Saving Our Seed

We spent yesterday soaking up wisdom and inspiration at the Carolina Farm Stewardship conference. I came away with lots of information, ideas and things to ponder.

For one thing, I’ve increased my resolve to do a better job of seed saving. We save some of our own seeds, but not nearly as many as we could. Something once essential to farming, we’ve outsourced it to seed companies. Seeds are cheap, but if we let ourselves become dependent upon seed companies we take a foolish and unnecessary risk. And the fact that 70% of all vegetable seeds are controlled by only three companies–Monsanto, Bayer and Dupont (chemical companies at that)–isn’t comforting.

According to one source I read, in this country 93% of vegetable seed varieties have been lost over the last 100 years. In 1903 there were 497 varieties of lettuce offered by seed companies. Today there are only 85.

In the past folks saved their own seed and neighbors would swap seeds with one another. Sometimes it was necessary to buy seed, but usually not. It made good sense to behave that way. We simply have to make it a priority to do a better job of saving seed in the future. Even if technically unnecessary, how “sustainable” can we claim to be if we’re dependent upon others for our seed?

As one of the speakers yesterday stressed, keeping the seed supply in the hands of farmers and homesteaders is important to maintaining natural biodiversity. If we don’t do it, we risk losing varieties when we no longer save and trade seeds. Consider the Moon and Stars watermelon for example. This old heirloom was thought extinct until 1981 when a seed enthusiast discovered that a gardener in Missouri had been saving the seed. Thanks to him, the Moon and Stars is growing again. We had several older customers at the market this year who were thrilled to once again see the watermelon of their youth, for the first time in many decades.

Moon and Stars watermelon

Moon and Stars watermelon

Another one, with a fine moon.

Another one, with a fine moon.

A small one, among friends.

A small one, among friends.

Industrial agriculture (and the supermarkets it serves) prefer uniformity of appearance over nearly all else. Along with shelf-life, it is what matters most. That criteria doesn’t favor funky heirlooms, no matter how delicious they are.

Nature has given us hundreds of different types of bananas, for example. But the food industrial complex needs every banana in every store to look and taste the same. When a person buys a banana in New York in November, it needs to be as nearly identical as possible to the banana they bought in August, and indistinguishable from the bananas being sold in Tokyo, London and Mayberry. There can only be one banana. And these days that banana is the Cavendish variety. It dominates the world market and is THE commercially produced banana. But it wasn’t always so. Until the 1950s the favored commercial variety was the Gros Michel, by all accounts a superior-tasting banana. But the Gros Michel variety was wiped out by a virus and the industry replaced it with the Cavendish, once again putting all their proverbial eggs into a single basket. The Gros Michel does live on, however. The reason banana-flavored candy doesn’t taste much like a banana these days is because the flavoring was invented to mimic the taste of the then-favored Gros Michel. If you want to know what bananas used to taste like, try that flavoring.

If we allow Big Ag to homogenize food that way, we put the food supply in jeopardy. The Irish Potato Famine is perhaps the best known tragedy caused by over-reliance on a single food crop. The risk of extinction always exists. The loss of the American chestnut is another example. The most dominant tree in much of America’s forests–particularly Appalachia–chestnut trees (many millions of them) were wiped out by a sudden blight that arrived in the early 1900s. Within a few years, the chestnuts were gone. Chestnuts and chestnut wood had been essential to the people of Appalachia. “It fed them, fattened their stock, warmed their fireplaces, cooked their corn bread, bought their luxuries.” It also built their barns, houses and bridges. Nature as a whole is resilient, but for a single species or variety, existence is precarious, whether it’s potatoes, bananas, chestnut trees or dodo birds. Biodiversity assures that when disaster strikes some part of nature, the rest marches on.

So I conclude my rambling thoughts by saying again, we need to get better at saving seed.

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12 comments on “Saving Our Seed

  1. valbjerke says:

    Absolutely. I’m still working on how to go about saving seeds – some are easy, but my growing season is so short many things freeze before they’re anywhere near going to seed. I’m pushing for a larger greenhouse – I can grow an excellent selection of dry beans in there, and although I usually have to help them finish up by pulling the roots and just letting them hang til dry, I get great beans to replant.

