2018 State of the Seedshed
Now that the gardens have gone to sleep and I'm holed up in the seed shack with the crew, tucking these little miracles into packets, it occurs to me that 2017 is the year I started to believe in what we're doing. I mean, really truly believe in it. I know over the years we've been doing important work, convening a community of people who care about biodiversity and resilience and regional economy, building a functional model. But this year for whatever reason, it all just gelled for me. Perhaps it's because 2017 was a call for all of us in the US to double down on what matters to us. Perhaps it's because we've simply reached a critical mass. Perhaps it's the year we started to see real jobs created out of this thing. Perhaps it's simply because of the corn and all it inspires in me. But seriously, I'm excited to admit that we're growing something powerful here!
2017 brought further consolidation of the world's seed supply in the hands of what Dr. Vandana Shiva calls the "Poison Cartel." Bayer merged with Monsanto, Dow with DuPont, and Syngenta with ChemChina, leaving over 75% of the world's seeds in the hands of 3 massive chemical companies. We've also seen the continuation of another disturbing trend--the rise of globally-produced and distributed, patented organic seeds and certified organic hybrid seeds, which are finding their way onto the farms of small- and mid-scale organic farmers like all those in our own communities who we consider to be at the forefront of building a local food movement. So many of the companies we small-scale farmers have historically turned to for high-quality seeds have gotten bigger and bigger and at this point it's hard to know what their ethics are. Of the 79 new varieties Johnny's Selected Seeds says they're introducing this year, 52 of them are hybrids (which means they won't breed true-to-type if you save and replant them so you have to keep buying seeds every year). Only 18 of them are open-pollinated (true-breeding), and of those, several are patented, meaning it's illegal to save and replant seeds from them. I mention this merely as an example of where we seem to be headed, not as a condemnation of these mid-scale seed companies, nor of hybrid seeds, or even patented seeds. Because as with all things in our complicated modern world, nuances abound.
However, Snake River Seed Co-op is gaining ground every year, weaving an ever-greater community of Intermountain West farmers, gardeners, eaters, teachers, and others in service to the seeds and all the abundance they bring into our region. This year we added 30 new varieties to our seed offerings (with an exciting new partnership which will bring dozens more in the very near future....ooh, the suspense! Stay tuned!) and ramped up the seed stock of hundreds of old favorites, bringing the total number of varieties stewarded by the co-op to over 300!
The boys at Fiddler's Green Farm cleaning their first co-op seed crop: Red Core Chantenay carrots.
Other highlights of the 2017 season include:
-Working with 9 new co-op growers, helping them select the best seed crops for their farm models and walking them through their first season of seed production. Their willingness to expand their farm models to include seed production means a greater variety of seed crops became available to local gardeners and the seeds under our care became a little safer by having more skilled growers to steward them. In the era of corporate consolidation and seed patents, the more hands that hold them, that learn intimately the ways of caring for them, the safer they are.
Joseph inspecting a zinnia seed crop with the Earthly Delights Farm crew.
-Forming partnerships with several remarkable independent regional plant breeders. These folks have for decades been pouring their life energy into stewarding, selecting, and crossing a vast number of plant varieties for the benefit of humanity. Joseph Lofthouse left his job as a chemist to focus on creating landraces--wildly diverse genepools of plants that become adapted to a particular place over time--in the mountains of northern Utah. One of the problems with modern plant breeding is our obsession with "uniformity." We want varieties to be uniform so they're easier to farm on a larger scale using machinery. But when we select for uniformity, we necessarily decrease diversity, making these varieties more susceptible to disease or pest outbreaks, climactic vagaries, etc. Joseph's work is inexplicably valuable, and we're pleased to be able to offer a handful of his gorgeously diverse landraces through the Co-op as well. He served as an inspiration and a mentor to many of us when he came to Boise last summer for our annual grower meeting.
The first of many accessions of Thumbs' life's work into the co-op.
-This year also brought a collaboration with iconic Idaho plant breeder Thumbs Heath, who has grown seeds in and around the Gospel Hump wilderness near the Frank Church in central Idaho for decades, offering his selections largely through the Seed Savers Exchange network as his Peaceful Purple Produce People project. A PhD candidate in plant breeding in the 1980s, Thumbs left the program due to philosophical differences about the ways to work with seeds to serve the future of humanity. Like Joseph, Thumbs believes that breeding varieties for uniformity so the breeders can make money by serving the industrial agriculture machine is going in the wrong direction. That in that model, the seeds, the crops, the environment, and the humans all lose out in the end. He has instead devoted his life to stewarding hundreds of varieties of vegetables, garlics, and staple crops, including dozens of oats, barleys, wheats, amaranths and others, which he believes will prove useful as the follies of the present system accelerate to a breaking point. Of particular interest is Thumbs' focus on purple plants. He suspects that something in the chemical composition of the purple color in plants makes them more winter-hardy, drought-tolerant, and offers other evolutionary advantages. We are thrilled to be working with Thumbs to list an increasing number of his hundreds of varieties through the co-op, to get them into the hands of more people who will help steward them as a continuation of his beautiful life's work.
Thumbs, who was born with an extra segment in his thumbs, says this sign means Peace but also, Be Yourself!
