The world of seeds can be a cornucopia of information, images and wild descriptions, almost all with promising results. Unfortunately, for most novice gardeners, it can be very misleading and frustrating. How can you tell if a seed company is good or not? Simple, if you can call them and have them provide you with where their seed crops have been grown. Most small seed houses would be more than happy to provide such information, as it proves that the consumer is going the extra mile to ensure where their seed source truly comes from. You will be surprised to learn that not many seed companies grow their own seed, which leaves the consumer to trust each company for providing seed that has vigor, traits and characteristics signature to each seed.
Today, you can find prices for a packet of seed, start at a modest 99 cents and reach upwards of $8.00. So what is the difference in that large gap? Most seed, sold economically via big box retailers is usually grown in Asia. Which means, it is already adapted to a region, soil type and water source, that is completely different from what you have at home. Their organic standards may be something to question, as well as their labor practices and environmental impact, among other things. Despite federal germination standards, inexpensive seed has lower germination. Although this may or may not be due to the quality, it often has to do with how the seeds are stored and transported, before it makes its way into a garden. Seeds are living breathing embryos and conditions that are too hot can inevitably kill the seed before it has even had a chance to germinate. At the turn of the 20th century, the United States was full of regional seed houses covering the country from coast to coast. In the 80’s there was a huge consolidation of the seed industry when large pharmaceutical and big ag companies bought out many of these family owned businesses. This not only reduced the available genetic stock to gardeners and farmers, but began to tip the scales heavily, in a direction that did not favor biodiversity, preserving genetic stock, seed saving or family farms. This has caused a dichotomy in the world of seeds and available food varieties, but with new seed houses sprouting up again, things are changing and rare and unusual varieties are becoming the vegetables and fruits of choice. Most importantly, consumers are becoming more aware of what to look for in their food, what questions to ask their farmers and now, how to choose from a reputable seed company.
Not all seed is created equal. A seed may have the same variety name, as seed from another company, but the quality in its traits may be vastly different. Just imagine the difference in how a small farmer vs. a large farmer will have the ability to pay attention to his fields and truly choose crops that are only of the highest quality. The purity of a seed variety is only as clean as the attention paid to that crop. More awareness among gardeners and consumers, alike, are realizing the importance of supporting small family farms and family owned businesses, which the very back bone of what this country was created on.
Seeds naturally adapt to where they are being grown, the more they are planted in the same place the more resilient they become to pests, disease and inclement weather. Seeds, sold from a reputable seed house can offer seeds that were probably grown in conditions where plants are rouged and seed is never harvested from diseased or weak plants. This practice in turns builds strength and purity in a genetic line, assuring vigor in future generations. Choosing seed that has been grown in your local area or in similar climate will assure that the seeds you plant will naturally be more acclimated to your climate and will thrive with your love and attention. This inherently builds regional resilience in the food supply of an area.
It wasn’t too long ago that most gardeners and farmers saved the seed from their fields, but with the on-slot of modern agriculture, that ancient practice began to fall away in favor of hybrids and petroleum-based pesticides and insecticides. The chain was broken, but only temporarily. There is a resurgence in returning to these practices, these ways that have been tried and true for thousands of generations and they are reminding us of how things were done. In such a way that is in reverence to the plants and the earth, where a relationship of reciprocity is developed and trusted. One of our main principles, as a small family owned seed company, is for more and more farmers and gardeners to begin to tap back into the beautiful cycle of life, known as seed saving. We believe seeds are not meant to be stored, we believe the most vital seed vault is in your very garden. The living embodiment of life and death, the place where we find ourselves and learn about the nuances of life.
There is a strong opposition, happening globally, to reject what is happening in modern ag and the truth is that growing a garden may be one of the most radical acts anyone can do. It directs the energy into what works, locally grown food sourced from your backyard. For those without a yard, supporting local farmers via CSA’s and farmers markets can be as rewarding and powerful. Starting a garden with pure seed is essential in growing a healthy vibrant garden! When folks buy seed from us, we see it as though they have joined our growing family. Where they will received the support they need to assure their plants thrive in the ways that they are meant to!
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!
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!
|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 email@example.com.
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
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.
