I just returned from a weekend at Seed Savers Exchange’s (SSE) Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa, rubbing shoulders with gardeners, activists, geneticists, chefs, microbiologists, horticulturists, lobbyists, lawyers, grass roots organizers, historians, and seed curators, savers and propegators – all around one devotion: preserving heirloom seeds. The motivation is this: between 1903 and 1983, our country lost 93% of our seed varieties. Worldwide, experts estimate that we have lost more than half of our food varieties over the past century. (Rural Advancement Foundation International) That’s thousands of varieties of food crops that hold a treasure of biodiversity; biodiversity that holds the key to everything from drought, pest and disease resistance to the culinary creativity that pleases our palates.
In the 1970s, Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy recognized the need for protecting and reviving the nation’s remaining seed variety and started in their living room what is now an iconic organization that preserves and propagates over 20,000 varieties of heirloom and open-pollinated plants. They also created a network of growers across the country who are dedicated to the same cause, and this network is what continues to bring in many, many varieties that once were thought completely lost – and they would have been if it weren’t for the individuals and families who saved and passed on their own seeds from generation to generation. Heirloom seeds are rich with history and story, and that is a big part of why growing them, and gathering with others to learn and share this past weekend, was so magical for me. Here are a few of my inspirations from my pilgrimage to Heritage Farm:
New ideas and inspiration from Diane Ott Whealy’s garden. My first moments of exploration at Heritage Farm lead me through Diane’s garden – a display garden where over half of the plants freely reseed themselves from year to year, and the other half is planted with no rules or restrictions. Vegetables, flowers and herbs intermix in a beautiful conglomeration of color and free form design. This is where I spotted the purple pea pictured above – who knew such a thing existed! In addition to being inspired by shocks of color from things like purple peas and flaming magenta amaranth, I was struck by how lush and healthy the garden was. I later attended Diane’s garden tour and had to ask – how is such a thing done? Certainly fertilizer, right? A lot of treatment for pest and disease? The answer was none of the above. She said that she simply uses mulch (with a very rare use of organic spray when needed for a bad problem, but that didn’t tend to happen) and believed that perhaps the health of the garden was from its great diversity. This made sense – besides conventional companion planting, like putting carrots with tomatoes, there was such a mix up of plants across every square foot that no disease or pest would have much luck jumping from one plant to another of the same variety. A specific design I plan to borrow from the garden is to use stiff cattle panel bent into a low arch, held in place within a raised bed, to serve as a lattice for squash or watermelon, with shade loving plants growing underneath, as shown below.
The conviction that it’s finally time to start saving seeds. It’s in the title after all – this was a “seed savers” conference, but I have yet to quite get into saving seeds. However, I was pushed over the edge during talks from speakers such as food and farm attorney Neil Thaper, who spoke about the need to advocate for a seed commons (that seeds should be a unrestricted resource for all, like air and water) and keynote speaker Rowen White, who beautifully shared of reconnecting to her Mohawk heritage through searching out and reviving an extensive collection of native seeds. Seed diversity was lost in the first place, and continues to be at risk, because commercial ownership of seeds is unpredictable, and it’s only through those who individually saved seeds over the decades that some diversity has been recovered. Likewise, hand to hand seed saving and sharing is also an important part of protecting food security in the future. That’s the practical side. There’s also the deeper, richer and perhaps even more compelling side of seed saving – that saving and passing down seeds connects us to our family, heritage, tradition and our land and food in very real and meaningful ways. Now I’m wondering, is there a precious handful of otherwise extinct seeds stowed away somewhere in my family line? Perhaps a great aunt has a baby jar of seeds stored in her garage? I feel a treasure hunt brewing… 🙂
New flavors through creative growing and cooking. Exploring a test garden on Friday evening, I started chatting with someone about how the swiss chard could possibly be so lush and gigantic, and we got to talking about who we are, where we’re from, etc. It turns out this someone was Aaron Keefer, culinary gardener for The French Laundry, a three-star Michelin restaurant in Napa Valley. I fully admit my cultural ignorance in not recognizing the restaurant, even though there are only a handful of its class in the country. But what I did clearly recognize was that Aaron was doing some incredible work, utilizing his unique background and training as both a farmer and a chef to run an organic garden that supplies the ingredients for each and every kitchen masterpiece served right across the street. The next day in his keynote address, as Aaron talked about the drive that premier chefs have to seek out new ingredients and flavors, I thought about what a pity it is that so much variety was lost in the last century, many times in favor of blander hybrid varieties that ship and store well. It helped that theory was put into practice with a weekend of delicious food served to us on site – even some crop varieties that were once nearly lost but now restored as a part of our country’s heritage and cuisine. Seen below is the trials tasting for a dozen or so carrot varieties, which just scratches the surface!
