Farming

This category contains 21 posts

Living Seed company takes root from heirloom seeds

Brigid Gaffikin as written for The San Francisco Chronicle

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Paul Chinn / The Chronicle

Matthew Hoffman and Astrid Lindo, owners of the Living Seed Co., grow several varieties of produce and plants in their garden in Nicasio.

From their home in a quiet stretch of Marin County near San Geronimo, two entrepreneurs are hoping to take gardening back to a time when an abundance of plant diversity was the norm.

Matthew Hoffman and Astrid Lindo grow, source and sell seeds of rare and heirloom edibles. Their young business, the Living Seed Co., hung up its virtual shingle just last year.

“What’s amazing is 100 years ago, everybody saved their own seed and in just a short period of time, just a couple of generations, all that changed,” Lindo said.

The numbers behind this shift are remarkable, according to a study of crop diversity in the United States by the Rural Advancement Foundation International, a family farm policy and advocacy group. By 1983, the 408 varieties of peas cultivated on American farms some 80 years earlier had dwindled to 25. Sweet corn saw a drop from 307 to 12 varieties.

Lindo and Hoffman are new to farming but have embraced their venture with a quiet energy and intensity that one suspects drove their lives well before they founded the company.

Hoffman, 36, traveled the world for a decade as a puppeteer with Jane Goodall’s Giant Peace Dove Campaign. Lindo, 35, was born in Colombia but moved to Miami as a toddler. As an adult, she studied in Europe and New York before opening an interior design firm in Southern California. They met in 2009 and decided to make a life together.

A new career

Hoffman began thinking about a new career – one that would support the couple’s commitment to helping others live healthy lives and that would support a family, too.

Starting a seed company seemed a natural fit. Hoffman grew up in rural Wisconsin in a family of gardeners and as a young child lived 2 miles off the grid in a two-room cabin.

“Really it just kind of clicked,” he said. “To be able to grow your own seeds for your own garden … seems a really beautiful way to raise a family.”

Hoffman undertook intensive training in New Mexico at the first-ever seed school taught by Bill McDorman, one of the veterans of the contemporary North American seed-saving movement.

His enthusiasm was infectious; within a few months, Lindo decided to set aside her interior design business and immerse herself in the fledgling business. The couple talked with experienced seed growers and farmers, researched catalogs, and scanned gardening forums and blogs online. And then they dug in and began growing their own seed. At the outset, they largely bootstrapped the company. When they decided to expand, they secured loans from friends.

‘So beautiful’

“It was so beautiful,” Lindo said. “To look back, you know, and a year later we’d farmed a third of an acre of painted mountain corn and some squash and tomatoes and lettuce.”

McDorman, director of Native Seeds/Search, a Tucson organization focused on conserving the genetic diversity of crops grown in the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico, is effusive in his praise of the couple.

“These young kids are way smarter than we were,” he remarked, reflecting on his generation of seed savers in the 1970s. “Matthew and Astrid are indicative of what’s coming, a whole new wave.”

Seed trading among farmers a century ago has its modern counterpart in businesses like the Living Seed Co., he said.

“That’s where the real revolution is happening, in urban agriculture.”

For Lindo and Hoffman, revolution goes hand in hand with education.

“I think part of our responsibility is to re-inspire people to grow out some of these unique varieties and keep them going and keep them fresh,” Lindo said. “A lot of seed companies are taking them off the racks, and so they may just disappear.”

Adapting to location

“You can watch, over the season, which of your lettuce plants or tomato plants did really well, save the seeds from those, plant them again the next year,” Hoffman said. “That’s one of the beauties of seed saving … every time you save your own seeds, you’re adapting it to your location, so that plant’s going to do better each succession.”

Four of the company’s five seed collections include a seed-saving booklet that groups seeds by how easy or difficult they are to save.

The couple have embraced the educational potential in the Internet, too. They have a lively Twitter feed, a blog and a Facebook page as well as a YouTube channel with instructional videos on seed-saving techniques.

The company also donates seeds to school garden programs, urban garden programs and correctional facilities.

“Most people aren’t going to grow all of their own food, but growing some of their own food – it’s fulfilling in a way that’s beyond, you know, explaining to somebody unless you’ve done it,” Hoffman said. “But it’s worth the experiment, even if you’re just growing a little bit of lettuce.”

Seeds with a story

The Living Seed Co. grows its own seeds in Dixon and Nicasio and sources other seeds from seed banks that farm only in North America. A look at some of the offerings:

‘Amish Paste’ tomato: An heirloom tomato with origins in Philadelphia, the ‘Amish Paste’ disappeared for decades before being rediscovered in Wisconsin. Delicious fresh but also ideal for canning and sauces.

‘Mammoth Grey Stripe’ sunflower: This drought-tolerant, long-blooming, fast-growing native sunflower reaches heights of up to 12 feet, and its flowering head can reach a width of 2 feet. The seeds can be eaten or used for butter or oil.

