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.
DIY Urban Vermiculture Composting
What Is Compost?
Composting is part of the natural process of decomposition, that naturally occurs in nature. A compost bin functions as a digester that breaks down organic matter, allowing nutrients to be assimilated back into the earth for continual benefit. The final product that is produced is known as humus – often referred to as black gold for its ability to regenerate the soil, act as a natural fertilizer, aerate soil, prevent erosion etc. Humus contains carbon, nitrogen, in addition to, beneficial bacteria and millions of microorganisms. It is not static but rather completely alive. It is an excellent component to even out soil variations, absorb water and support plant and animal life while assisting in the production of soil – a critical element in our evolution.
Most solid waste in municipal settings is in large part food scraps. By composting of our food scraps, we drastically reduce our waste, which in turn, lightens the load on our landfills. Currently, our landfills are being exhausted at unprecedented rates. Landfills throughout our the country have closed, due to maximum capacity, forcing cities to truck or rail our garbage across state and international borders. Compost adds a rich nutrient to gardens, plant life and trees. Many city dwellers that may not have a garden to deposit their goods in, will donate them to neighborhood trees. When compost is placed on the earth, it helps to regenerate the soil of an immediate area, regenerating the soil structure and water absorption capacity. When gardens benefit from rich humus, the food will naturally thrive and produce healthy and nutritious food for you. There is no need to purchase synthetic chemical fertilizers that are contaminants your home, your health and the earth. Artificial fertilizers by pass the natural process with synthetic chemicals promoting the growth of weeds, disease and pests – while contaminating our health, and the air and water quality of a region. Balance For a compost pile to decompose properly, a sweet balance or proper alkalinity, must be maintained. There are two elements that are necessary in a compost pile – brown and green material. Brown consists of what is high Carbon (woody, dried leaves, sawdust, brown, paper, egg cartons). Green consists of high Nitrogen (fresh produce, grass, food scraps, grass clippings or garden prunings, tea bags, coffee grinds, etc). The balance should be maintained at a ratio of about 30:1 (Carbon to Nitrogen). It’s not as complex as it sounds, this variation is usually found in the range of food people eat.
Does It Smell?
No. Contrary to popular belief compost, when maintained under proper conditions, it does not smell. Finished compost will have the look, feel and odor of rich soil – depending on the conditions it may take from 6 – 12 weeks. Optimal conditions inside the bin are to be hot, but the heat will be generated naturally – it should not be left in direct sun. It can be stored in a patio, garage, basement, shed, or utility closet. There should not be an infestation of fruit flies either. There will microorganisms growing and even some mold may appear – these elements should break down.
What Not to Add: You do not want to add: dairy, cheese, milk-related products, meats, bones, chicken, whole eggs, fat, weeds with mature seeds, pet feces, pressure/chemical treated wood. Animal feces carries pathogens and should not be added to your bin. You can create one specifically for your dog, but do not use it on your garden. Do not add food that is too moldy. Only add organic matter and do not add non-organic garbage, plastic, metal or glass. Best to remove stickers, rubber bands and tags that are placed on food.
What You Will Need:
• Plastic Bin with tight lid.
• Order worms online or retrieve a bag of existing compost with worms from a friend.
• Newspaper – acts as the bedding and the carbon source, which will provide energy. The microbial oxidation of carbon produces heat.
• Drill – 1/4” drill bit.
• Fresh food scraps.
♦ If you want to harvest the worm tea, you will need:
• 2 bricks.
• A pan the relative size to the surface area to the bottom of the bin.
Rule of Thumb:
To determine bin size you need two square feet of surface area per person, or one square foot of surface area per pound of food waste per week.
• Source a plastic bin.
• 18 gallon bin accommodates 1 – 3 people.
• The bin can be as small as 1 gallon pale for one person. I made one for my sister that lives in NYC and she had a thriving compost bin. I made of a one gallon plastic pale and I used the same instructions for this one, but applied it on a smaller scale.
• A 32 gallon is perfect for a family for 4 + people. Try to find plastic bins at thrift stores or any used locations – I found mine in my dumpster!
The bin will provide the home of the worms by creating the optimum conditions to break down organic matter into rich humus or compost.
• Drill 1/4” holes all around the top and sides of bin. This will help to aerate the bin.
• Space holes about 3 – 4” on top and on the sides.
• Space holes on sides 3” apart in 3 rows – The holes are necessary to aerate the bin and allows the worms to breathe and allow oxygen to contribute to the decomposition process. Oxygen is an important part of the process, as it for oxidizes the carbon in the decomposition process.
• Drill 3 holes on each side of 1” lip of bottom of bin.
• Compost juice (aka castings) will be excreted from here.
• Place bin on grass and allow castings to enter soil.
• To harvest castings, raise with bricks over a pan or tray. It is highly recommended to collect this nutrient rich addictive.
