When I started full-time farming, I needed some hope. I felt frustrated with the world around me. I was dissatisfied with a system I saw devaluing personal relationships and disconnecting us from each other and nature. I was looking for change, for connection, for purpose.
In 2013, when I began my CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training) internship at Whole Circle Farm (WFC) in Acton, Ontario, one of my goals was to continue learning about local seed security.
In rural Honduras, I had worked with small-scale farmers, who were working to improve their local food security. They stressed the importance of access to good quality seeds, suited for their particular fields. They talked about seed banks and community celebrations of local ‘criollo’ (landrace) seeds. They spoke of work they had done in their farmer research committees and with plant breeders from the local university. When I entered the organic and biodynamic farming community in southern Ontario, I wanted to know if Canadians were talking about seed security in a similar way.
That first season, I learned much about market gardening and animal husbandry. My mentors, especially Johann and Maggie Kleinsasser—owners of Whole Circle Farm—and Abe Wahi, then the market garden co-manager at WFC, knew of my interest in seeds and took time and care to share stories about seeds and seed saving throughout the season. I learned how, that season, only two or three varieties of vegetables in the garden were from saved seed, but in the past, Maggie and Johann had saved up to 80% of their own seeds. I learned that Abe, too, had a passion for seed saving. He even had a seed production garden started one season, only to be pulled away to all the work needed in the market garden, having to abandon many of his seed production ideas.
As the 2013 season came to an end, there were many changes afoot at Whole Circle. As we planned for the next year, Johann expressed his desire to put more intention back into saving vegetable seed. I was interested in helping him revive the project. We applied for a small grant from the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, which works with farmers across Canada to build a diverse and resilient seed system. One of their goals is to increase the quality, quantity and diversity of ecologically grown Canadian seed.
And so, in the early days of 2014, with snow still blanketing the ground, I began to learn about seed production—by doing. Johann and I discussed the varieties of crops we would like to save seeds from, where to locate the seed garden to provide adequate isolation between species, and we talked to our market garden managers about their seed needs. I learned it is important to feel really passionate about the varieties you’re working to save. Seed breeder Dr. John Navaziosays, “It has to be fun. Otherwise you’ll be seed-slaving.” If you choose a crop that you do not feel a certain connection to, you won’t enjoy saving it. Some of the crops we chose had been saved for many years on the farm and did well in our local environment. Local farmers gave us other seeds. I was honoured to be given a container of ceremonial blue corn from Iowne Anderson from Six Nations. I grew out three varieties of squash and a melon for Seeds of Diversity Canada. In the end, Johann and I planted about 40 vegetable varieties for seed production.
Because I was still dedicated to the market garden, I could work only one day each week in the seed garden at the other end of the property. That time limitation was a challenge, but I learned a lot through this experience. When asked in my year-end review to list the concrete things I had learned, I wrote about the differences between growing veggies for market and for seed, as well as the importance of weeding for seed crops. Seed production plants are left in the ground much longer than in a market garden. The space between plants needs to be increased, especially in wet years. Keeping seed gardens weed-free is important at all stages of seed production in order to grow strong plants, improve airflow for decreased disease pressure, and avoid harvesting weed seeds with your seed stock. This makes for healthy seeds that are easier to clean.
During the season, I also had time to think about the financial viability of vegetable seed saving in southern Ontario. Even if my values strongly align with the philosophical reasons to save seed, growing, selecting, and processing seed is hard work that often feels as though it lacks a clear monetary reward. As seed stewards, I believe that we ought to be able to pay ourselves a fair wage. When I conceptualize the ideas of seeds as a public good and still being compensated fairly I turn to something Andrew and Sarah at Adaptive Seeds said once. They view the need for us seed savers to be remunerated as not being paid for the seed, per say, but the service of stewardship and production of a precious gift. Yet, how do we as a community do this? How do we support the stewards of these small precious gifts?
Through the Bauta Initiative and the support of Whole Circle Farm, I was able to attend seed production workshops and conferences, such as Build Your Own Small Seed Winnower at the Cottage Gardener; Harvesting, Cleaning and Processing Seeds at Hawthorn Seed Farm; Contract Growing for Seed Companies with Dan Brisebois at EcoFarm Day the Eastern Canadian Organic Seed Growers Network (ECOSGN Conference in St.-Anne-de-Bellevue, QC; and the Ecological Farmers of Ontario (EFAO) Conference in Orillia (efao.ca). In this part of the world, the ecological seed production community is very small, made up of people who are passionate about seeds, seed security, and improving the world through concrete actions. Seed production is inherently social, often dictating the sharing of seeds, so it is no wonder this community is abundantly supportive and caring. I have found that seeds spark and build important relationships between people.
Under the continued mentorship of Johann at Whole Circle Farm and Kim Delaney and Aaron Lyons at Hawthorn Seed Farm in Palmerston, Ontario, I am again growing seeds for the 2015 season. I have joined a group of five other market garden farmers and Hawthorn Seeds in an association called Seeds of Transition. Each market gardener is entrusted to grow out varieties of bean, pea, beet, onion and other crops they may desire. The seed company will help with rouging (identifying and removing plants with undesirable characteristics to produce the best quality seed), selection of plants with desirable characteristics, and harvesting. Hawthorn will clean the seed, return half to the farmers, and sell the rest. The agreement means that a small seed company like Hawthorn can work to grow out large quantities of these varieties. This allows the market farms to use their expertise to grow beautiful produce and also increases the locally adapted seed available to these farmers.
I will grow seed for the new Vegetable Seed Producers Network (VSPN), formed through Seeds of Diversity Canada, which aims to produce bulk quantities of high-quality vegetable seed for Canadian farms and gardens. I’m also on contract to grow seeds for Hawthorn Seed Farm. And, perhaps most importantly, the hope is to meet some of our own market garden seed needs for the coming season.
Seed growers’ generosity and desire to teach others about this important work continue to amaze me. If you want to learn about seed saving, from basic backyard seed saving to integrating seed saving into market gardening, check out the resources and events listed below, attend your local Seedy Saturday, volunteer at a nearby seed company, and/or attend the next ECOSGN Conference.
I know a story that begins with a seed. It is a cabbage seed held in the hand of my mentor Johann. Standing barefoot in the garden, he explains that, for him, seed saving is a sacred duty for which we, as stewards of the land, are responsible. This seed he holds has miraculously developed, alien-like to me who has never seen cabbage go to seed, from cabbage heads we selected last fall, stored over winter in our cooler and planted in the spring. This is a variety that you can’t find anywhere else; no farmer I have met remembers this variety. An internet search revealed the variety listed only in an old book. Yet, here in this field, this seed and its story are very much alive.
Every morning, as I meet with the team at Whole Circle and discuss the plans for the day, I feel so much hope. To be a steward of hope, I foster seeds. This is a story that starts in your hand and can feed a community.