Each spring, as the ground softens under warming sunlight, I feel a corresponding stirring within myself; a steadying, a preparing. The winter season of dreaming and planning draws to an end and we ready ourselves for action. How will our dreams for the gardens manifest themselves this growing season? What unexpected complications will challenge us? What will succeed beyond our wildest hopes? Whatever gifts and lessons this season will bring, it begins with the seeds.
The seeds arrive in padded envelopes and cardboard boxes wedged into our mailbox. New friends and old friends; plant varieties we have grown for decades and those we will get to know for the first time. But as we save more seeds each year, we become less reliant on the glossy catalogs and turn instead to our own collections, tucked into plastic bins and glass jars on the seed room shelves. Seed saving deepens our relationships with the crops that we grow and makes our community more resilient as we collaborate with networks of seed-savers to preserve agricultural diversity outside the realm of corporate control.
Last fall we had the pleasure of hosting students from Kalamazoo College Professor Dr. Amelia Katanski’s First Year seminar class “Cultivating Community” as they helped us save some of the seeds we’ll be planting this spring. This class engages with individuals and organizations that work to strengthen communities through food. We wanted to share some of their insights from their research into food systems and their time on the farm with you. Below are excerpts from reflections by four of these students. We’ll be sharing writing from more students over the next several weeks. Enjoy!
Tori Wright: Coming into my first-year seminar class called “Cultivating Community” at Kalamazoo College, I did not know what to expect. The course summary had the word “food” which stuck out to me, considering that I love food and everything to do with it. What could possibly be unappealing about a class that deals with food? On the first couple of classes, I realized that it was an interest of mine that I had yet to explore. I have never really thought about the origin of where my food came from.
Kali Stanger: When we walk into the grocery store, the first glance reveals abundance. Stores seem to hold such a vast array of food that the options are overwhelming. But wandering the produce section, the fruits and vegetables tell a tale of scarcity. For many Americans today, our taste buds only know a select few varieties of the produce we eat.
Brad Carlson: America’s seeds are in trouble. The entirety of the food industry in America begins with seeds. Seeds have immense power and influence over our food and culture that sometimes goes unrecognized. With that said, the variety of seeds we use to grow food is dwindling, with large corporations narrowing down species of seeds to those that they choose in order to maximize profit. If you’ve ever heard of the Irish Potato Famine, then you know why this is bad!
Limiting ourselves to only a few varieties of a plant can have devastating results if that seed fails for some reason. Not only that, but the legal stranglehold placed on farmers [by seed patenting] is another recipe for disaster. However, a grassroots movement called “seed saving” is gaining momentum to combat the limitation of seed variety. Seed saving is a campaign that encourages the trading and saving of seed types to be grown/kept in order to broaden the variety of seeds once again.
Bri Taylor: Seed-saving seems like a simple idea, and it should, as people all over the world have practiced this type of sustainable farming. The importance of seed-saving is astronomical, especially now as large corporations continuously command control of seeds, which in turn gives them secondary control to the plants and those who tend to them.
The graphic below displays the large hold that corporations have on seed companies.
[This diagram was created by Dr. Phil Howard to visually represent the consolidation of control of seed by chemical companies (represented in dark red). As you might suspect, these companies do not prioritize the improvement of crop varieties that can be grown without chemical inputs! To learn more about Dr. Howard’s work, visit: https://msu.edu/~howardp/seedindustry.html.]
This graphic proves how wide the control is on seeds; however, there is hope to changing this system.
Kali Stanger: Harvest of Joy Farm tells a completely different story; here biodiversity reigns supreme. And part of the secret of this diversity is seed saving. Though daunting to many, seed saving is within the reach of anyone interested, regardless of skill. When visiting Harvest of Joy Farm, I worked with tomatoes and peppers and was shocked at how easy seed saving was.
The first step is having plants to save seeds from. This usually means ordering from independent seed companies or finding someone who already works within the seed saving network, giving you the ability to grow plants you can save seeds from. Once your plants are producing fruit the hard part is done! Then you get to become your own evolutionary biologist by picking the best-looking fruit on your plants and saving their seeds.
Jimmy Nardello’s Sweet Italian Frying Pepper, a great contrast from the mainstream red bell pepper, was an especially easy plant to save seeds from. After deciding which peppers we wanted (the straightest pepper with the least blemishes that were a little over ripe and wilted) the process was easy. All you need to do is to cut the pepper in half and scrape the seeds onto a plate. Let them dry and you’re all set for next planting season!
Jimmy Nardello’s Sweet Italian Frying pepper was on the edge of extinction in 2008 prior to being put on the Slow Food Ark of Taste. With this nomination, these pepper seeds began to be saved and in 4 years the seeds went from being sold only at a few independent sellers to being sold by over 200 sellers. Whether you’re interested in expanding your diets beyond the mainstream varieties that are offered in stores, want to cut costs by only having to buy seeds once, or are desperately trying to defy the industrial food system that is substantially minimizing plant diversity, seed saving is easy, affordable and within your reach.
Brad Carlson: With food becoming more industrialized and more about sustenance than building relationships with others and the Earth, it is important that small farms and surrounding communities come together to bring the personal touch back to food, rather than the mechanical or chemical treatment of food that cares little about the culture around food. On a personal note, experiencing the food [at Harvest of Joy Farm] was quite an enlightening experience. The difference between produce grown there and food served in the school cafeteria is immense. The freshness and “realness” of the food makes a world of difference in flavor.
Bri Taylor: Don’t let the industrial food system prevent our communities from having a sustainable, healthy, agriculture. To support seed-saving is to support life and the future.
Thanks Bri, Brad, Kali, and Tori for your work with and words about the seeds!