‘Painted Mountain’ corn: A highly productive flour corn developed by cross-breeding 70 corn varieties for high-altitude growing, a short season and extreme conditions in countries experiencing famine.

‘Stars and Moon’ watermelon: Introduced in North America around 1900 and a staple of seed catalogs in the early decades of the 1900s, this deeply hued, pink-fleshed melon is dappled with yellow blotches that resemble stars in a night sky. It was rediscovered in Missouri in 1980.

‘Merveille des Quatre Saisons’ lettuce: A vigorous French butter-head with a long growing season and tolerant of a wide range of climates, this heirloom lettuce was grown in France at least as early as the late 19th century.

Living Seed Co.

Living Seed Co.’s Giving Seed Program donates one collection to a school or charity for every 10 collections sold. Learn more at www.livingseedcompany.com or call (415) 662-6855. Read the blog at livingseedcompany.wordpress.com and check them out on twitter:@LivingSeedCo; Facebook: www.facebook.com/LivingSeedCompany; and YouTube: bit.ly/wR0P3B

Brigid Gaffikin is a freelance writer in Piedmont. home@sfchronicle.com

This article appeared on page F – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/03/27/DD9P1NDH6T.DTL&ao=2#ixzz1r0saSQ7s

You Are What You Eat!

Eating is one the many fundamental actions, for life, that everyone shares.   What people eat is what drastically differentiates us from other cultures and the very thing that brings us together with like-minded foodies.  We are living in a time where a lot of attention is being focused on food, whether it is the amount we are eating, the quality, how miles it has traveled and of course whether it has been genetically altered.  Whatever your interest in food may be, we are living in an exhilarating time in the history of food.

Despite that 1 in 3 Americans is obese and most food found in our supermarkets, if it is not organic, is genetically modified, there is a food revolution happening in the midst of all of this.

As we know, we began as hunters and gatherers.  Eating and cooking solely what we could hunt and harvest.  Through time, technology and the advancements of the industrial revolution things changed dramatically.  We began canning, preserving and freezing.

Today, most Americans take very little regard in what they eat, how it is processed, what is in it and most of all, how much of it they eat.  The irony is how much of our eating habits have changed drastically in a mere 100 years.  From our food supply, quantity and nutritional content, to the amount of imported goods we consume.  Perhaps a simple way of addressing this is we went from viewing food as a  sacred commodity to a simplified convenience.

While most of America has accepted that we moved from an agricultural society to industrialized agriculture and embracing that fact that most of our food travels 1500 miles – there is a huge subculture that has sprouted up globally.  This movement touts local, seasonal and organic – backyards are being converted into food forests and front lawns are being torn up to make way for urban gardens!

The movement has taken root in all of America’s largest cities, while infiltrating small towns and growing communities.  It is taking shape in the form of expanding farmers markets, community gardens, edible school yards and even homesteading.  There are several large installations of some of these applications found  in places like NY MOMA’s infamous indie art museum known as PS1.  Annually there is a competition of young architects at the opportunity to build an oasis during their summer installation.  Winners, several years ago, built an urban farm, producing food and raising chickens, right in the middle of Queens!

In the San Francisco Civic Center -  the entire front lawn has been replaced with a garden, in time for the Slow Food festival – and the harvest will coincide with festivities all through Labor Day in 2009.

In downtown Los Angeles, there is an annual Public Fruit Jam in Echo Park – where an art gallery was opened to the public to bring local fruit to make jars of fresh jam.  I attended a few years ago and I brought in green sour apples from my backyard, coupled with figs, lemons and mint to create this outrageous homemade jam!

So what are the advantages to eating local and seasonal?

With local food there are much lower energy costs and the nutritional value of your food is much higher, since the crop was not harvested early.  Most of all, you are supporting your local farmers, your community and a really incredible movement that is taking shape and coming soon to your community!

Swapping recipes, seeds and gardening tips are no longer a thing of the past, but rather a really hip and obvious thing to be doing, now!

Don’t have a yard?  Fret not … food in pots grows incredible varieties!  Don’t have time or the patience to grow your own?  There are Community Supported Agriculture known as CSA’s – where you can have a box of beautiful organic fruits and veggies grown in a local farm delivered to your door weekly!  Check out Local Harvest to see where your local CSA is.

There is that classic adage that you are what you eat.  The reality is that our habits around food have lost their value – and now more than ever, is a critical time to begin asking the right questions and being aware of what you are consuming and most of all, knowing where your food comes from.

We are finding ourselves relying on our community as well as our neighbors.  In essence we are adopting the ways of our ancestors. The need to continue to push the envelope all while looking back and taking in the strides taken by our predecessors!

The Universe under our feet – Soil

Did you know that soil was alive?   Many people do not realize this, something that on the surface may look look dead, but upon closer inspection is bustling with life!

Many people have misconceived notions about soil, it is usually associated with words such as something being dirty or soiled.  An inaccurate correlation to an element of our life that is so critical and and that is such a dependent element to our survival.  Healthy soil goes hand in hand with a healthy environment.

