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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 Р1 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

Seed School in Marin 2011 featuring Bill McDorman

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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