Written by: Kirsten Hudson for Organic Authority
Handed down through generations, heirloom seeds offer a taste of the past. Often described as “open pollinated” seeds that have a long history, heirloom seeds can make for a diverse and downright gorgeous, organic garden. Like a family keepsake, these seeds offer something precious. Once planted, they’ll bloom into a one-of-a-kind fruit, vegetable, herb or flower that hasn’t been tainted by genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or pesticides.
Modern hybrids, which are created by crossing two selected varieties, often produce infertile plants. But heirlooms will yield the same plant year after year, which means you can always save the seeds for next year’s crop. Heirlooms also offer a connection with history. Essentially, you’ll be eating the same plump tomatoes that your ancestors enjoyed.
So, what else makes these vintage seeds inherently superior?
Many hybrid fruits and vegetables have been bred to produce more crop, or to resist certain diseases and insects. Unfortunately, these “features” often sacrifice taste in the process.
Plants from heirloom seeds weren’t designed to be carted across the country or hoarded in cold storage for weeks, like many commercially grown fruits and vegetables. Instead, heirlooms were carefully selected for their flavor. After all, who wants to go out to their backyard garden and pick a bunch of carrots that taste like cardboard?
And once you’ve tasted a juicy heirloom tomato, it’s unlikely you’ll ever think the same about a supermarket tomato again.
With heirlooms, taste and nutrition go together. You can’t get much fresher than just picked-off-the-vine or pulled-from-the-dirt fruits and veggies—and that means maximum nutrition.
Hybrids, however, have been bred for certain traits—such as producing higher yields—that sacrifice nutritional content in the process. The traits that make carrots, potatoes and other produce uniform in size and faster growing can also mean a lower quality food.
Heirloom fruits and veggies come in an all-out medley of kooky shapes, colors and textures. From deep red carrots to wonky-shaped tomatoes to bright pink bananas, you just can’t get the same fun variety from hybrid fruits and vegetables.
By choosing to plant heirloom seeds, you’re participating in a mission to diversify our food supply and preserve cultural history. As commercial growers increasingly opt to only plant a small variety of species, we’re losing genetic diversity in our seeds, and therefore our food. This can potentially compromise the nutritional value of our food, lead to issues with soil in farming and potential food blights. Couple that with the increasing GMOs introduced into our produce and it’s a potential recipe for disaster… convinced yet?
Several organizations offer GMO- and pesticide-free heirloom seeds. Browse their catalogs and get excited for this year’s garden!
Follow Kirsten on Twitter @kirsten_hudson
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.
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.
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!
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.
|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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lettuce gone to seed.
Photo: Claire Cummings
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
We just landed back in the West Coast after a two-week jaunt through the Mid West. Commencing our trip, was a stay with the man behind the scenes of Simple Good and Tasty, a wonderful blog about all things local, organic and cool. We were delighted to check out what is hip and happening in Minneapolis – from lake side eateries that tout local fare to late night bowling, all done by foot or bike … of course.
We then made our way to Decora, Iowa, all while cruising through some of the most ferocious storms I have ever seen. At one point, I was convinced we were going to see Dorothy flying through the wind! None the less, we arrived at our destination, Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) at Heritage Farm and what a beautiful place welcomed us! We arrived to an intimate meet and greet with delicious food, wonderful folk music and a serious down pour! We were there long enough to register, have a bite, listen to some wonderful folk music and meet another fellow Californian, K. Ruby Blume, co-author of Urban Homesteading. The theme for this year was gathering. A modest yet poignant word that describes what occurred that weekend, while adding homage to the book Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver by Diane Ott Whealy, co-founder of SSE.
After a goodnight rest at our hotel room, we were back on the farm bright and early to start a full day of keynotes, workshops, eating, hay rides, barn dances and of course memorable connections with other seed aficionados. I attended a two-part workshop on dry seed processing with Will Bonsall, one of the major curators of the Seed Savers Exchange collection. A fascinating and very entertaining workshop that involved demonstration and some serious humor with an open style forum, where other seed experts like Matthew Dillon, co-founder of Organic Seed Alliance were able to jump in and offer their brilliance.
One of the highlight keynotes was Woody Tasch of Slow Money, a man who deeply believes that if we believe in something, we should act on it. Tasch is the author and genius behind the concept of Slow Money: Investing As If Food, Farms and Fertility Mattered, borrowing from Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. A poised man with so much passion and engagement that I believe he left leaving the audience with such optimism for the world we are co-creating together. The Slow Money set of principles help put into perspective the importance of acting on what we believe in, while awakening biophilia in the hearts and minds.
Throughout the weekend we beat the high heat and scorching temperatures by submerging ourselves in the gorgeous stream that runs the property of SSE, giving us a sense of how sacred this land truly is! The momentum of the weekend continued to build as we learned, exchanged and connected with other incredible folks doing great work in the world such as Ira Wallace from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and Carol Koury of Sow True Seed, among others.
