Seed saving has been part of human societies since the beginning of agriculture. When our ancestors began saving seed from wild plants, we began a co-evolutionary relationship with plants that is central to our culture. Seeds represent an amazing, dynamic thread that traces back through thousands of years of human effort.
We have saved seeds for many reasons. We wanted to preserve a connection to our past, handing down heirlooms to our grandchildren received from our grandparents. We saved seeds so that they can become adapted to our climate, soils, and practices.
We saved seed to be independent from agricultural monopolies than have little interest in meeting our local needs. And we saved seeds because saving seeds allows us to deepen our relationship to the plants we grow for food and see the complete lifecycles of our crops.
We saved seeds for many reasons. Recently, however, there has been a loss in the base of knowledge and skills necessary to steward and improve seeds in an ecologically and ethically sound manner.
If you talk with most people who lived or worked on a farm prior to 1950, they might describe for you the area of their house devoted to seed storage and organization. They might also describe their process for selecting the best seed from the best plants. They understood that plant varieties were not static, but changeable, and needed constant care to maintain and improve their integrity.
Today, farmers and gardeners, once the primary seed savers around the globe, rarely participate in plant breeding or conservation. University and private sector seed specialists have replaced farmers and gardeners as the managers of the world’s crop genetics.
We have abdicated our role as seed stewards, and the people who have taken over are not necessarily interested in the needs of local or organic agriculture. We need to reclaim our role and our seeds.
The first step to reclaiming our seed is to realize the importance of seeds. When you open your seed catalogs in the winter, ask yourself: Where does this seed come from? Is it organic? Are your seed purchases supporting small independent seed companies, or are they contributing to an increasingly globalized and concentrated industry? When you shop at the farmer’s market, ask your farmers the same questions.
Many farmers in Humboldt County produce at least some of their own seed, including Bill Reynolds of Eel River Produce, John Finley and Lisa Solaris of Garberville Community Farm, Kevin and Melanie Cunningham of Shakefork Community Farm, Jacque and Amy Neukom of Neukom Family Farms, Paul Giuntoli of Warren Creek Farm and many others.
The second step is to increase your own seed knowledge. I work for Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), an organization that advances the ethical development and stewardship of seed. OSA regularly teaches seed saving classes in Humboldt County.
Sign up for OSA’s newsletter at seedalliance.org or contact me at [email protected] to find out when the next classes will be offered. OSA’s website also offers a number of free publications on seed saving.
Finally, it takes a dedicated community to actively resist the push of the giants of the industry and build a new seed system. You can help ensure that we pass on seeds that our children will plant. Seed exchanges are one great way to build community seed systems.
The Humboldt Seed and Plant Exchange is coming up on Saturday, March 31 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. It will be at the Arcata Community Center and it is a free event. There will be presentations on seed saving, backyard plant breeding, local seed production and a whole lot more. Go to humboldtpermaculture.wordpress.com for more details.
Seed saving has been at the foundation of our agriculture and our culture. Now is the time to reclaim our knowledge and our heirlooms.
Jared Zystro is Organic Seed Alliance’s California Research & Education Specialist. He has a master’s degree in plant breeding and plant genetics from the University of Wisconsin and has worked in the organic seed industry for over seven years. Jared lives in Arcata with his wife Lisa Zystro.