A word on seeds

“The best way to oppose a system is often to create something better to replace it.”

Scarlet runner beans, grown mostly to attract hummingbirds but also delicious to eat. Plus the beans are gorgeous.

I read a Wall Street Journal piece recently that really stuck in my craw. The article details the ongoing global supply chain challenges, specifically focusing on the Halloween season:

“Ben Wieber, a 27-year-old professional services consultant in Kalamazoo, Mich., struck out trying to purchase a miniature haunted house in-store to add to his Lemax Spooky Town collection, a line of Halloween-themed animatronic figurines and buildings. He was also broadly disappointed in the amount of Halloween décor available at stores near him.

“I went to Lowe’s, Home Depot, T.J. Maxx, HomeGoods and I’m already seeing Christmas stuff replace the Halloween stuff, which is ridiculous,” Mr. Wieber says. “I’m like, hello? Are we just skipping Halloween this year?”

This appalling anecdote immediately brings to mind two things: 1. Obviously the pandemic is over and 2. Even more obviously the apocalypse is nigh. Late in 2021, after more than eighteen months of crushing loss and death and isolation and sickness and disinformation and loneliness and unrest and economic devastation and fury, we have clearly reached the point at which all of our mental energies – and our time and gas! – can be laser-focused on buying yet another cheap trinket that we don’t need but are angry that we can’t get. I’m like, hello?

We grew spectacular peas this season.

I am particularly caught up in this obsessive need to buy tacky, energy-intensive, disposable, Chinese-made plastic holiday decorations because at the moment, much of my own time and energy is focused on saving seeds from this growing season. We’ve talked about seeds regularly here at FQF HQ, but in the wake of what’s occurred over the past year and a half, and what’s certainly coming down the pipeline (I’m like hello, irreversible climate change!) seeds have taken on a new significance.

Cleaning saved basil seeds is a bit labor-intensive – the seeds are actually those tiny black specks in the lower right – but worth the effort.

To understand why seeds are so essential to human survival, it’s important to understand just how much has changed in only the past century. For about ten thousand years, since the shift from nomadic hunter-gatherer tribal living to established agriculture, humans have saved seeds. No seed companies existed until recently, of course, so the only way to ensure food for the following year was to save seeds from this season’s harvest, and to trade and barter with neighboring farmers for their seeds. Because seeds were so necessary for human survival, they were rarely shipped and therefore didn’t travel long distances; by their very nature, these seeds were perfectly adapted over generations to the unique microclimate of the area in which they were grown. Saving seed is so painfully obvious – the ability to grow food so clearly a basic human right – that it never occurred to small farmers that a seed could be patented as intellectual property, like a song or a book.

The squirrels didn’t steal all of our sunflower seeds this season!

This system worked beautifully until Big Ag wanted in on the action after World War II concluded. To summarize an incredibly complex situation in a few glib words: much of the world’s food supply is now based on patented hybrid and/or GMO seeds. Three large multinational corporations now control over 70% of the world’s seeds, and therefore over 70% of the world’s food. It is illegal under a variety of laws to save and propagate these seeds, and in most cases the seeds won’t breed true anyway. This global movement away from seed sovereignty (“the farmer’s right to breed and exchange diverse open-source seeds which can be saved and which are not patented, genetically modified, owned or controlled by emerging seed giants”) threatens everyone on the planet, yet apparently we’re too busy looking for unavailable Halloween decorations to care about that.

Even now, there are only a handful of seed companies in the U.S.; there used to be thousands, each with their own regional specialties. Buy from Johnny’s or High Mowing and you’ll likely get seeds grown out in Maine or Vermont or somewhere else in New England. They’ll probably produce, yes, but Maine and Vermont are pretty different climactically from the high-plains desert we grow in, and I’d like to have a greater chance at success with seeds adapted to my region. And of course we all remember what happened in the spring of 2020. Seed companies were entirely overwhelmed by demand once it became clear that the pandemic was here to stay, and seeds weren’t available anyway; if they did arrive, it was long after planting season. I’m simply not willing to stake my household’s food security on the rickety scaffolding of unprepared seed companies, global panic and the USPS.

Onion seeds are easy to harvest and save, but they must be collected before they’re wind-dispersed.