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    • Bill says:

      We’ve been saving some of the easy ones–peas, sunflowers, potatoes, garlic. Cherie saves flower and herb seed, but I’ve been slack about saving others. Some are easy to save but for the risk of cross-pollination–like squashes and melons. There are ways around that problem, but I haven’t taken the time to work on it. With all the others it’s just a question of me making it a priority. In some cases it will mean leaving some of the crop in the field longer than I normally do, delaying cover cropping for a little of the area. I think next year we’ll decide on a half dozen or so new crops to save seed from, then once that becomes routine start adding to it. My goal is to make it a normal part of our practice here.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Joanna says:

    We have been saving as many seeds as possible too. There are some good resources out there such as the guys from Real Seeds (in the UK), who sell their own seeds but encourage people to then grow their own
    http://www.realseeds.co.uk/seedsavinginfo.html

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    • Bill says:

      I got a lot of good info and advice from the conference we attended this weekend. We’ve been approached in the past about growing seed for an independent chem-free seed company, so there is also the possibility that we could turn it into an additional income stream.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. MaryQuiContrary says:

    Amen & Amen! Planting seeds and watching them grow is truly a wondrous thing……..but planting seeds that you’ve grown and harvested yourself and then watching THEM grow is exponentially richer still; I highly recommend it! My good friend, Brian Creelman at http://www.seedsforfood.net has been an enthusiastic promoter and teacher of seed saving in our community and quite a few folks (myself included!) have caught the bug
    and are slowly – in my case, anyways! – beginning to grow our own seeds. Seed saving is rewarding,
    delicious, challenging and endlessly fascinating and I can heartily recommend it as a good-stewardship
    activity; good for the soul and good for the earth, too.

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    • Bill says:

      We do some of it now and you’re right that it is especially satisfying to grow from seed you’ve saved. I’ve never made a serious effort to expand to the cross-pollinating veggies, the “wet” seeds, etc. To be a part of nature’s cycle, we need to do that. Thanks for reinforcing my desire!

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  4. BeeHappee says:

    Aside from the easy ones you mention, like garlic and potatoes, and beans, my mom had always saved tomatoes and peppers (and she was a big flower seed saver) – since it is a bit time consuming, for the most part all the seed cleaning, drying and organizing them into paper pouches used to be a job for us kids. 🙂 My kids here have succesfully been planting anything from saved tomatoes to avocados.

    If you had not seen yet, you guys may want to watch the film Open Sesame: The Story of Seeds, the one I mentioned in this blog post: https://beehappeenow.wordpress.com/2015/09/11/seeds-and-beets-growing-saving-and-sharing/

    Our local public places and historical societies had done an excellent job bringing back herritage seeds and plants and educating the public.

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    • Bill says:

      I’m totally on board with the importance of seed saving and of course it was essential to sustainability in our agrarian past. But nowadays when it’s all I can do to keep up with the other farm work, I find myself resisting the idea that I should spend a lot of time saving seeds, when I can buy them so easily and so cheaply. I really like having that be the responsibility of farm children. Wish I’d thought of that before ours grew up and moved away. 🙂

      Your blog post is excellent. Carolyn and Joe sound like folks I’d love to have as neighbors. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. shoreacres says:

    Some of the most passionate seed savers I know are the people who go out into the native prairies and collect seeds for prairie restoration work. That’s one place where people like me, who don’t happen to have gardens and land, can contribute. There are a lot of seeds out there, and never enough people to collect them.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. smcasson says:

    So you must know that Cavendish is on its way out, and a blight resistant American Chestnut is being developed. The chestnut news makes me happy. (Cavendish, I can take or leave it. Don’t much like bananas.)
    Good plan to save your own seed. Neat stuff.

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    • Bill says:

      Yes, I think the impending demise of the Cavendish has been discussed on here before. Nature loves diversity and she doesn’t like monocultures. I’m hopeful about the chestnut recovery program too. My recollection is that they’re crossing them with an Asian chestnut so what we’ll get (if it works) won’t be the original American Chestnut, but will be a close cousin.

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