Last week The Living Seed Company hosted Seed School in Marin 2011 featuring veteran seedsman Bill McDorman. It was a five day intensive, where we were taught the seed industry from its inception as a form of currency, to our current global state where 10 companies own 75% of the world seed stock! Since 1903, almost 96% of the commercial vegetable varieties available to to us are now extinct. We are here to change that by planting those varieties that are rare, while empowering everyone to grow their own food and most of all to save their seeds. This are beautiful times where we are being offered the opportunity to turn some of these statistics the other way, so that our children and our children’s children can see our generation as the one that regained control of our most innate daily ritual – eating.
We were honored to have Bill walk us through this new path, he is the Executive Director of Native Seeds/S.E.A.R.C.H and having founded Seeds Trust/High Altitude Gardens he holds over 30 years of experience in this industry. With a beautifully positive attitude and the wisdom of this industry he offers a light for those of us working to inspire everyone to rise up to this historically moment in our lives.
Last week the folks that attended Seed School 4, not only joined the age old tradition of seed saving, but we began to understand that the strength of our ecosystem is in our diversity. This tradition is the very thing that allowed for mankind to create and succeed in building civilizations. And it will be the very thing that will allow us to thrive and emerge from these times, once again with a diverse seed culture. We were visited by Rebecca Newburn, the brilliant shape shifter that created the Richmond Seed Lending Library in conjunction with the Richmond Public Library, they offer free seeds and education about growing and saving seeds. It is their hope that seed library patrons will return some seeds from their harvest to make the library self-sustaining.
Later in the week, we took a field trip to visit International renown permaculturist Penny Livingston at her farm at the Regenerative Design Institute, as always it is a treat to visit Penny and James in their slice of coastal paradise in Bolinas. We learned about the varieties that thrive in this foggy climate, tasting their honey, touring their natural buildings while also witnessing two of their seed gardens in full creation!
Personally, I have been unveiling the magic of seeds and participating in this course gave me the tools and the understanding to be able to ask the right questions. I will continue to formulate the tapestry of this mystery embodied in a seed.
Check out our trailer for a peek on seed school Marin!
“The greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.” Thomas Jefferson
Seed School offers practical, hands-on knowledge to help create long-term, self-sufficient, agricultural programs. This far-reaching, 5-day immersion boasts a practical, hands-on curriculum that teaches everything from basic genetics to modern database management, harvesting, processing, germination testing, packaging, and how to use these skills to create diversity and strengthen local bioregions.
Seed School trains gardeners, farmers, entrepreneurs, and non-profits.
This far-reaching, 5-day immersion boasts a practical, hands-on curriculum that teaches everything from basic genetics to modern database management. Seed School trains gardeners, farmers, entrepreneurs, non-profits, and policy-makers to implement long-term, self-sufficient, and secure agricultural programs. Seed School recently completed its third training in Arizona and all sessions sold out.
Mr. McDorman Executive Director of Native Seeds/S.E.A.R.C.H and having founded Seeds Trust/High Altitude Gardens in 1984. He has over 30 years experience in the seed business and is author of Basic Seed Saving.
For more info contact:
Seeds Trust – firstname.lastname@example.org
Cornmeal, commerce, and one woman’s quixotic quest for the perfect ingredient
BY Tricia Cornell
Photo By David Van Eeckhout
UNTIL A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, I thought that all cornmeal came in a yellow and blue canister, if I thought about cornmeal at all. Like most Americans, I kept it in the back of the cupboard and pulled it out every once in a while to dust the bottom of a pizza crust or make a pan of cornbread, using the recipe on the container. There was no reason for me to think that cornmeal could—or should—be anything different or better.
And then, last spring, we got a Ziploc bag of coarse, blue-gray meal in the first box of vegetables from our community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm share. It was a variety called Mandan Bride, prized among people who enjoy and think about cornmeal. Our farmer, David Van Eeckhout of Hog’s Back Farm in Arkansaw, Wisconsin, included a note warning us to use it quickly and to savor it. There would be no more. “I shelled it and ground it last weekend so it’s probably the freshest stone-ground cornmeal you’ve ever had, unless you grind your own,” he wrote. “Use it anywhere that calls for cornmeal and you will find that it makes the best version of that dish you’ve ever had.”
