the local climate. Eliza also talked about starting a small business in one of the seed crops particularly well-suited to the islands: something like broccoli or cabbage or kale. Either one seems like it would be a step in the right direction.

There are multiple businesses popping up, dedicated to the production, improvement, proliferation, and conservation of high quality heirloom and organic seeds. Wild Garden Seed in Oregon is one. This new rare seed bank, awesomely housed in a renovated actual bank, is another.

There are also lots of nonprofit and membership organizations that are trying to do some of the same things through seed exchanges and seed banks.
  • - Non-profit, member-supported organization that saves and shares heirloom seeds from around the world
  • - Canada's seed-saving organization for gardeners; maintains an online database of over 1900 varieties of fruits, vegetables, grains, flowers, and herbs.
  • - Northeast Portland Tool Library's pilot seed exchange project
  • - One of India's many seed bank projects
  • - A seed bank for wild plant species, managed by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew


  1. Just found your blog. I live in Victoria, and am very interested in all this new locavore stuff. Gppd to see a semi-local out there in the midst of things! I'm at :)

  2. Hey Elizabeth! Nice to see you -- it's lovely to meet folks nearby who also love food. my fellow farm apprentice just got back from Victoria and had nothing but nice things to say!

  3. "and as universities continue to focus on research that benefits large corporate donors rather than small organic growers"

    This was unfortunate, but not breeding seeds for flavor...even sadder.