The nation that destroys its soil – destroys itself” (Roosevelt 1937)

The first and most important step in improving soil health is to recognize that soil is a living organism and all parts of our ecosystem depend on it – it is vital to our survival, the growth of our food and maintenance of our ecology.

There are billions of microorganisms that make up a whole network below ground.  In one spoonful there are 600 million bacteria!    Imagine that – there is an entire network of life below the ground, right underneath our toes.  A network that works together with the trees, the plants, the fungus and so much more, all to be able to sustain life above ground for us – amazing!

Soil, for example, is the measure of the health of biological systems.  In other words, soil is the metaphor of our environment, if we have healthy soil we have a healthy environment. Annually, we are losing 1 percent of our topsoil per year, due to industrial  agriculture, the process of mono-cropping, heavy chemical use and erosion of our soils.  Just to put things into perspective -  it takes thousands of years to form one inch of topsoil.

Life in the soil provides the structure for more life, and the formation of more soil.  Soil is equated to food and food is equated to life.  The fertility and the quality of soil will determine the health and stability of all life that is relying on it  – just as the health of each human being will determine fertility and the quality of their life.

The reality is that a simple way to help maintain healthy soil and manage waste in your home is by simply composting.   In essence it is an excellent free resource of nutrients for our plants and the earth.  It doesn’t smell, but mainly, it reduces the amount of waste going to a landfill, all are creating the fertile ground for a microcosm universe to exist and for soil sustainability to flourish!  Don’t know where to start?  Check out our simple DIY Urban Vermiculture Composting post!

We are all organisms working within one larger organism – called Planet Earth.  Seeing on the micro and macro level, gives us a wider perspective into the many realms that are living in harmony here with us.

Planting Seeds 101

So you got your seeds in the mail, you’re so excited … but not quite sure where to start?  Still pondering what seeds to buy?Wondering what the difference between hybrid and heirlooms?Well first think of the space you are working with and plan accordingly.  Since you are ready to plant, hopefully your soil has been amended properly with organic matter or you are starting your garden with an organic soil mix (we would recommend anything that is OMRI certified).  Remember, healthy soil = healthy plants, everything begins in the soil.  If you have not had your soil tested and are not sure what may be in your soil, we recommend raised beds and/or containers.  More info on container gardens coming soon, so stay tuned to my next post Following the Sun – Container Gardening 101.

Some of your varieties will grow horizontally, think squash, while others grow vertically, think peas.  Taking this into consideration is key to a successful garden.  I would recommend finding an unused journal or notebook that you can designate as your garden journal.  This is key to help you remember where you planted things in past seasons.  To keep your soil healthy it is important to rotate your crops, if you are planting heavy feeders.  Rotating can also prevent diseases from being transferred from one plant to another.  Our seed packets are a wealth of information and will inform you if varieties are heavy feeders or not.

Now its time to plant!  If you are direct seeding, planting in the soil, you will want to make sure there is ample space between everything (each variety needs an allotted amount of space). Don’t be too paranoid and use a ruler in the garden; gardening is more organic than that, no pun intended.  If you over-seed, you can eat your mistakes, but crowding your vegetables can also compromise their nutrient intake and can ultimately stunt your crops.  There is a fine balance so just have fun!  There are some seeds that can be broadcasted, instead of being planted individually.  As those seedlings start coming up and growing their first “seed leaves,” start to rogue (pluck out) the weaker ones.  As the leaves of the seedlings begin to start touching, rogue those out as well, over-crowding is a disadvantage when the roots and the growth of the plant become compromised.

Make sure that you have followed the directions on each seed packet, about how deep each variety should be planted.  Each seed packet is choke-full of great info that will help guide you to yielding a great harvest!

After all your seeds are tucked away in the earth, remember to sprinkle them generously with water.  This is what will awaken your seeds, this is where magic happens!  The soil must continue to stay moist for germination to occur, this means watering every day.  Should the soil dry up, you may risk having lost those seeds.  Remember you are nurturing this tiny seedling to emerge into the world, it needs your love and care … and even your song, so don’t be shy!  If you are starting some of your seeds indoors, don’t forget to harden-off your seeds before planting them in the soil or moving them outside, that means exposing your seedlings to colder air little by little.  Some folks use a cold frame, which is also great solution.

Continue to nurture your plants until the completion of your harvest.  Plan accordingly if you plan on saving your seeds.  You may want to grow extra plants, so you can enjoy some of the harvest and save the seeds.  Use your Basic Seed Saving book that we provided for you for the best information on how to properly save your seeds.

Storing your Seeds

Remember seeds, are living embryos, they should not be left in a hot place, ie: your car or a hot garage.  As long as the seeds are being stored in a cool and dry place, they will be fine.  We recommend keeping them stored in the Mylar envelop the come in.

Try to keep them out of direct sun and moisture when you are in the garden planting.  If you choose to store them in the refrigerator, they can last from 4 – 10 years (depending on each seed’s viability).