Sunday morning we awakened with the call of the birds and joined other nature lovers for the 6:30 am Bird and Flower Walk, an amazing opportunity to hike the trails and taste the wild and uncultivated varieties growing within Heritage Farm.
Matthew Dillon began with a preacher’s salutation to begin and honor our last Sunday morning. It was another incredible keynote, taking us through an engaging oral history of seeds, the seed industry and of course his own path and bringing us back to the present, all while offering us a simple token of advice, live simply so others can live. He emphasized our need to see our food industry through the lens of a whole integrated eco-system, working with restorative agriculture, restorative seeds and restorative systems with our solutions laid in regional seed systems, succession, diversity and classical plant breeding.
We wrapped up an incredibly dynamic and powerful weekend in the most fashionable way possible, learning wet-seed processing with Suzanne Ashworth, author of the book Seed to Seed. A book that has been our seed-bible since the inception of our company. Little did we know what we were in store for, Suzanne is a hoot, she had the entire audience laughing the entire lecture! Within minutes she had Matthew as her personal assistant cutting up juicy watermelon and feeding it to the audience, all while teaching us the simple ways to wet processing!
Needless to say, that weekend was so powerful and strengthened our movement and our work as a collective. The seed industry has ebbed and flowed through its various moments in history and today we can all be assured that we are weaving a new pattern in our ever evolving tapestry!
* For the complete album of our trip to Seed Savers Exchange check out our Flickr account.
* We made it to the SSE editor’s letter check it out!
For more information on The Living Seed Company, check out our website.
Today we are living through an exhilarating time in the history of food. Despite news of food shortages or food security, folks all over the world are taking their food back into their hands.
Despite that, 1 in 3 Americans is obese and most of the food found in our super markets, that is not organic, is genetically modified – there is a food revolution happening in the mist of all of this.
As we know, we began as hunters and gatherers, eating and cooking solely what we could hunt and harvest, while saving seeds from our most prolific crops. Through time, technology, and the advancements of the industrial revolution things changed dramatically and quickly. We began canning, preserving and freezing our harvests while still growing our own food and sharing our bounties with our neighbors and loved ones. In the mid 1900′s, petroleum entered the food system, through petro-chemical fertilizers and the transportation of food and seeds. Today, most food travels 1500 miles to arrive at your market shelf. Despite being off-season and prematurely harvested, causing whatever fruit or vegetable to lose a significant percentage of its nutrition, these fruits and vegetables are responding to the demand of our public.
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 has changed in a mere 100 years – from our food supply, quality and quantity of food 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, to appease their cravings, there is a huge subculture that has sprouted up globally that is changing the way we eat. This movement touts local, seasonal and organic – converting backyards into food forests, front lawns making way for urban gardens and neighbors are taking down fences to create larger shared growing spaces. Maps are being created in urban settings for gleaners to be able to take advantage of the bounty of free food on public land. We are finding ourselves relying on our community as well as our neighbors. In essence we are adopting the ways of our ancestors.
This is a movement that 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, homesteading and a cross sector resurgence in farming.
The beauty is that this food consciousness isn’t rising among rural farmers but rather it is being seen all across the board from urban hipsters all the way through minority groups, conservatives and religious folks as well. This is a movement that welcomes and encourages everyone to get involved and most of all to share in their harvest! Swapping recipes, seeds and gardening tips are no longer a thing of the past, but rather becoming a very common activity among family and friends, an initiation in taking back our independence by growing our own food supply is happening all over and it’s catching on! This change, among all these other alternative ways of living have stemmed out of our need as a society to not only find ways in sourcing our energy and water, but our food as well. With the current state of affairs, our convenience as Americans is not guaranteed, begin thinking of how much you rely on the outside world for your basic needs. Imagine the empowerment you would feel if you controlled the very essence of life – your seeds and food!
Don’t have a yard? Fret not, food in pots grows incredible varieties of fruits and vegetable – you are only limited to your imagination – check out our blog real soon for articles on container gardening. Don’t have time to grow your own? Support your local farmers market or your local Community Supported Agriculture also known as a CSA – where you can have a box of beautiful organic fruits and veggies grown in a local farm delivered to your door weekly! These can be found throughout the country, check out Local Harvest for a location near you.
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 an incredible movement that is taking shape and changing the way we live!
There is the 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, being aware of what you are consuming and most of all, know where your food comes from.
For more information on The Living Seed Company, check out our website.
Rabinal, Guatemala: a report back from the Achi Maya ‘Qachuu Aloom’- Mother Earth project
by Juliana Birnbaum Fox, Sustainable [R]evolution project correspondant, with photos by Louis Fox
High in the mountains just 33 miles– but a 5 hour drive– north of Guatemala City, the small town of Rabinal is dusty in the dry season. Most people would assume that all of Guatemala was colonized by the Spanish. The Achi Maya of Rabinal, however, managed to successfully resist the conquistadors until Guatemala achieved independence. The Achi lived self-sufficiently in the region for centuries, yet the pressures of economic globalization and the violent political throes of the Guatemalan nation-state have forced change and assimilation.
