A seed is a fitting symbol for an organization inspired by a fallen trailblazer of the local, organic food movement. 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.
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).
Ever wonder where all that seed comes from when you place your midwinter seed orders? Many seed companies (as in retail seed catalogs) buy at least some of the seed they offer from commercial seed growers who have a highly mechanized operation. This allows us to have inexpensive seed that is widely available. A lot of these catalogs also contract small farm growers to provide those hard-to-find specialty seeds we all love. There are also seed companies who do all their own grow-outs for the seed they offer. All these companies will also run seed trials to test the qualities of new varieties they want to offer.
“Today so few people farm that vital knowledge of how to farm is disappearing. The average age of farmers is over fifty-five and approaching sixty. The proportion of principal farm operators younger than thirty-five has dropped from 15.9 percent in 1982 to 5.8 percent in 2002.” After I read Heinberg’s little monograph, the final scene from ‘Fahrenheit 451’ flashed in my mind’s eye. But this time, they were not reciting great works of literature – they were reciting farm manuals about soil, compost, microbes, beneficial insects, cover crops and more. The entire Rodale catalogue of books was personified.
This past year a phenomenon occurred I had not heard of before that brought me mixed feelings. In the face of the nationwide quarantines and shelter in place mandates, people everywhere put out gardens. People who had not gardened before, those who had not in many years, and the regular gardeners did even more. This resulted in seed companies everywhere running out of seed relatively early in the year. Many of these companies had surplus stock that was completely wiped out. And then it happened again this year. As I said this brought me mixed feelings. The first was “Wow! This is great, more people are gardening than ever!” The next thought was a little more somber and perhaps selfish, “I may not be able to count on getting the seed I want when I want it.”
Let us remember: We all come from a great lineage of farmers, seed stewards and plant breeders. From ten thousand years to a century ago, to be a farmer was synonymous with being a seed saver, synonymous in turn with being a plant breeder. Keen observation, thoughtful selection and an appreciation for diversity across the millennia have surrounded us with all the agricultural crops we now know, love and depend on. Countless generations and entire cultures were plant breeders before DNA was even described. Indeed, modernity has thoroughly rogued human interest from our food system.