If you do choose to use the fridge as your seed storage facility, make sure that the zip lock part of the envelope is sealed.  When you do use the seeds, just let the Mylar bag sit out at room temperature until for a couple of hours, to let the seeds get to room temperature, to avoid moisture condensation forming in the seeds inside.

Premium Heirloom Seed Collections

Organic, Rare and Heirloom Seed Collections

The Living Seed Company is an heirloom seed company dedicated to supporting families, friends and communities growing healthy food and saving their seeds.

To take some of the guess-work out of gardening we have developed collections of organic heirloom vegetable and herb seeds, suited to your region and growing needs.

All of our seeds are open pollinated, non-GMO, untreated, organic or grown on small natural farms and were selected for their versatility in the culinary arts.

The Founders Collection Our original widely adapted collection suited for most climates

         

Northern Collection Our long season collection, suited for shorter climates

             

Southern Collection Our short season collection is suited for longer climates

          

Urban /Small Space Collection This mini collection is perfectly suited for Urban settings or small gardens and even container gardens

           

Salsa Collection  Our salsa collection is suited for all the fresh salsa lovers out there!

The Renaissance of Heirloom Seeds

         

Seed saving and seed knowledge became an integral and sacred part of ancient and modern civilizations.  A ritual that was naturally passed on from generation to generation, from neighbor to neighbor.  Seeds became such an innate and valued part of civilization that they were used as a form of currency throughout the world.  Seeds were considered a fundamental part of every day life.

For 12,000 thousands years, our ancestors labored over cultivating wild varieties, to arrive at varieties with the perfect texture, taste, vigor and resistance, all while adapting them to their location and climate.  This genetic diversity was characterized by countries, regions and towns – which with its own characteristic and flavor. There was a time when we marveled at the rich distinction between communities and cultures for their seed stock & food varieties.

Many culinary distinctions are still seen throughout our country and throughout the world.  It is these flavors and these foods that give a place its heritage, its culture and a palpable expression of a place. It is the biodiversity of a region reflected in form that we can savor.

Up until very recent history, we had approximately 7, 000 different species of plants, raised as food crops.  Even in North America alone, Native Americans used an astounding 3,000 –  5,000 food plants. Since 1903, we have lost 96% of the commercial vegetable varieties, a loss that is being experienced throughout the world at every dinner table.  This change in recent history has brought about a homogenization of our global diet, creating a one size fits all model that is suppressing cultures throughout the globe.  Today 15 plant and 8 animal species are now relied upon for about 90% of all human food.

Disease or climate change can decimate one of the handful of plants and animals we’ve come to depend on to feed our growing planet, we might desperately need one of those varieties we’ve let go extinct.

Seeds are the storehouse for the history and evolution of man-kind.  Seeds are the first and last link to the food chain.   It is in the seed that life resides.  Seeds are a miracle that can self-replicate hundred of times, each time becoming stronger, more resilient and adapted to a local region.  Seeds are the natural expression of life – abundant and free and they are the ultimate expression of the development of humanity and civilization. Seeds were carried over borders, on horses and boats, sown in seams or stashed in pockets. Plants and seeds have used animals and humans for the advancement of their own specie and the dissemination of its own genes.

Throughout history, humans have been selecting the strongest, diverse, best tasting and most desirable plants and saving their seeds for propagation for future generations. The genetic pool evolved with the careful selecting and saving of seeds, thus began the relationship between farmers and the magic of the seed.  Farmers realized, that by saving seeds from the most vigorous plants, they would be conserving and selecting the genetic diversity of the strongest plants, naturally passing that DNA to their offspring, resulting in stronger yields and tastier crops.

Over time, farmers began to breed and propagate varieties that were specific to their heritage and region, writing their history through food and sharing it with their seeds.  These seeds began to adapt to their particular regions, soils, weather and even to the farmers themselves.  The brilliance of the seed is demonstrated in the act of precise adaptability to its environs while building a genetic bank that is unique and site specific.  Year after year, the vigor of these plants continues to strengthen, creating prized seeds that begin to tell a story of themselves.

Each seed variety carries a story, a story of dedication, love and care.  These stories are usually associated with the seeds and passed on, for generations where they begin to be referred to as heirloom seeds – seeds with a lineage, seeds with a story.

Saved seeds were traded among neighbors and communities, thus preserving genetic and biodiversity of a region. But as elders passed away, these heirloom varieties were being lost or forgotten.  There has been an erosion in the diversity of the foods we eat and in the tradition of specialty varieties has been declining while heirloom crops are getting lost in a mire of corporate hybrids. Thousands of native and heirloom varieties have disappeared and continue to do so. We must celebrate the cultural significance of endangered plant species and preserve them.

We have seen Indigenous displacement and the need to retain seeds as the cultural value and as the mandala of a culture.  Honoring a time-old tradition that involves self sustenance and food and seed sovereignty.    It is said that the best hope for securing food’s future may depend on our ability to preserve the locally cultivated foods of the past.

