A New Seed Economy Built from Inspiration and Loss
A New Seed Economy Built from Inspiration and Loss
A seed is a fitting symbol for an organization inspired by a fallen trailblazer of the local, organic food movement. For most plants, a seed requires a period of darkness and rest during the harsh winter months. With spring comes warmth and light that results in the emergence of verdant green, an annual reminder that winter’s darkness yields to life.
The People’s Seed was founded by the late Tony Kleese who, despite the onset of a terminal disease, committed to his own period of reflection in order to understand the challenges of the organic seed industry. He saw that the funding for many public plant breeding programs (those funded by taxes we pay and resulting in publicly available seed and plant material) has been hollowed out over the past decades. Prior to the 1950’s, universities were the primary source of new cultivars being released to the public free of charge, requiring an industry to “grow-out” these varieties to marketable quantities (which includes not just seed companies but also individual farmers and seed savers).
Since then, funding for plant breeding programs has shifted and now depends on corporate sponsorship in both university and private labs. In order to get a large return on investment, new varieties are often kept from being shared as breeding material for plant breeders at other institutions or strict laws have been enacted regulating the distribution of new genetic material. As large corporations merge and buy up smaller breeding companies, the diversity of breeders, cultivars and ideas continues to spiral downward.
Tony knew that this system of plant breeding negated opportunities for the development of new varieties good for all people, regardless of how much profit they could make. Traits like improved carbon sequestration, better biological nitrogen fixation or resistance to regionally devastating diseases are often ignored by the plant breeding industry.
Before Tony passed, he established The People’s Seed to be a fulcrum in leveraging a new funding and decision-making model for plant breeding in the Southeast. We will do this through working collaboratively with national and regional partners to establish community priorities and dispense funding to accomplish our region’s plant breeding goals. Our strategies follow a three-pronged approach:
1. Host an organic seed summit with a wide community of plant breeding stakeholders in attendance. We envision this to include not just breeders, but also the whole food supply chain including farmers doing trials, seed companies, food hubs, chefs, consumers and other folks who, undeniably, are part of the process from getting seed to farm to plate. This gathering will provide space to prioritize specific challenges in the Southeast but also determine which breeders (regardless of where they work) and regional support is available to reach these goals. The People’s Seed will offer grants to qualified breeder teams addressing these community goals.
2. Ensure plant genetic material is shared openly. Restrictive patenting standards strangle the free sharing of parent lines, diminishing the number of breeders able to improve crops for the public good. Our goal is that all varieties developed through The People’s Seed’s partnerships or funding will be shared widely with minimal restrictions for other plant breeders.
3. Educate and engage the public through intuitive and clear information about organic, public plant breeding. We envision a marketplace where new varieties from Artemesia to Zea Maize are available on the shelves of cooperative grocery stores and other suppliers dedicated to educating consumers on the importance of seed to fork. Chefs are also an important ambassador for new varieties, helping us spread the word to audiences far and wide that breeding for taste in addition to yield and disease resistance is an imperative to the future of plant breeding.
Tony’s life was marked by planting many intellectual and literal seeds, through both good and bad times. His legacy is encoded into the DNA of our organization, a reminder that good work, or shall we say traits, can be passed down through careful stewardship of thoughtful ideas cultivated over many years. We hope you’ll join us in germinating Tony’s dream by checking out www.thepeoplesseed.org, dropping us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or simply educating yourself on how you can be part of the organic plant breeding movement.
Organic farmer, educator and activist Tony Kleese passed away on March 17, 2018 of cancer. He passed peacefully at home, surrounded by loved ones, and is survived by his beloved wife, Christine Kelly- Kleese, his mother, Suzannah Kleese of Greensboro, sisters, Teressa Cagle and Alexandra Kleese, brothers-in-law, sistersin- law, nieces and nephews, and many close friends he considers to be chosen family.
Born on April 1, 1964, in Berlin, Germany, Tony eventually settled in the North Carolina Piedmont, where he developed the relationships with people, livelihood, and the natural world that would enrich his life and those whose paths he crossed.
Tony’s spirit lives on through an enormous legacy of organic farmers and activists across the globe. Since 1989, Tony has worked to develop local and organic food systems in the southeastern US and the Caribbean. He helped develop the USDA’s National Organic Standards in the 1990s, including serving as the first Chair of the national Organic Certifiers’ Council. Tony helped to organize an organic food and farm movement on the island of Dominica, and then more recently worked with Chuck Marsh on a US-AID-funded project at The Source Farm Ecovillage on Jamaica, supporting the development of an organic farmers network, an organic farmers’ market in Kingston, and a permaculture education series. Tony also served on the Board of Directors of countless national organizations including the Organic Seed Alliance and the Center for Food Safety.
Locally, Tony was the first coordinator of the Sustainable Farming Program at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro, NC, served as an organizing member and Executive Director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, and is a founding member of Eastern Carolina Organics.
In every role and every day, Tony worked to protect the integrity of the organic label and the ability of farmers and consumers to trust a third-party verified system that had clear standards and transparency. His final work was to launch The People’s Seed, fostering an alternative to the corporate model of seed ownership committed to building a fair and open seed industry for a sustainable food system.