• Collect the castings and dilute with water 1:20. Castings are the excrement of the worms and is a natural fertilizer, soil enhancer and plant food. The worms will not come out – they prefer to be where the food is.
• Find newspaper in your recycling bin or use any other carbon rich material ie: saw dust or brown paper bags. Newspaper is the most abundant material in an urban setting and an easy material to source. For this demo, I will be using newspaper as the source of carbon, should you decide to use something else, just replace it when newspaper is being called for. Straw is not recommended – length of time to break down is too long.
• Shred newspaper length-wise to 1” strips.
• This creates bedding for the worms inside.
• Acquire enough newspaper to fill the bin (the bedding will give the worms the brown or carbon component needed). The worms will also eat the bedding, you will need to add newspaper accordingly. As you notice it go down, add additional shredded newspaper.
• Place half of the shredded newspaper in the bin and soak newspaper to get all angels wet.
• Ring newspaper like a wet sponge. Remove excess water, this will help create the optimum condition for proper moisture levels – like a wet sponge.
• Fluff compressed moistened newspaper.
• You will begin using only one side and this will help in keeping the worms in one area.
• Using one side will facilitate during harvesting. The worms will adjust and procreate according to the size of the bin – within due time. It is important to purchase the proper amount of worms to facilitate this process.
1 lb has 1500 worms is good enough for 1 – 2 people. The worms will adjust to the amount of food being fed and will self regulate.
• Add food scraps to same side of bin.
• Do not add any meat, dairy, fat, oil, bones, feces. You can add organic material such as tea bags, hair, non-glossy paper
• Place only organic food scraps for compost used in gardens. Heavy metals found in pesticides and herbicides and possible GMO contaminated residue can stay within the decomposition cycle and be returned to your crops. This is your opportunity to truly know what goes into your food and your food supply.
• Do not add big pits, excess citrus or weeds. Weeds that are seeding can continue to spread if compost does not get hot enough to kill seeds. It must reach 130 degrees to be assured of this – best to keep it if you are not sure.
• Add the second layer of dry bedding over bin – covering the entire bin. This layer adds coverage and protection to the worms.
• Continue to replace this layer as it gets eaten.
• Place lid tight.
• When adding food scraps remove newspaper, add food scraps and once again add newspaper and cover with lid again.
• Newspaper should be fluffy and not compact and there should always be a layer covering the food and the worms.
How to Maintain:
You will need to turn the compost heap every couple of weeks, mixing all the ingredients on one side. This will assure that enough oxygen reaches all areas. Depending on the size of the bin, the amount of food and the overall condition of the compost heap, will depend on the amount of times you will need to turn it.
Start monitoring the conditions of your worms, moisture levels and overall appearance. You want to be able to gauge an issue, should one arise by simply looking at it – i.e. too wet or too dry. You will have a complete eco system, and it will self regulate as long as food is being provided and moisture levels are maintained. Keep in mind if you are only working with one side of the bin to try to keep contents ! ! on that same side.
How to Harvest:
Depending on the weather and conditions, your pile may take from 6 – 12 weeks. Once you begin to notice most of the pile become a rich dark humus, you may be ready to harvest. Crush egg shell and cut up your waste to give it more surface area – this will help in the breaking down process.
A simple way to harvest is empty the contents on a tarp and sift through it. The worms will crawl away from any light and into the protected space of an available pile. Another simple way is to scoop 1/3 of the humus and use generously. Don’t be concerned to take worms with you – that may be inevitable.
For those that chose to use one side of the bin, start adding new bedding and fresh food to the side that has been left alone. After a couple of days, all the worms will have migrated to the other side. At this point you will remove all the contents from the composted side and use.
If you are harvesting the worm castings as well, you will start to notice it in the tray, once it is ready. Collect what is there and dilute it 20:1 with water and use on your plants or garden.
• Is there enough bedding?
• Is there a material that should not be there?
• Is food exposed?
• How is circulation?
• Is it too wet/dry?
• Is there an imbalance with the amount of food added?
Check moisture levels:
If it is too wet: Add additional shredded newspaper – stop feeding worms. Wait till a balance has been reached before continuing.
If it is too dry: It may have become anaerobic – lacking oxygen. Add more food (produce) and consider adding some water.
Worms are Dying
• Is there enough bedding?
• Is there enough food?
• Is it too hot?
• Check moisture levels.
If it is too wet: Add additional shredded newspaper – stop feeding.
If it is too dry: Add more food (produce) and consider adding some water.
An easy way to collect your food scraps in your kitchen is by keeping them in a bowl or in a jar. Keeping it too air tight will cause mold. Make sure to not keep it out of the sun. Feed your worms regularly, this will assure them getting the freshest food and minimize smell and fruit flies. Storing it in the fridge is great option in hot and humid places; freezing is not recommended.