He was absolutely right. I used ours for polenta, a simple dish with three ingredients—cornmeal, salt, and water—plus a handful of Parmesan thrown in at the very end. The magic happens in the cooking. High heat, plenty of exposed surface area on top, and lots of stirring develop the corn flavor and turn the starch and fat in the grains into a creamy mass. A single ingredient couldn’t ask for a better showcase.
After dipping my spoon into the Mandan Bride polenta, I decided to skip the Parmesan entirely. It was richer, nuttier, and more flavorful than anything I had ever made out of the smiling Quaker’s canister. I eyed the empty Ziploc bag with sadness. I had to find more Mandan Bride.
Don’t try to tell a good American consumer there is something she can’t have, particularly when it comes to food. Abundance, availability, and affordability in the supermarket aisles are our birthright, yes? Seasons are no excuse. We throw hothouse tomatoes in the grocery cart year round. We pay good money for Chilean blackberries in March. Somebody, somewhere, is always growing broccoli and shipping it to us. If it’s out there in the food world, we expect to be able to buy it when we want it.
But here was something I couldn’t buy. Believe me, I tried. I Googled. I asked every natural foods co-op in the Twin Cities whether they carried local cornmeal.
Some co-ops did stock a brand made from organic corn grown and milled in Welcome, Minnesota, at Whole Grain Milling. It’s good stuff—the finely ground high-lysine yellow corn is more nutritious because it is a complete protein. The same mill also produces blue cornmeal, some of which is used in blue corn chips.
But many co-ops, erstwhile champions of the local food ethos, don’t carry any local cornmeal. “Cornmeal?” was the usual response at the other end of the line, as if I’d asked about some obscure foodstuff—and this from folks who regularly field questions about quinoa. A helpful staffer would scamper off and return to report that there was a variety or two in stock, but it was shipped in from elsewhere, usually California. No one knew the name of the variety of corn they carried. That shows how much thought we give to corn these days.
We’re still eating plenty of it though, as Michael Pollan notes in his new book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. According to Pollan, more than a quarter of the products on grocery-store shelves typically contain corn syrup, corn oil, and other corn derivatives. But cornmeal? It’s disappearing from our diet. The average American eats 114 pounds of wheat flour every year, but only 11 pounds of corn flour. (Most of which is probably consumed in the form of tortilla chips.)
CAST IRON PANS of hearty cornbread may be part of our American culinary heritage, but it’s no longer part of our daily diet. Grits and hush puppies survive in the South; polenta comes in and out of favor in haute cuisine; but we’ve forgotten old classics like cornmeal mush, spoonbread (a cornmeal soufflé), and anadama bread (heavy loaves of cornmeal and molasses).
The average home cook making an occasional pan of cornbread to go with chili may be perfectly content with the familiar canister. But after I’d discovered the nuanced flavor of high-quality cornmeal, I was no longer average. I couldn’t go back to the bland commercial stuff. So I called David Van Eeckhout, my CSA farmer, to find out why Mandan Bride tasted so much better—and why it was so hard to get.
One key factor in the variety’s delicious flavor, Van Eeckhout told me, was that the corn was freshly ground. But even more importantly, it was ground whole. Most commercial cornmeal is made from yellow dent corn, or field corn, which has much tougher outer hulls on each kernel than the sweet corn we eat as a vegetable. Those fiber-rich outer hulls and the protein- and fat-rich core of each kernel—called the germ—are removed before grinding, robbing the cornmeal of nutrients—and flavor. Mandan Bride ears contain a combination of flint kernels (which are enclosed in hard shells) and flour kernels (made entirely of soft starch), adding interest and substance.
But what really sets this cornmeal apart is that it was bred for flavor and nutrition (by the Mandan Indian tribes of North Dakota, according to most experts), not for its ability to produce the most kernels of corn on an acre, like commercial hybrids. Hybrid seeds don’t “breed true,” meaning you can’t plant the seeds from last year’s crop and expect them to resemble the parent plant. But Mandan Bride is an open-pollinated cultivar, and many growers reserve the seed from their own fields for the next year’s planting, making each farm’s variety unique—and uniquely suited to their own land.