What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?

“Learn about how the Government has affected our eating habits and its unintentional effects on the American appetite.” [Exhibit preview blurb]

What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government’s Effect on the American Diet  is a fascinating exhibit, partially sponsored by the Mars, Inc. (Seeds of Change).  It reveals archives of records, photographs, videos and posters  from the holdings of the National Archives in Washington DC.  The exhibit intricately sows the seeds of how our government has been involved in the nourishment of the American people and how we have been protected from some of the atrocities that were attempted to by pulled off by profiteers.  The exhibit begins around the time of the Revolutionary War and spans to the late 1990′s.

The exhibit is broken down into four sections from Farm, Factory, Kitchen to Table.  With each section tracing how food has been intrinsically involved with the development of our food culture.  Through each section, we learn how our government has brought about regulation to keep concerns of food safety and regulation at bay.  Every industry from factory farming to candy production, was the recipient of intense scrutiny and management, eliminating things such as Bred Spred which was a new and improved coal-tar spread for your morning toast!  Posters such as the Vitamin Donut, demonstrate how propaganda was used to influence the diet of a people who at a time were conforming to what was determined to be the best for us.

In the 1830′s Congress enacted a seed giveaway program, whose intentions were to broaden what American farmers grew, by  introducing and testing rare plant varieties, found all over the world.  By the time the program had reached 30 years, it was distributing 1.1 billion free seed packets of common vegetables and flower varieties to farmers and gardeners throughout America.  During this time of trialing new varieties, the United States was also sending plant hunters to reaches of the world.  These gentlemen were set on voyages to discover new fruit, herbs and vegetable varieties, unknown to most.  Many of these excursions gave us many of the staples we use to this day, such as the Meyer lemon, that is native to China and was brought to us by agricultural explorer Frank Nicholas Meyer in 1908.

In the mid 1920′s, farmers could tune into radio programs such as The United States Radio Farm School and Farm Flashes, one of many examples that brought to light how our  government was supporting its agricultural roots and encouraging agrarian knowledge to be prolific.  A theory that can be highly debated these days with several controversial food subsidies, corporate interest versus family farm and now the cross-pollination of genetically modified organisms (GMO) throughout fields and farms all over America, to name a few.

There is a lot of information, provided we seek it.  For those that do not, or simply choose not to, are cast under the spell that the higher authorities know what is best and are here to protect our health and well-being.  Understanding where our food comes from, how it is grown and where it is grown, empowers us as consumers and by-products of the food system.  Growing our own food will only deepen that empowerment.  Growing our own food from seed and saving our own seed will give us freedom and sovereignty.

Not so Edible: The Science, Fiction & Facts of GMOS Part III—Seed Savers Sowing Hope

By Robin Carpenter

Originally in print for Edible Marin and Wine Country Magazine

These are the original monies of the earth, In which invested as spark in fire, They will produce a green wealth toppling tall…

—Opening lines from the poem “A Cabinet of Seeds Displayed” by Howard Nemerov

“Our seed supply is of much greater importance than Wall Street or the irresponsible behavior of those running the banking industry and this country. Forget money. We must save our seed supply!”

—Eric Herm, Son of a Farmer, Child of the Earth (Dreamriver Press, 2010)

Harsh realities face us regarding our food sources and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), as I’ve covered in Parts I and II of this series. One of these is that 10 companies control over two-thirds of global seed sales. Just three—Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta—own a combined total of close to 50% and they’re continuing to buy up smaller seed companies at a rapid pace. Additionally, not only are companies like these patenting the genes they discover and the organisms they create, they’re also seeking ownership over indigenous and heritage seeds. This creates a corporate and governmental elite that could result in genetic and food supply control over our entire planet.

In the face of grim predictions and seemingly irreversible mistakes on the part of science, government and corporate interests, a tiny talisman uplifts me. A repurposed pimento jar with a spoonful of mustard seeds from my grandmother. Mammaw’s handwriting is slowly fading from the taped piece of paper on the jar stating, “Mustard seeds/Robin.” Handed to me as I was leaving the Gulf Coast for my new home in California I asked, “For faith?” Mammaw smiled and said, “For remembering.”

Those miniscule round seeds are a reminder of her stories and lessons shared as we gardened side by side. Living in a deeply Christian area that often confused me, my religious questions to Mammaw were invariably answered with, “God is in the plants, the soil, the seed, the water and in the air we breathe…” followed by a story. I preferred climbing trees and fishing to gardening, but Mammaw’s stories kept me wrist-deep in soil enough to understand that, if God had a covenant with us, it was through seeds.

My favorite story was of how okra came to America. A young West African boy was the apprentice to the village shaman. Sleeping in the shaman’s hut, he was awakened on a moonless night by the sound of slave traders raiding his village.

Knowing they would soon seize him, he grabbed fresh pods of okra, split them open and rubbed the slime and seeds deep into his scalp. He knew the cherished plant’s seeds would be safely hidden in his hair and if he survived he would have saved a treasure for his people.