Back in September, the U.N. – an utterly useless pretend mafia of pompous self-important incompetent blowhards, if you want to know my real opinion – convened the first Food Systems Summit, which was theoretically designed to “determine the future of agriculture.” Yet the small farmers who actually grow the majority of the world’s food were not offered a seat at the table. Instead, in a move surprising to precisely no one, the loudest and most prominent voices were those of Big Ag and Big Pharma, mainly companies who have committed grievous biopiracy by patenting landrace seeds and inventing GMO crops that threaten both the planet and human health. Dear United Nations: Praising Monsanto/Bayer for its breathless promises to cure global hunger – an issue it directly causes AND profits from – by patenting seeds is like praising Jeff Bezos for his commitment to solving climate change. In effect, you don’t win a prize for claiming to “fix” a problem that you directly helped create (and made billions along the way!).

All this is to say: convening a bunch of billionaires – who have probably never grown a single tomato in their lives – in some sparkly ballroom in some fancy city far from any actual agriculture isn’t likely to solve the world’s food problems. And for that reason, hundreds of food sovereignty organizations, indigenous and smallholder farmer groups, and scientists boycotted the U.N. summit, and rightfully so. It is absurd to think that Big Ag and Big Pharma would have even the slightest interest in working in tandem with small farmers on improving food systems; their respective interests are entirely at odds. Seed companies don’t make money if people save their own seeds! To maintain the very profitable status quo, power must be kept in the hands of the few, and making seed saving illegal (and useless, in the case of GMOs and hybrids) is one very effective way to maintain that power. (These corporations would still do well to remember the other side of the coin: most revolutions start when people are hungry.)

Be careful with cayenne pepper seeds – gloves are recommended!

It is so easy to feel entirely hopeless and dejected in the face of the world’s mounting problems, and to feel as though our own actions don’t count in the slightest. It doesn’t matter that we conscientiously sort our recycling and bring it to the drop-off center; virtually all of America’s “recycling” is actually dumped straight into the landfill. It doesn’t matter that we don’t use A/C or heat in our house, and instead try to maintain comfort with fresh air and warm sweaters; most of the country is now accustomed to perfectly-calibrated indoor temperatures requiring vast amounts of energy. What does matter, however, is our seed bank. Saving our own heirloom, open-pollinated seeds, and sharing them widely with other growers in our area, actually makes a difference. That classic question about what you’d save in case of a fire? It’s a real consideration where we live, and our small, compact, lightweight, portable seed bank would be at the top of the list. With those seeds, we can feed ourselves, and there is no greater human accomplishment than self-reliance.

Marigolds always remind me of our travels in India.

We save seeds here at Quiet Farm because we want control over our own food supply. We save seeds because we want to share seeds and encourage others to grow food. We save seeds because we want to steward unique, rare varieties of plants that grow well in our challenging climate. We save seeds because we believe the only way to reasonably face climate change is through adaptation. We save seeds because we do not believe that Big Ag and Big Pharma have our best interests at heart. We save seeds because anyone can claim to be an ‘activist’ while not actually doing anything – but stewarding a seed bank is a tangible, useful, productive way to protest against our rapidly dwindling power as small farmers. We save seeds because it matters.

So save your seeds, friends. You might well need them someday. And save your animatronic haunted houses too – apparently they have some value on the resale market. Try Ben in Michigan.

Kale typically only sets seed after its second growing season here.

P.S. If you’re in our area (or even if you’re not!) and you’d like to learn more about saving seeds, please consider joining the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance,  “a nonprofit organization working to assure an abundant and diverse supply of local seeds for the Rocky Mountain region through education, networking, and establishing community-based models of seed stewardship.”

6 thoughts on “A word on seeds

  1. LOVED this wise writing- I relish at the thought of still harvesting my carrots and herbs- it’s grounding for us. Food, real dirt grown, organic food is what feeds the soul……..thanks for the reminder. Karen

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  2. Hi Elizabeth

    I just now signed up as a contributor to Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance.

    So much more satisfying than contributing to ANY politician, regardless of upcoming elections.

    Gorgeous sunrise here in Lakewood. Warmest regards, Karen

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  3. Hi Libby, I found this on the day I read your blog about the importance of seeds and thought I’d pass it along to you. Hope all is well with you and Nick. What a crazy, scary world we find ourselves in. On the plus side we’re doing OK.

    Love Mrs.

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    • Hello Mrs. S, thank you for your comment! That story about the scientists choosing to starve rather than eating their country’s future in the form of seeds is one that has always resonated with me, as well. We appreciate you reading our blog and send our very best to you and Mr. S.

      Like

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