Miracles really do happen. I walked into one workshop on “Modern Seed Libraries” to find a young woman, Betsy Goodman, who seemed to exude hope and positivity, and fittingly enough, the thread through her talk was that “miracles really do happen.” Betsy worked at the grassroots level to help found Common Soil Seed Library in Omaha in 2012, which was a miracle in itself as the funding and pieces of the puzzle came together. A seed library is just what it sounds like – a place in the community that serves as a hub for seed sharing, and in fact they are often housed within a public library. You would think that a seed library is as innocent as it gets, but many obstacles and pressures challenge this practice of sharing seeds, even though humans have been doing it for over 10,000 years! One of these are state seed laws, which came against Common Soil Seed Library early on and ordered closure of the program. The Nebraska state seed law, like most across the country, was designed to protect farmers from shoddy commercial seed. These otherwise necessary laws become problematic in that the language is over inclusive, prohibiting the sharing or exchanging of seed between individuals, even when the act is completely noncommercial. Common Soil Seed Library refused to close, and instead Betsy ran the gamut, and once again declared “miracles really do happen,” as she was able to help introduce and pass legislation to allow noncommercial seed sharing to be exempt from the Nebraska Seed Law. Currently, only Nebraska, Minnesota and Pennsylvania state seed laws have been revised or reinterpreted in favor of seed sharing. Believe it or not, every other state in the country has language in their laws that makes seed sharing at best shady, if not illegal. The second giant facing seed libraries (and seed and food sovereignty), are the few powerful corporations that own a majority of the seed market, and are ever expanding that control. With companies like Monsanto taking ownership of seed varieties through patenting and cross contaminating open pollinated crops with neighboring GMO crops, access to seed and the right to share it is under threat. Nonetheless, seed libraries have multiplied from just a handful in 2010 to now over 400. (You can read more about seed libraries, their importance and the challenges they face here.) Later in the evening, I ran into Betsy outside of the beautiful red barn on the Seed Savers property, where a jubilant crowd was enjoying a barn dance within. We talked about her work, but quickly centered on how it truly is amazing that at times you are ignited by something that you just know is right, maybe something you know needs to change, and you somehow are certain that you just can’t fail. And it’s amazing to reflect on how one person really can effect change. What Betsy accomplished was not because of her seniority, credentials or sway – what she achieved began with inspiration and was fulfilled through determination and ingenuity. So often we don’t have confidence in our power to accomplish something large scale – we believe it would have to take some kind of miracle for “little old me” to make a difference. Well, let’s not forget, miracles really do happen!
Lessons about re-energizing yourself through great community and self care. I have been yearning to go to this conference for years, but something always stopped me. Now that I finally went, I hope to be able to return yearly. It was so energizing to be part of a gathering of people that were passionate and like-minded. I had a whole weekend to focus on learning more about a passion that is my very own, and to do it with such a fun, outgoing and sincere group of people was so life-giving to me. Whatever your passion is, I encourage you to find a way to make time for yourself to explore it and connect with others, even more so if you can do it in a context that allows you to get away from the routine of your daily life!
There was so much more I learned, but if I shared it all, it would be a book. If you are intrigued, perhaps you should join me next year! If you would like to learn more about seed saving or Seed Savers Exchange, visit www.seedsavers.org.