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.
Seeds are one of the most awe-inspiring examples of the perfection of nature and her cycles. Their elegance and sophistication are short of being a miracle. To many, it is a mystery unraveled and to others it is constantly a breathtaking process. Unbeknown to many, seeds are living and breathing embryos, awaiting the perfect conditions to unfurl themselves in this delicate internal process, to offer their gifts of food and medicine to the world. I have marveled at their perfection and continue to be mystified the more I continue to unfold their mystery.
Cultures throughout time, have sown seeds by the celestial calendar, honoring the Grandmother Moon and living within the natural rhythms of the earth. Seeds are an amazing 95% water, our beautiful planet embodies 71% water and humans are 70% water. All living things are influenced and affected by maritime tides and the cycles of the moon, the innate relationship between water, seeds and mankind is intrinsic and ancient. This common life force of water is the bridge to the complexity of our interdependent relationship with each other, tapping deep into our cellular memory. Perhaps, many people may have lost their sense of connection with these elements, but the reality is that this connection is engrained in our very core of our existence.
Saving seeds represents witnessing the full cycle of a plant, from the inception of an embryo to a seedling, maturation and ultimately to flower and then back again to being a seed. This life cycle offers humanity an experience at witnessing one of nature’s greatest treasures, it allows for mankind to begin to understand the subtleties in life, helping one make a deeper connection to the cycles, the four seasons and our inherent connection to the greater force that is Mother Nature. A seed contains the living plant, known as the embryo, food supply known as cotyledon and the seed coat which protects each treasure inside from any harm.
Sowing seeds has been the catalyst for the development of human culture and civilization; it has been a ritual in our lives for thousands of years. Over the past ten thousand years, mankind developed much of the agricultural diversity that had been available, until the beginning of the 20th century. This diversity accounted for over 1500 plant families, with thousands of varieties under each family, offering a rich tapestry of food that represented diverse cultures, people and ecosystems all over the globe.
This diversity began 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 or heritage seeds – seeds with a linage, seeds with a story.
Seed saving and seed knowledge became a 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 integral and valuable 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. Within a mere one hundred years all of that changed, currently 10 companies own 75% of the world seed stock and since 1903, almost 96% of the commercial vegetable varieties were available to us are now extinct. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, crop genetic resources are disappearing at the rate of 1 – 2% a year. About 75% of agricultural crop diversity is estimated to have been lost since the beginning of the last century
There was a time when we marveled at the rich distinction between communities and cultures for their seed stock and food varieties, today 90% of the world’s food is provided by only 30 plants and four of those plants constituting 75% of mankind’s calories. The culture and ritual around food that had been engrained in humanity for thousands of years has all but disappeared, succumbing to hybrid seeds, mono-cropping and industrialization. By farmers focusing on only a handful of crops, they rob their communities and ecosystems of their diversity while only keeping an eye on a shortsighted goal. Through the last 100 years, food production became more industrialized with the promise of less work, lowered costs, higher yields, pest resistance and the ability of feeding more people around the world. These empty promises have left farmers world wide relying on expensive pesticides, modern oil dependent farm equipment, genetically modified seeds, starving and worst of all, lost without the very thing they have always known, their farms. This homogenization has left soils depleted while potentially jeopardizing the wide diversity that took our ancestors 10,000 years to create, all in one generation.
The beauty of this is that we are merely passing through life’s hour glass and there is a revolution working to turn things around in the most poetic and resilient manner. We will be known as the people who had the opportunity to turn the pages of the history books towards the light. One of magical properties of seeds is simply that they are all inclusive – seeds have the potential to bridge families and communities for all of us to rise up to this very historical event. We are here to spread seeds of peace, seeds of joy and seeds of resilience. As one community rises up, it creates a ripple in this large ocean and many ripples throughout the world can cause great change.
“The greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.” Thomas Jefferson
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
I’ve written about seed saving in the past, especially with my prized Brandywine tomatoes whose heritage can be traced back to the people who first brought them to the US in the 1800s. But why are seeds important, and why does it matter where gardeners get them from?
If you’ve seen documentaries such as The Future of Food or Food Inc, then you are aware of the way big businesses are reinventing farming and food production. Growing food used to be a community effort, and even when farmers started making money on their crops, it was still a family business. Fast forward to today when seed company Monsanto has actually created seeds that, when planted, produce a fruit filled with sterile seeds so they can’t be saved and planted the next year. While people all over the world (and even in our own city) are going hungry, we are actually creating food that limits future food production and makes us more dependent on the seed companies to sell us new seeds every year. WTF?
The original idea for big businesses taking over the farming industry was this: if we can turn farming into an efficient system that is run more like an industry, we’ll be able to produce more food that can feeds more people for less money. Voila, a solution to the world’s hunger crisis! Good intentions, right?
