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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

Dont Eat the Seed Corn

Don’t Eat the Seed Corn: Strategies & Prospects for Human Survival

book review of author Gary Paul Nabhan’s Where Our Food Comes From – Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine

by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA

The accumulated wisdom of 10,000 years of agriculture is surprisingly tangible, portable and available: it exists in carefully gathered, catalogued, annotated and climate-controlled seed banks, more than 1,000 dispersed worldwide. You might wonder why so many, and why so wide-spread. Because they represent knowledge and opportunity vulnerable in not-always-obvious ways — not just to heat and moisture, to vermin, blight and insects, but to the compounded ignorance and violence of social and political upheavals that might not know what to make of these treasures. In the light of recent destructions of historical sites in Syria and Iraq, the slaughter and eating of zoo animals in Kuwait, it is distressingly easy to imagine these heaps of seed spilled out on the ground, left to the fate of all spilled seed, that time will overtake and erase in an instant, leave not a nourishing crumb.

The story of saved seed — and of its parallel efforts in breeding domestic animals — is the story of civilized humankind, a patient story of watching and tasting, of careful choices that encourage some plants over others occurring in the wild biosphere, with the goal of staying put, of making a home. Its effort all along has been the same: to bring our past along with us, to refer and defer to that wisdom, to use past strategies in times of stress to help us feed ourselves. Of course the problems of feeding ourselves cannot be solved overnight, take whole seasons, and must be resolved over lifetimes. The solutions must be far-sighted and flexible. Otherwise in moments of weakness and doubt we might well succumb to the impulse to eat the seed corn and erase our own future.

Dont Eat the Seed Corn

Gary Paul Nabhan’s book WHERE OUR FOOD COMES FROM: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine (Island Press, 2009) is a weighty tome, freighted with implications. But as befits its subject it is also portable and travels well, a deft exploration of two trips around the world, that of the author following in the footsteps of a long-gone mentor he never met, the Russian pioneer botanist and geneticist Nikolay Vavilov (1887-1943). It is a complex and modest dance fitting together past and present insights and discoveries, tracing the career of an astonishingly focused and prolific scientist who not only roamed the world collecting seed, fruits and plants and the stories that illuminated them (he led 115 research expeditions through 64 countries, and liked to call himself a plant pathologist), but also, as director of the Bureau of Applied Biology in Leningrad, functioned as the head of thousands of Russian scientists from 1921 to 1940.

Vavilov’s is a spare, skinny story like the seed it espouses, that needs but warm air, moisture and fertile ground to spring to life. But before unpacking Nabhan’s book, it needs to be said upfront that its subject, the accumulated wisdom of agriculture, has been recently threatened with erasure in another way — in the mistaken rush to convenience and the simplistic thinking of industrial agriculture, with its monocrops that are “commodified,” produced and delivered at the lowest possible unit cost, ignoring or discounting the costs and effects of fossil fuel and other synthetic inputs. These monocrops then serve in turn as sources of fuel, and as raw materials for further finished products, often mislabeled as “food” with higher margins of profit than fresh fruits, grains and vegetables. This corporate model with its misplaced faith in GMOs and “Roundup-ready” staples introduces the specter of superweeds which may prove analogous to latter-day plagues like multi-disease-resistant tuberculosis. As a survival strategy, narrowing the genetic options from those millennia of countless informed choices to a few educated guesses made in a lab to suit statistically optimum conditions is a poor bet. Given the volatile weather conditions of the heating planet in just the past dozen years, we can see that extremes of drought and flood, of windstorms, earthquakes and tidal waves, are in our future. We also know that these same conditions, accompanied by crop failures, plagues and pestilence, have visited humans many times in the past, and that what they ate then helped them survive, rebound and prosper. Until recently, the work of farmers to gather and refine seed, cultivate plant and animal varieties was considered vital communal and social work for the good of all. That is, until hybrid varieties displaced those social values with the simpler economic motivation of greed, with its patenting of genetic materials and its peddling of the primary aims of convenience and short-term profit.

But to turn to Gary Paul Nabhan’s inspired pursuit of Nikolay Vavilov. The key idea which drove Vavilov’s restless field research from the first was that areas where crops had first been domesticated were unusually high in plant diversity. He suspected that these places, often mountainous uplands and remote valleys, still contained genetic plant material that had co-evolved with pests and plagues, and had weathered severe conditions such as floods and droughts, so that here he would find both plant genetics and the farming strategies to combat most of the causes of famine. So he traveled in turn to some of the most remote areas on earth, that he labeled “centers of diversity,” to gather seeds and plants, to meet with the farmers there and learn their stories.