For at least 10,000 years, humans have practiced saving and passing seeds from generation to generation. Seeds and the knowledge of seeds were crucial to the survival of ancient cultures and they remain so today. Seeds were once widely used as a form of currency throughout the world. In our time, this gift to humanity is being claimed as corporate property. And yet, there are many passionate activists, farmers, plant breeders and citizen gardeners working to preserve and reclaim our heritage. There are also scientists and plant breeders working to find ways to protect many of our crops from GMO contamination. We must have faith, perhaps only the size of a mustard seed, and remember that nature will be on the side of those who honor her power and our sacred covenants.

Locally, two people keeping the faith and spreading the good word are Matt Hoffman and Astrid Lindo, owners of The Living Seed Company. Their combined story began when Matt Hoffman, former co-creator with Dr. Jane Goodall of the Giant Peace Dove puppet movement, stepped outside of his Minnesota bakery one winter morning. He saw a woman emerge from a dense snow flurry and realized it was environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill. Hill was speaking in town that evening and in their brief conversation she suggested that Matt come to California to visit some fellow giant puppeteers living at Solstice Grove in Nicasio. Not long after Matt’s arrival at Solstice Grove, Astrid, a certified Green Building designer from Southern California, also arrived to study and deepen her connection to nature. Love blossomed and marriage plans quickly followed.

Discussing their future, they agreed to start a seed company that would promote the power of people growing food together and learning to save and share their own seeds. As a first step, Matt attended “seed school” in Arizona with Bill McDorman, author of Basic Seed Saving (Higher Ground, 1994). Bill graciously helped Matt and Astrid start The Living Seed Company. The company provides seed collections that are non-GMO, heirloom, highly productive and intended to create a diversified garden to meet the food needs of a family. Their services include instructions on saving your seeds after your first growing season.

Matt and Astrid are frequently asked to define the designations of “heirloom” and “hybrid.” “Heirloom” traditionally means the seed variety was bred using a single type of plant chosen for its desirable traits and the seeds were then passed down from generation to generation. A “hybrid” is created when compatible, but different, types of plants are crossbred to create progeny with the desirable characteristics of both of the “parents.” If you save the seeds of the “offspring” of a hybrid, the plant those seeds produce might be one with only the characteristics of one of the “grandparent” plants and not necessarily the hybrid “parent.” Some heirloom plants may have begun as hybrids, but over many generations they were repeatedly selected and grown and their seeds have eventually been stabilized.

Astrid Lindo and Matt Hoffman

Photo: Sarabek Images

Another local keeper of the faith, Margie McDonald of Wild Blue Farms in Tomales, produces some of the most stunning and delicious heirloom winter squash in our area. They make love to your eyes with unique textures, colors, curves and endearing warts. The Galeux d’Eysines squash is an elegant French heirloom with beautiful salmon-colored skin “blemished” with sugary warts vaguely resembling peanuts. The orange flesh is velvety smooth and beautiful in pies, soups or baked and drizzled with olive oil. Margie’s Marina di Chioggia is blue-green and bumpy with a very enticing turban bottom. The sweet dry flesh is magical for using to make gnocchi instead of potatoes. All squash originated in South America, but this beauty was perfected in a small seaside village on Italy’s Adriatic coast close to Venice and is also known as the “sea pumpkin.”

Photo: Robin Carpenter

As her plants begin to bloom, Margie rises with the sun and ventures into the cool coastal mornings near Tomales Bay to gently hand-pollinate the blossoms from boy flower to girl flower. She then tapes them shut to avoid her Marina and her Galeux engaging in an illicit pollination. She said that she feels connected to the generations of women who have passed down the seeds of these squash and knows that she is now saving the past for the future.

On a larger scale, an inspirational gathering of seedsmen and women happened this fall at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds when over 10,000 people attended the first National Heirloom Exposition. Organized by Baker Creek Seed and the Petaluma Seed Bank, the Exposition was a “World’s Fair” of heirloom foods and speakers included heroes of the organic and non-GMO food movements including Vandana Shiva and Alice Waters. Home gardeners and farmers alike displayed over 3,000 varieties of heirlooms from all over the country. At the close of the gathering, these faithful returned to their communities with new seeds, stories and inspiration, further spreading the good word.

Can heirlooms and seed saving be the salvation of promiscuous pollinators like corn and stop their contamination by GMOs? Well, maybe… I recently discovered work being done on an “organic ready” corn (mocking the Roundup Ready corn produced by Monsanto) by Frank Kutka, a plant breeder and coordinator of the Sustainable Ag Research and Education program at North Dakota State University. Using his own backyard as a test lab, Frank is doing research on a naturally occurring trait in corn—gametophytic incompatibility (GA1S)—that causes the corn to reject and block incoming foreign pollen and can, thus, prevent it from being contaminated by the pollen from GMO corn (which is freely airborne in fields). His work is not funded through the university and was on his own dime until he recently received an $11,500 grant from the Organic Farming Research Foundation. GA1S is not a new discovery. According to Kutka, “The trait has been known and used for decades. It was first used in corn bred to produce kernels good for popcorn in the 1950s to prevent cross-pollination.” There are currently three known pollen-blocking traits—GA1S, GA2S and Teosinte Crossing Barrier (TCB).