But then people got greedy. Big seed companies created genetically modified seeds that were hybrids or immune to herbicide, and even seeds that produced a corn which could act as its own pesticide, killing any bug that tried to munch on it. And we’re eating the food that is produced from those seeds! Ick. I don’t want to eat or grow those kinds of seeds.
I try to be responsible about where I get my seeds, and saving my own seeds from previous years has been a good solution. I was excited to get an email recently from Astrid at The Living Seed Company, a family-run farm that sells their heirloom seeds to people like us. They also donate seeds to school groups and small gardens, which proves to me that they actually believe their mission: “to help supply the fundamentals of a joyful human life.”
Astrid was kind enough to answer some questions for me (she is pictured below with her fiancé Matthew).
Why are seeds so special?
Seed are magical. Each seed is a miracle waiting to happen. After selecting seeds from the most robust plants in your garden and replanting these same seeds the following year, the plant will become more and more adapted to your soil, your climate and to you. The more you collect your seeds and continue that process the more they will adapt to you – now that is amazing!
So, for someone who is just learning about the big business of seeds and agriculture in the United States, can you please explain why your seeds are different from the ones I buy from (for example) Burpee or the garden center at Home Depot?
We do not sell any hybridized seeds, all of our seeds are open pollinated which means that you can save the seed and propagate a plant exactly like the parent. You cannot do that with hybrid seeds. Something a lot of people are not aware of is that a lot of seeds, even Organic, are being grown overseas, and all of ours are grown in the US. Seeds become adapted to the region where they are grown. If seeds are grown overseas, they are adapted for a completely different climate and soil structure.
We created the Founder’s Collection as a way for us to help people plan their gardens throughout the year. We selected the best of the best and have chosen these 22 varieties for being widely adapted, productive, naturally disease resistant and nutritious. Every single variety has many uses other than being just a squash or a tomato. Many of them dry, can, ferment, freeze and preserve very well. Our winter squash, for example, can be kept for up to 6 months in a cool place such as a garage. It can be used in baking as well as in savory dishes and best of all, the longer it keeps the sweeter it gets! Increasing the diversity of our food is so important, many companies are no longer offering the rare gems that still exist and need to be propagated. The world has lost 95% of our food diversity in just 100 years, and we are inspired to change that. We are also really inspired to revive the ancient art of seed saving in every gardener.
Why don’t more people supply seeds the way The Living Seed Co does? Is it an issue with money, time, labor, laws, etc?
There are seed companies that do, but we have not seen companies offer a collection like the Founders Collection. It is a complete garden. Ultimately what we want is to get as many people as possible in the soil and reconnecting with the land. Our collection is a superior deal offered as a whole, perhaps it can be a lower profit margin but we want to insure people having a substantial amount of seeds for a relatively low cost. There was also a lot of time involved the creation of the collection. There was a lot of research that went into choosing each seed and its complement to the whole.
The Living Seed Company has a big vision. How can seeds help save the world?
We feel that gardening is a way to bring people and communities together to grow food, it helps people find their inner peace and outer prosperity. Also, gardens act like a small oasis for birds, bees and insects – offering a refuge to pollinate, mate and grow the biodiversity of a neighborhood. Even a window box can offer this on a smaller scale. Ultimately, we see growing food and seed saving as a way for people to thrive and learn things about themselves they did not know. The reward one gets in the act of growing food is indescribable and what you offer in return to the biodiversity of your area is so much!
Please tell me about your donate-1-for-every-10 program
We became inspired to create this program as an opportunity for us to give back. There are a lot of school programs and low income urban gardens that need access to good seeds and we want to be that source! We want to inspire people all over the world to begin growing their own food. So for every ten collections sold we donate one to a school garden program or youth group.
Learn more at livingseedcompany.com
We spent the past two days at one of our favorite local festivals, only this time, we were vendors. It was such an incredible experience for us to be on the other side of the table, per se and interface with the community in this way. It was the public unveiling of our Founders Collection and what an incredible response we received from everyone. Most of all what touched us was the amount of gratitude we received from people, young and old. Tears were shed and hearts were met while our seeds were exchanging hands. Several of our collections were purchased to be taken to other countries such as Ecuador and Eritrea. We had the honor of donating a collection to a woman working with widows in the Congo as well as to Melinda Kramer, Founder and Co-director of Women’s Earth Alliance, who was on here way to Uttar Pradesh, India. Melinda and WEA are hosting the 2011 India Women, Food and Climate Change Training Program, led by The India Women and Food Initiative partners with Indian grassroots groups and leaders to provide ecological farming training, appropriate technology, rights education, and seed funding to grassroots Indian women leaders and farmers to improve their food and economic security, preserve the environment and traditional knowledge, and build political will. Such beautiful opportunities were presented to us that we know we will continue to see the ripples for years to come!
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