Vavilov was uniquely suited for the task. He was a tireless traveler inured to hardships, who was organized and persistent enough to follow the trail where it led. He also had a gift for languages, which he was constantly working on. Before reaching the university he already knew five languages besides his native Russian.

By the time of his last field work he was conversant in fifteen languages, including Farsi, Turkic and Amharic. He thought it essential to record the native names, uses and lore surrounding each sample he collected — as far as possible to place it in its community and ecological, cultural and culinary context. His social skills were legendary: he befriended local farmers, seeking them out in their fields and markets, consulting and treating them as colleagues, noting their responses. And he was a vigorous and original thinker who could express his ideas with clarity and strength. As his colleague N.A. Maisurian wrote of Vavilov’s early 1916 treatise on the origins of rye as a weed among wheat and barley:

“This work had the form of a beautiful etude, describing the ‘original’ history of a famous and widely cultivated plant. He first showed the possibility of applying linguistic analysis to botanical research. After Vavilov… this method was used by [many] other scientists.” (39)

This book shines its lights through layered, compounded and diaphanous viewpoints over time, and achieves some startling effects. For example, in the high valleys where Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan meet in the watershed of the Pang River, part of the fabled Silk Road just north of the Hindu Kush, Nikolay Vavilov had visited twice, in 1916 and 1924, following in the footsteps of earlier adventurers Olufsen and Korzinsky, who had been drawn to explore the Pamirs in the 1890s. But Vavilov’s motive was not adventure, and his work there looks forward in distinctively modern ways that remain useful and relevant, resonating with Nabhan’s visit and its concerns about global warming. Vavilov took the trouble to record the extreme altitudes in these mountain valleys at which various crops could be grown, some of which today are being successfully grown 1,561 and 1,661 feet higher than they had been in 1916. So Nabhan offers a progress report and more: here are not only dire warnings, but measures of continuity and lost possibilities to be rediscovered.

In Nabhan’s hands Vavilov offers a benchmark, a scientific starting point in recent history, toward an understanding of change in the conditions under which our food is grown. The question is, can we catch on in time, not just educate ourselves about what matters, but can we propel ourselves and encourage others to act on what we know. There will be those with no love of the science involved, that although time-consuming, is also complex and elegant. For in its ultimate generosity the plant biology and genetics are at odds with the nearsighted profit motive that has mostly trumped what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Nabhan’s close reading of Vavilov’s travel accounts leads to some digested and amplified impacts, where the two field researchers become all but indistinguishable. For instance, Nabhan builds on Vavilov’s deep interest in the naming of various crops, reaching further with his explanation:

“Local farmers had coined their own terms for particular crop species, and, more important, for the new varieties that were constantly selected from their own fields. The mere act of naming a newly found variant of onion or apple leads to its isolation and further selection if the novel plant is given special care by an observant farmer.” (52)

So naming offers the continuing gift of special attention, and an enhanced potential for survival.

Nabhan’s tone throughout is understated, forthright yet mild. Some of the story he tells is of discovery and rediscovery of insights that are ancient, such as the deliberate mingling of diverse varieties of grains together in a field. In such a strategy the proximity of plants with various tolerances for drought or resistance to pests appears to make the shared seasonal ride easier for all. And where pests would be drawn to a monoculture that encourages them to breed and expand to consume the crop, in a field of mixed plantings the pests must pick through a variety that by its very nature works as a maze to resist them.

There is a flavor of diplomacy to Nabhan’s descriptions of what have been essentially international turf wars over natural resources. One of the great opportunities for turning seed not into food but into profit has been the patenting of genetic material as intellectual property. That is one bridge too far, one arrogant step too many for the modest farmer in our midst. This double story is also a primer in what biodiversity means, with regard to the feeding of people. We don’t just need the plants in their habitat, we also need informed representatives who share the 10,000 years of planting, cultivating and harvesting lore in that place.