The amaranth plant was sacred to the Maya for its life-sustaining properties, used in ceremony and a major part of the diet. During the Spanish conquest, amaranth was banned and fields of it burned– those caught growing it could be punished by losing their hand, or even by death. As a result, the grain nearly became extinct, excepting remote areas. Among the Achi Maya, the cultivation of amaranth for cereal and flour was virtually lost over the past century as lifestyles “modernized” and more food was bought from the store. In the early 1980s, Rabinal was targeted by the Guatemalan military in their policy of genocide against the indigenous Maya population. The community endured some of the worst massacres of the civil war, leaving behind a shattered population without access to basic resources such as clean drinking water and medical care.
A local association called Qachuu Aloom (Mother Earth) has successfully brought organic amaranth cultivation back to the Achi, through a program of building alliances, seed saving, and a network of social entrepreneurs. The project offers courses in permaculture, a seed library, and microloans to local initiatives. Families “borrow” seeds and cultivate them with assistance from more experienced growers. They can then keep some of the food they grow for their families, return the “borrowed” seeds, and sell the association the rest, which are packaged for market and help to fund the group’s programs.
The women’s circle within Qachuu Aloom was inspired by a community from the Chimaltenango region of Guatemala. The women from a town called San José Poaquil had found a strong variety of amaranth growing in the garden of an elder woman, planted it, saved the seeds, and created a collective that became very successful selling amaranth all over the country. They were invited to come to Rabinal and teach the local women of Qachuu Aloom.
“I think we were so successful with that program because the women came and shared their stories—often stories of the violence that many of them experienced. They all cried together, and also shared their success,” said Sarah Montgomery, co-founder of Qachuu Aloom. Coming out of the war, when people were targeted and even murdered for organizing, there was a lot of fear and mistrust in the community that greatly affected the project. “At the beginning, the women would hardly talk, and now some of them are out there speaking in front of large groups, presenting about our association. What made it work was that we were organizing with leaders who were from the community and trusted.”
The Garden’s Edge, a New Mexico, USA-based organization run by Montgomery and other social and environmental activists, has helped to fund the Guatemalan association, arrange cultural exchanges between Pueblo and Maya leaders, and establish permaculture projects. Montgomery founded Qachuu Aloom with Cristobal Osorio Sanchez, a local farmer who lost members of his family in a the notorious Rio Negro massacres. The violence claimed up to 5000 lives over a period of two years in relation to protests over a hydroelectric dam project. A total of 38 communities were forcibly relocated close to Rabinal, and Cristobal, given a plot of degraded land, initiated a three year agricultural experiment. He used organic compost to restore the soil of half the plot, while applying chemical fertilizers to the other half.
From his personal experience, Cristobal concluded that organic corn cultivation was actually more productive, as well as being gentler on the planet.
“We used to work the land using chemicals, but thank god we were brought information about the negative health and environmental effects of using them,” said Juana Raxcaco, an organizer with the project. “We started this practice of seed saving, packaging and selling, and have seen great results. We used to buy very expensive chemicals and our production was so expensive that we didn’t even make any money. Now we are cultivating without having to buy anything, as we get seeds from the association, and we are making a profit from selling them back and are also growing healthy foods for our families, without contamination. In this small village the movement has been growing and we now have 15 families with gardens—we started with two. We also have a women’s group where we continue learning. We consume what we grow, and also save the seeds for ourselves and to sell.”
“It’s a quiet revolution,” Montgomery observed. “People are defending their own seeds from aid organizations wanting to bring in GMO seeds. It’s about changing people’s minds.”
Program director Edson Xiloj came from Chichecastenango, another part of Guatemala, of the K’iche’ Maya. He studied conventional agriculture at university before coming to Qachuu Aloom as an intern and realizing that he wanted to work with permaculture.
“Permaculture is about living in harmony with nature, not managing it,” Xiloj observed. “So it was a big change from my studies—most of the people I studied with are working for large agriculture corporations. The principles of permaculture are like the principles of the pueblo. Young people from traditional cultures sometimes think it doesn’t work anymore, but now the economic crisis is pushing people to look for alternatives in the way they are producing food. Even more conventional development organizations are looking for alternatives. Permaculture is not just agriculture, but a way of living—people are changing out of necessity.”
Qachuu Aloom is also a force for healthy, local eating, swimming against the stream of fast-food franchises pouring into the region. At group lunches, traditional foods are usually served in an effort to re-value indigenous foods and re-educate people about their preparation. When Xiloj asked his grandmother why people used to live so long, she told him it was from eating the indigenous “weeds”—like amaranth.
“Our grandparents planted what they needed most often right beside the house, using the “zone” system that permaculture formalized,” Xiloj said.
“We often hear people say, when they learn permaculture techniques, this is just what I learned from my grandmother,” Montgomery added.