I also must say that while both Thumbs and Joseph are offering up some of the most breathtaking seeds that point toward the most beautiful agriculture I can imagine, that's only part of their inspiration. In this year of deepening friendship with them, both men have humbled me with their willingness to think truly outside the box, to stretch far outside our mainstream culture to find physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health. Thumbs doesn't have a phone, or internet, or a car, or a bank account. To communicate with him, one must sit down and pen that most gorgeous of near-obsolete accounts: the hand written letter. Joseph also doesn't go in for banks. Furthermore, he spent most of 2017 not wearing shoes and sharing the insights gained from that experience. His generous spirit overflows with the most lovely and sparkly contagiousness. It is impossible not to feel the wonder of the world when in Joseph's company. These two are absolutely one of the greatest gifts of 2017 for me and our little co-op. I'm thrilled that what we are building can help folks like them who are doing this vital work to get it out to a wider number of potential seed stewards.
-Another highlight of 2017 is the corn project, which I have written extensively about. At the close of the year, we have the framework to scale up promising varieties through our own ladder of farmers, and have made a crucial partnership with Tim Cornie at the forthcoming Thousand Springs Mill. He is extremely excited about the partnership in that it will be able to utilize the framework we've built to work with our chosen corn varieties to bring any number of other promising grains up through the same ladder. I cannot express how grateful I am to have stumbled into this role. As a very small-scale farmer, it is easy to feel like what I am doing on my own farm is inconsequential, that it doesn't do enough for the greater food system. The concept of farmers of varying scales working together to bring diverse staple crops into our locally-grown diet feels significant. Grains constitute the bulk of our calories as eaters, and by golly, grains are seeds! How apropos to be helping to take more diverse, low-input adapted and nutritious grain seeds from a handful to a field full, then into a mill and onto our plates. Thrilling!
-Through our partnership with the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, we had a couple of amazing opportunities in 2017. We traveled to and presented at the first Mountain West Seed Summit, which was held in New Mexico last March. Hands down the most inspiring seed conference I've ever been to, it brought together Native and non-Native seed stewards together for several days of powerful discussion and education. It is awe-inspiring and humbling to sit in a workshop or visit a seed bank with folks who have been stewarding varieties of seeds on the same ground for millennia. When we're looking for models for sustainable agriculture, the southwest overflows with them. The next Summit is slated for spring 2019, so mark your calendars!
We also had the opportunity to present at the Sun Valley Wellness Festival in the company of Dr. Vandana Shiva. A longtime shero of mine, it was as powerful as I could have dreamed to be in her company. She inspired the larger audiences she presented to and also gave those of us with RMSA a laser-focus clarity on the issues at hand and what our role is in solving them.
A quick anecdote: when I asked her advice for us at this stage of the Co-op, she said, "You must first connect the seed to the seed. (That is, you must first learn to grow and save the seeds.). "Then you must connect the seeds to the food." In other words, you must learn how to eat the food you can grow from your seeds, and not just that--you must have a culture that has fallen in love with the food and eats it as a regular part of their diet in order to create a truly sustainable model. Upon my return from the conference, our Earthly Delights Farm crew gathered around to organize the day's CSA harvest and I shared with them what Dr. Shiva had said. As CSA farmers we have built a culture of people around our farms who love the foods we grow and have done that most important work of incorporating them into their diets. I looked at our harvest list for the week, and counted down the varieties, noting which ones were grown from our own farm-saved seed, or the seeds of another Snake River Seed Co-op grower. One by one, we ticked off the varieties: "Red Giant Mustards, our seed, Pac Choi, our seed, Sugar Snap Peas, our seed," and by the bottom of the 13 variety harvest list I had tears in my eyes. All but one of the varieties we were harvesting that day had been grown from seed we grew. We all stared at that list with wonder--what we are doing is working! What started as a market farm who, like most others, used to buy literally every seed it planted from a faraway seed company had over the years of incremental changes, first saving one seed, then another, then another, had grown into a farm whose own seeds supplied over 90% of what they produced! What had started as a ragtag group of eaters who hadn't a clue what to do with any of the food they purchased through their CSA share had grown into a full-blown food culture, where folks look forward to the coming of certain beloved CSA crops and the meals they love to make with them. It hit me: WE ARE SUCCEEDING. Even now as I write this I'm choking up. In farming the pay is never that much, but this realization has made the last 15 years of my life's work feel completely worth it.
The SRSC office crew
There is so much more I could share about the Co-op over this year. We added several part-time staff including our wonderful bookkeeper Colleen and our intrepid, spreadsheet-loving office manager Reiley. Lori reached thousands more folks through her social media and marketing work, and we added nursery partners in Ontario, Oregon and Ketchum, Idaho along with several others. There is a seemingly unstoppable forward movement whizzing us into 2018, and we welcome it with gusto.
If you have read all the way to the bottom of this, you are obviously a crucial part of this project. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for all the ways you have helped us, be it by reading and engaging with our ideas, by buying and growing our seeds, or by learning to save your own. This is truly a collaborative community project and it takes all of us working together to see it into the future. Thank you. Love, Casey Seed freak and Snake River Seed Co-op co-founder