There is useful, potentially lifesaving information deftly dispersed here. For example, many fields of maize are deliberately grown with teosinte in close proximity, in the highland valleys of Mexico’s Sierra Madre range. Teosinte, the wild predecessor of all cultivated corn, contributes some genetic material to the maize grown nearby, offering resistance to drought and hybrid vigor. And some Hopi farmers in the American Southwest employ a drought strategy of planting corn seed up to 14 inches deep after winter rains, to reach the moisture that will insure a crop. Yet this book is also responsible for unsatisfied cravings. I soon wanted to know how Vavilov managed to choose those places where he led all those expeditions. And on what basis did he select the seeds and plants he collected? At moments I could not help but wish for more. Even telling us the title of Vavilov’s seminal monograph, “The Wild Relatives of Fruit Trees of the Asian Part of the USSR and Caucasus, and the Problem of the Origin of Fruit Trees” (1931), teases us with secrets, with his understanding of why and how fruit trees propagate, touching the question of why apple trees must be grafted to fruiting root stock, and are not grown from seed. Finally I found myself wanting to know even the secrets of human generosity, how early wheat and barley, teff and maize developed in those high remote places ever found their way down to the fertile and populous plains and shores where most humans now live.

Some of the stories of science, of human knowledge, are hard to tell. Often the details overwhelm the reader, and leave him blinking in confusion, at a loss how to digest what he is being told. But Gary Paul Nabhan draws a lightly sketched but real hero out of the past, a gifted, energetic and outspoken ethnobotanist. And the key message of Vavilov’s lifework remains valid to this day — that seed diversity saved in gene banks will protect humans against famine caused by plagues, pestilence, floods, and other natural catastrophes. The unfortunate corollary is that the one cause of famine a seed bank cannot protect us from is the political institutions of man himself, that are capable of magnifying his greed and paranoia, offering unequal access to food, threatening violence, disregarding the nearly invisible sources of knowledge treated like weeds in our midst.

There is a veil drawn over Nikolay Vavilov’s final days and years. He was arrested on August 6, 1940 while on a final expedition to gather seed samples in the Ukraine. He was tried and convicted of a crime against the state — of not doing enough to prevent the famines of 1931-33, which caused the deaths of millions of rural peasants. The actual cause was the official policies of Stalin, collectivizing the farms and confiscating the grains harvested to feed the cities, the army and the bureaucracy. Farmers were not permitted to even till garden plots to feed themselves and their families. Vavilov did not receive a formal defense, and was sentenced to death, but after an outcry his sentence was commuted to twenty years in prison. It is a haunting irony that while serving his sentence, fed a raw mash of flour and frozen cabbage, Vavilov starved to death. The person who had done more than anyone else on Earth to promote and provide food security was denied the means to save himself.

The night after finishing Gary Nabhan’s book I had a dreaming aha moment, as if awakened out of a sound sleep, though still deep in the grip of a dream. There were strangers, visitors who had knocked on my door, and asked “Where are your artists, your musicians?” And from the back of the room someone in my family said, in a cheery confident voice, “Oh, we all do that.” Then, still in the grip of Gary Nabhan’s book about food security in times of abrupt, unpredictable change, I heard those strangers ask, “And where do you get your food from, where are the farmers?” Again came that jaunty answer from behind me, “Oh, we all do that.” Perhaps nothing less will save us.

Spotlight On: People

Jacko

Jacko

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from issue:

By the time he was 3 years old, Jacko had grown into a big size jack, 13 hands tall and 900 pounds, and was still growing. That summer he ran the singlerow corn planter and raked the hay, proved himself handier with a single row cultivator than a single ox, getting closer to the plants without stepping on them. Gradually he had paced himself to his three educated gaits to fill whatever job Lafe required of him: fast walk for the planter and rake, slow walk for the cultivator and plant-setter, and brisk trot for the buggy.

Farmrun John Erskine

John Erskine

John Erskine farms with horses in Sequim, WA.

Portrait of a Garden

Portrait of a Garden

As the seasons slip by at a centuries-old Dutch estate, an 85-year-old pruning master and the owner work on cultivating crops in the kitchen garden. To do this successfully requires a degree of obsessiveness, the old man explains in this calm, observational documentary. The pruning master still works every day. It would be easier if he were only 60 and young.

Building a Community, Building a Barn

Building a Community, Building a Barn

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One of the most striking aspects of this development is the strength and confidence that comes from this communal way of living. While it is impressive to build a barn in a day it seems even more impressive to imagine building four barns or six, and all the rest of the needs of a community. For these young Amish families the vision of a shared agricultural community is strong, and clear.

How Much Land Does a Man Need

How Much Land Does a Man Need?

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Close to the village there lived a lady, a small landowner, who had an estate of about three hundred acres. She had always lived on good terms with the peasants, until she engaged as her steward an old soldier, who took to burdening the people with fines. However careful Pahom tried to be, it happened again and again that now a horse of his got among the lady’s oats, now a cow strayed into her garden, now his calves found their way into her meadows — and he always had to pay a fine.