It’s also, according to Van Eeckhout, “a real pain in the butt” to grow. Mandan Bride is simply not a commercially viable crop. The weak stalks tip over before the corn has dried, making it difficult to combine. You can’t harvest it with a corn picker, because the cobs are soft and would get crushed. So it must be picked by hand—never mind the laborious process of shucking, drying, and grinding. Also, because it’s an open-pollinated variety, rather than a hybrid, stalks can’t be planted as tightly together as conventionally grown corn. So the yield is about 20 bushels per acre, compared to 100 to 150 bushels—or even 200—in large conventional-farming operations.
As if this weren’t enough, the raccoons love it. And they don’t just eat a few ears, like deer do. They rampage through the rows, taking a bite here and there. They’re capable of ruining 50 to 100 stalks in a night.
Once you get through with all that, as Van Eeckhout says, “Nobody wants to pay the $10 a pound or whatever it would cost.” He hasn’t actually done the math, but the price would be high. “Maybe if I wanted to wrap it up in little one-pound packs and sell it in specialty stores…or if it came from Italy, they might buy it,” he muses. As he sees it, “in the Midwest, everybody is only a couple of generations removed from the farm, so they don’t want to pay for anything that, you know, just grows in the ground.”
Because of its challenges, nobody is growing this remarkable corn commercially. But ambitious gardeners and small farmers like Van Eeckhout are taking notice. Seeds are available from purveyors like Seed Savers, which specialize in old varieties. Mandan Bride is listed on Slow Food USA’s RAFT (Renewing America’s Food Traditions) Coalition compilation of America’s endangered foods—more than 700 distinct indigenous foods, dubbed “the culinary mainstays of the last three millennia.” Mandan Bride is labeled a “recovering rare food,” meaning it is in the midst of a revival but its long-term survival is not assured.
I figured at least one of those ambitious growers must want to sell me some more cornmeal, so I asked Van Eeckhout for a recommendation. He came up with only one possibility: Greg Reynolds, who grows Mandan Bride along with dozens of other crops on Riverbend Farm, a 30-acre spread outside Delano. As it turns out, he sells lettuce, peas, squash, tomatoes, and such to co-ops and restaurants. But the cornmeal, sadly, he keeps mostly for himself.
I visited him on a Sunday morning in early June, just before he headed out to the fields to plant this year’s corn, along with 1,500 heads of cabbage, kohlrabi, and cauliflower. A pan of cornbread was cooling on the massive butcher-block table in the center of his worn, spotless, and very comfortable farmhouse kitchen. The bread isn’t much to look at, if you’re used to cake-like bright yellow Yankee cornbread. It is coarse and dense and an unfamiliar shade of blue-black. But when you split the bread for butter, the generous crumb grabs the butter and holds it while it melts. And it has a pleasant, mysterious crunch. “When I eat cornbread somewhere else,” Reynolds laments, “it’s not like cornbread anymore.”
Reynolds explains his gardener’s sensibility when it comes to farming: “I grow enough of the mundane stuff to support [my growing] the funny kinds of eggplant,” he says. “Once I get through picking the Mandan Bride by hand and shucking it and cobbing and grinding, it’s not worth selling it.”
Reynolds and Van Eeckhout have been friends for years and used to farm together. Although the two differ on the best way to show off the flavor of Mandan Bride (Van Eeckhout says it’s polenta, while Reynolds prefers cornbread) the two have a lot in common.
“For people like David and me, it’s about finding things that taste good,” Reynolds says. He cites Van Eeckhout’s mission to grow a certain variety of melon so it won’t split before it’s ripe, a characteristic that would force him to pick it before the melon’s flavor was at its prime. “It’s about that extra little bit that makes food taste good,” Reynolds says.
Commercial cornmeal may be abundant and easily available, but to me, it’s no longer what cornmeal is supposed to taste like. Reynolds generously gave me a bag of Riverbend cornmeal that I’ve got stashed in a cupboard, and I’m pinning my hopes on four rows of Mandan Bride that were planted at Hog’s Back last spring. If the raccoons didn’t eat all of it, if the rain and sun came at the right time, and if Van Eeckhout has enough to spare for his CSA members, then, and only then, will we have a couple meals of sublime polenta next year. Nobody said eating well was easy.
Tricia Cornell, editor of Minnesota Parent and Good Age, wrote about Land O’Lakes taste panelists in our May issue.
Check out the mandan corn as one of our rare varieties.