But, are these the natural solution we have been searching for? Well, not so fast—there are patents issued on both the GA1S and TCB traits. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation owns a patent on TCB and Tom Hogemeyer, a corn breeder at Hogemeyer Hybrids, patented the GA1S trait in 2005. Kutka along with other “open source” corn breeders such as Margaret Smith at Cornell University are opposed to the patenting of these traits. They argue these traits have been used openly for decades. Others in the non-GMO hybrid business told me they feel Hogemeyer patented the GA1S trait to prevent Monsanto from doing so. They report that he’s “flexible” and willing to work with non-GMO breeders. A breeder called Blue River Hybrids has already licensed PuraMaize/GA1S from Hogemeyer Hybrids and is releasing three corn hybrids for the 2012 growing season. SK Food International also licensed the GA1S trait from Hogemeyer and is releasing an organic Red Crimson Corn variety for 2012 and claims their test fields experienced no crosspollination. Whether publicly available for seed saving or patented for hybrids, having organic corn that is resistant to cross-pollination from GMO corn is a huge step.

Seed Saving isn’t just a mitigation against the onslaught of GMOs. It’s also key to surviving climate change. In a secluded spot off Horseshoe Hill Road in Bolinas, Peter Martinelli’s Fresh Run Farm produces collards, kale, arugula, squash and other crops that are stronger, healthier and smarter than your average vegetable. Seed saving from year to year creates plants uniquely suited to his farm’s locale. With respect to arming himself and his farm against climate change, he already takes note of which seeds worked best during certain types of growing seasons, recording comments such as “great arugula during a cool, wet spring” or “the arugula that came well during the hot spell in August.” This enables farmers or gardeners to save the seeds that will work best with changes that are occurring their area. As Peter explains it, “It’s a different approach; instead of warfare against nature, we’re in partnership.”

Can biotechnology be used in a way that respects nature, empowers farmers and creates healthy partnerships from seed to farmer to food producer to consumer? Dr. John Schillinger and his company, eMerge Genetics, is making that happen. Schillinger is a 73-year-old research scientist who worked for Asgrow Seeds, which was bought by Monsanta in 1996. His team worked on the first Roundup Ready soy. He retired in 1998 and struck out on his own to start eMerge Genetics. There, he utilizes biotechnology to do research and test samples, but works with traditional breeding methods to create quality non-GMO seeds (specializing in non-GMO soy).

His company also matches farmers with end producers who want to use non-GMO soy, like specialty tofu makers. This gives the farmers an option to grow non-GMO plants and get out of the commodities pricing trap. Schillinger points out that there’s a worldwide demand for non-GMO soy. The majority of European countries don’t want GMO soy for food or feed. Regulations in Japan’s and Korea are very strict on keeping GMO soy out of their food supply. In the fall of 2010, Brazil launched a program to move away from growing GMO soy, based on the increased demand for non-GMO soy from Europe and Asia. Schillinger also sees the demand in America increasing as the public becomes aware of the existence of GMOs and demands labeling.

“Remember, the seeds are the story carriers. They are the messengers from the past and our hope for the future. They preceded us and assisted us when Homo sapiens evolved as part of this planet.” Words of wisdom from another hero in this story, Claire Hope Cummings. An environmental lawyer, journalist and author of Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds (Beacon Press, 2008), Claire has a deep wisdom about the sacred nature of the relationship between humans and seeds. We’re neighbors and comrades and both feel despair at times. We speak of recent activist gatherings in our area—Bioneers, Justice Begins With Seeds, the Marin GMO Symposium—but primarily we revel in her lettuce seed endeavor. She’s enamored with allowing her lettuce to get “ugly” and go to seed. The tiny flowers, full of thousands of seeds, seem like bursting stars to her. In life and decay and “going to seed,” nature is generous. Nature invites us to be a part of her rather than apart from her. We laugh together as “seed sisters,” knowing our ages bring us closer to the time that we, ourselves, will “go to seed,” as we willingly plant our stories of hope for new generations.

Robin Carpenter is a freelance writer who grew up in Ragg Swamp on the Gulf Coast of Alabama, where she learned the finer points of storytelling and food in a land rich with rituals, myths and well-marbled alligators. She now lives in West Marin and can be reached at balsora@gmail.com.

Lettuce gone to seed.