Fjordworks A History of Wrecks Part 2

Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 2

It is always fascinating and at times a little disconcerting to watch how seamlessly the macro-economics of trying to make a living as a farmer in such an out-of-balance society can morph us into shapes we never would have dreamed of when we were getting started. This year we will be putting in a refrigerated walk-in cooler which will allow us to put up more storage-share vegetables.

Congo Farm Project

Congo Farm Project

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I was at day one, standing outside an old burnt-out Belgian plantation house, donated to us by the progressive young chief of the village of Luvungi. My Congolese friend and I had told him that we would need to hire some workers to help clear the land around the compound, and to put a new roof on the building. I thought we should be able to attract at least 20 workers. Then, I looked out to see a crowd of about 800 eager villagers, each one with their own hoe.

ODHBA 2016 Plowing Match

ODHBA 2016 Plowing Match

The Oregon Draft Horse Breeders Association hosted their 50th Anniversary Plowing Match at the Yamhill Valley Heritage Center in McMinnville, Oregon on April 9, 2016. Small Farmer’s Journal was lucky enough to attend and capture some of the action to share.

Fjord Horses at Work in the Green Mountains of Vermont

Fjord Horses at Work in the Green Mountains of Vermont

We own a 40 jersey cow herd and sell most of their milk to Cobb Hill Cheese, who makes farmstead cheeses. We have a four-acre market garden, which we cultivate with our team of Fjord horses and which supplies produce to a CSA program, farm stand and whole sale markets. Other members of the community add to the diversity of our farm by raising hay, sheep, chickens, pigs, bees, and berries, and tending the forest and the maple sugar-bush.

Farmrun A Reverence for Excellence

A Reverence for Excellence

A portrait of Maple Rock Farm and Hogstone’s Wood Oven, a unique farm and restaurant on Orcas Island where the farmers are the chefs, A Reverence for Excellence strives to be an honest portrayal of the patience, toil, conviction and faith required of an agrarian livelihood.

The Craft of the Wheelwright

The Craft of the Wheelwright

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In these days of standardization and the extensive use of metal wheels you might think there is little call for the centuries old craft of wheelwrighting, but the many demands on the skills of Gus Kitson in Suffolk, England, show this to be very far from the truth. Despite many years experience of renovating all types of wagons and wheels even Gus can still be surprised by the types of items for which new or restored wooden wheels are required.

Bonjour de France

Bonjour de France

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A little sign of life from France. Everything is going rather well at the tiniest of farms. Besides the veggies I have been plowing in the vineyards of the Bordeaux area to add some extra income. The drafthorses are back over there, so they need horsemen.

Fields Farm

Fields Farm

Located within the city limits of Bend, Oregon, Fields Farm is an organic ten acre market garden operation combining CSA and Farmer’s Market sales.

American Milking Devons and the Flack Family Farm

American Milking Devons and the Flack Family Farm

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On a sunny early September day I met Doug Flack at his biodynamic and organic farm, just South of Enosburg Falls. Doug is an American Milking Devon breeder with some of the best uddered and well behaved animals I have seen in the breed. The animals are beautifully integrated into his small and diversified farm. His system of management seems to bring out the best in the animals and his enthusiasm for Devon cattle is contagious.

The Real Work Karbaumer Farm

The Real Work Karbaumer Farm

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A bold and opinionated German, Klaus moved to the midwest over 25 years ago from Bavaria and is currently running the only tractor-less farm in Platte County, Missouri operated by draft horses. Karbaumer Farm tries to “live and grow in harmony with Nature and her seasons” and produces over 50 varieties of chemical-free, organic vegetables for the community, providing a CSA or the greater Kansas City area.

Fjordworks A History of Wrecks Part 3

Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 3

Working with horses can and should be safe and fun and profitable. The road to getting there need not be so fraught with danger and catastrophe as ours has been. I hope the telling of our story, in both its disasters and successes will not dissuade but rather inspire would-be teamsters to join the horse-powered ranks and avoid the pitfalls of the un-mentored greenhorn.

What We Really Lose

What We Really Lose

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A few minutes with my Old Man will bring you stories Hollywood could never write. Stories of driving the canned milk to town at age 12 in the family pickup, not having a car to drive, driving new Cadillacs, eating home raised meals, eating at the Four Seasons as Presidents walked out while he was walking in, farming with only horses, then new tractors, then big tractors, then not farming, then doing it again with 50 year old tractors, then once more with no tractors.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT