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.
Wow! Cultivating over 5-½ acres of market garden vegetables with a wheel hoe! We can’t help thinking that a good team of cultivating horses would just slow down the energetic farmers at the Sunflower Cooperative. We wish we had some of that sunflower power for quickly cultivating by hand Daniel’s wide ranging questions, especially the ones that open up new ground for this column, such as the topics of irrigation and seed varieties. Perhaps it won’t seem like such a long row for us to hoe if we begin by cultivating the more familiar territory of how the perennials and house gardens fit into the bio-extensive rotation.
Selecting for flavor was immensely illuminating: without consistent selection, carrots bring forth their bitter ancestry. Tasting this legacy in all their pine-y, resinous intensity was eye-opening as well as tongue-tingling. At first, perhaps every one-in-eighty carrots would have a distinct and unmistakable pinesol-esque quality. With each generation, the proportion decreases. Still, with every generation and always, we are making flavor selections. And it’s paid off: within three generations, Dulcinea was significantly sweeter and more tender than Bolero both in summer and in storage.
Deep in the cultural trenches and personal histories within small farming is the oft shared love of seed catalog mining during fall and winter. We might say it is all about the enthusiasms that come with planning another year’s growing but I know it is also about a tangible immersion in the practical literature of planting choices. As many of you know already, with Fedco Seeds of Maine we have catalogs which are educational, testimonial, encouraging and genuinely bracing. And equally important we have all of that in a form that can and should be trusted and preserved. This is ‘our’ sort of seed company. Let’s go further ‘out on a proverbial limb’ and say their catalogs are our sort of reading material.
They say to preserve them properly, seeds should be kept in a cool, dark place in a sealed, dry container. Yet the circumstances under which seeds in a natural environment store themselves (so to speak) seem so far from ideal, that it’s a wonder plants manage to reproduce at all. But any gardener knows that plants not only manage to reproduce, they excel at it. Who hasn’t thrown a giant squash into the compost heap in the fall only to see some mystery squash growing there the next summer?
Row 7 is a unique new seed company grounded in ‘the notion that deliciousness might just change the world.’ A seed company built by chefs and breeders striving to make ingredients taste better before they ever hit a plate. It’s a collaboration—a cross-pollination— based on a simple premise: they believe flavor can succeed where commodification has failed. That it can change how we all eat and, in turn, how we might grow.
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.
We are approaching this from a seed quality standpoint, not just a seed saving one. Saving seed is fairly simple to do, but the results from planting those seeds can be very mixed; without a basis of understanding of seed quality, people can be disappointed and confused as to why they got the results they did. Both the home gardener and the seed company must understand seed quality to be successful in their respective endeavors.
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.