Photo: Claire Cummings

BASIL Planting Calendar

Heirlooms vs Hybrids

Over the recent months, we are often been asked what the difference between heirlooms and hybrids. The answer is quite simple and straight forward.  Heirloom traditionally means that the seed variety has been bred for its  desirable traits, superior taste and vigor, having been passed down from generation to generation.  The common timeframe for a seed to be considered heirloom is usually 50 years and represents that it is an open pollinated cultivar, not hybrid or genetically modified.  Heirlooms are, in essence, a treasure, as they are packed with genetic information. The ritualistic tradition of seed saving,  that has been occurring in our civilization for millennia, was developed using heirloom, open pollinated seeds. Many folks are familiar with the term open pollinated, but are not sure what it represents. In short, open pollinated varieties are non-hybrids and are originated from two open pollinated parents that will create an offspring similar to the parent plant with desired characteristics.  Open pollinated seeds produce offspring that are true-to-type and are pollinated by the wind, insects, birds or other natural ways, they naturally adapt to your local micro climate, your soil and to you, hybrid seeds do not, as they are static.  Open pollinated seeds are not hybrids or are genetically modified.

Heirloom vegetables have been relatively new to the average consumer as of the past 10 – 20 years, but  have been an integral in creating the global food heritage we know of today.  Heirlooms are generally characteristic of their unique appearance, outstanding flavor and texture and of course a compelling history.  Many people are surprised to learn that there are thousands of heirloom  varieties unknown to the public and many of them disappearing.

So why are treasured heirloom varieties disappearing?  Currently, 75% of the global seed market is governed by 10 companies, uniformity, mass production, perishability and transportation are essential in their business model. These represent some of the many characteristics of heirlooms, from their quirky appearance, to their delicate nature and of course their inability to be mass-produced.  The reality is that it took our ancestors 10,000 years to establish the array of foods that are available to us, a mere 100 years we had 96% more varieties to choose from.  So why are heirlooms so much better?  They conserve the genetic diversity of crops, preserve history and culture, promote bio-diversity and  strengthen our eco-system through building soil and creating disease/pest resistant and drought tolerant seeds.

The graph to the left gives an amazingly stark contrast to what has happened in our food system over such a short period of time and the sparse variety that we are left to choose from.  The empowering part about this is that we are at the neck of the hourglass, that point in history, where we can make the right choices that are going to allow our future generations to continue to enjoy rare and delicious vegetable and fruit varieties.

Farmers markets are a wonderful place to begin to  acquaint  yourself with what varieties are being grown, but if you truly want to see what is available, seek out heirloom seed catalogs.  If you are gardener, consider only growing heirlooms and begin to explore some varieties that you may not have ever heard of or even considered, but you can be assisting in the reclamation of many of these treasured seeds.  Most of all, save your seeds and share the with others.  This knowledge is integral in the art of gardening and needs to be reclaimed.  Keep in mind that many of these  heirloom vegetables are not organic, do not let that hinder you from purchasing them.  All you need to do is grow them our for one season organically, save the seed and you technically have an organic seed!  Another wonderful way to support the genetic diversity in our food system is by supporting your local farmers market and/or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), both support small-scale farms and your local economy.  Not sure where to find those near you?  Check out Local Harvest.

There has been much talk about hybrids lately, both good and bad and ultimately it is a decision  that should be made, understanding what that means.  Hybrid seeds originate from two different parent plants of the same specie, that were genetically crossed to create the hybrid offspring.  Seeds of hybrid varieties can be sterile or commonly fail to breed true to type, usually resulting in plant varieties that you do not know what you are going to get. Hybrids are generally referred to the acronym F1 (means first generation or filial offspring). Either F1 or the word hybrid has to be on the packet or plant to prove that it truly is a hybrid.

Hybrids can be stabilized, which means that the variety can begin to cultivate offspring that are more true to type.  Stabilizing or de-hybridization can take about 8 generations of growing it out, until it gets to a point where the offspring are clearly stabilized.  A common example is the famous Early Girl hybrid tomato, a now stabilized hybrid that became popular among home gardeners for its characteristics in early fruit ripening.  Although it is considered stable, it is still marketed as a hybrid.  It would not be conducive for seed companies to change the classification because then gardeners would begin saving their own seeds and opt out from buying that variety year after year.

These modern hybrids have been developed by large corporations to suit their needs and demands, as they have been bred to yield high while compromising hardiness, pest resistance, flavor and quality.

Generally the hybrid market sets a barrier to the re-integration of seed saving for the simple fact that companies make it very difficult to save hybrid seeds and you generally would not want to.  It is a market that is also dominated in Asia, making the seeds you purchase, adapted to a very different climate and soil.  Keep in mind that Organic seeds can be hybrids, know who you are sourcing your seeds and your starts from.

There is a lot of information available to us and learning  about it, makes us better consumers.  Here at The Living Seed Company, we believe every gardener should have the right to save their own seeds.  Check out our newly created FAQ sheet or frequently asked questions, where we have compiled some of our commonly asked questions on the basis of seed differentiation – enjoy and pass it on!

The greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.  - Thomas Jefferson

www.LivingSeedCompany.com

We're dedicated to the preservation of the genetic diversity in our food chain through the distribution and growing of open-pollinated seeds and educating about the life affirming art of seed saving.

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