Seed Saving at Germantown Community Farm
and Protecting Our Collective Agricultural Heritage
When people talk about “heirloom vegetables” just imagine them like an heirloom anything else: something so good they’ve been passed down from generation to generation, seeds saved and replanted, preserved and cherished. When people talk about “open-pollinated vegetables” they are talking about populations of adaptable plants whose seeds can be saved and replanted the following year. Up until pretty recently, most farmers and gardeners saved their own seeds and the plants they grew adapted to the local soil and weather and pests and diseases.
When people talk about “F1 Hybrids” they’re referring to the offspring of two distinct varieties of open-pollinated plants whose genetic base has been selected and reduced to be so narrow and sparse that when they’re crossed the resulting mix of genes in the new seeds creates a plant that’s incredibly productive and uniform for one season, but whose seeds are all confused and useless for farmers when planted the next season.
If I’ve lost you with the awkward scientific language, just remember this part: farmers who use hybrid seeds need to buy new seeds every year because they can’t save the one growing in their field. Hybrid technology changed the whole face of the seed industry because it turned seeds from a natural resource and part of the life cycle of the farm into a marketable commodity. Back in the 1970’s all the old regional seed companies in this country were bought out by global petrochemical companies who already owned the fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticide factories. If you think about it for a second it doesn’t make any sense for fertilizer and herbicide and pesticide companies to own the seeds we use: what incentive would they have to breed seeds to be healthy or resistant to pests and diseases? It’s a really bad idea.
But it just gets worse: in the 1990’s the petrochemical companies merged with the pharmaceutical corporations and now call themselves the Life Science Industry and spend enormous amounts of money trying to figure out how to suck the life of vegetables and sell them to us as expensive pills and how to genetically engineer their seeds to be dependent on their chemicals. (And they spend just as much money trying to figure out how to convince us that these are really good ideas that we can’t live without!)
Last year, 2005, Seminis, the largest vegetable seed company in the world, was bought by Monsanto Corporation for $1.4 billion. Monsanto is the leading proponent and practitioner of genetic engineering. Monsanto seeds and biotech traits account for 88% of the total acreage of genetically modified seed planted worldwide. The whole thing is such a big disaster it makes my head spin when I think about it too much. So growing open-pollinated and heirloom seeds, saving their seeds, and then teaching others how to do it is one way of retaining some degree of self-respect and autonomy from these corporate monsters.
While it has become way less common in this country as our agri-cultural roots disappear into the monoculture, farmers all over the world have been saving and trading their seeds for ten thousand years and most farmers in the world still have the skills to save their own seeds. Here in the United States there is a small but growing movement of farmers and gardeners who are actively saving their seeds, adapting them to their local environments, and working towards a vision of community controlled agriculture that is completely independent from the corporate seed barons. Here at the Germantown Farm a number of us have some experience saving seeds and we’re really excited about learning with each other and drawing upon the knowledge of our fellow seedsfolk here in the local area and around the country.
Here on our farm we feel privileged to be getting our seeds from the wonderful folks at FEDCO up in Maine, as well as our friends like Frank Morton from Wild Garden Seeds and the Kapuler Family from Peace Seeds out in Oregon. We’re honored to be participating in seed trials through NOFA-NY, and well as have neighbors like the biodynamic farmer folks at Turtle Tree Seeds. We feel blessed that there are existing national networks like the Seed Savers Exchange, and support organizations like the Organic Seed Alliance that are helping our movement to grow. We’re very inspired by the work of pioneers out on the West Coast like Dan Jason of Salt Spring Seeds, Susanne Ashworth who wrote Seed to Seed, Dr. Carol Deppe who wrote Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, Raoul Robinson who wrote Return to Resistance: Breeding Crops For Reduced Pesticide Dependence, David Theodoropoulos from J. L. Hudson Seeds, George Stevens from Synergy Seeds, and the folks at the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library in Berkeley, California.
On our farm in the Hudson Valley of New York we’re planning to build a healthy library of seeds, teach seed saving workshops to people in our community, and spend the coming years stewarding heirloom treasures, adapting new varieties, and sharing the magic of our harvests with friends and strangers alike. This is truly our collective heritage and we understand how important it is that we do this work together.