Editor’s Note: This Claire Potter story first appeared in the Valley News on June 5th.
STRAFFORD – Sylvia Smith’s house, small and blue, overlooks different shades of green rolling down towards a valley. Daffodils and spears of asparagus grow haphazardly in her grass. She lives on only a few acres, but her land is plentiful. She maintains five gardens, each laid out in sections and rows, with vegetables carefully placed to take advantage of the micro-variations in her sandy soil.
She grows everything from potatoes, carrots and other New England staples to medlar, a fruit popular in the Middle Ages that tastes like a caramel-infused apple. But it also saves seeds, nurturing a necessary skill of self-sufficiency and reintroducing flavors that have disappeared from supermarket palates.
She saved her first seeds when she was growing up in Connecticut. Her parents let her manage a 10-by-12-foot garden for her experiments, and she planted dried beans bought from the grocery store. Now her hair is gray, she walks with a cane, and her experiences have reached new heights.
On a hot Thursday evening in May, she hosted the Upper Valley Seed Savers’ first in-person potluck dinner since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. She has been a member of the Upper Valley Seed Savers, a small group of independent gardeners, for about eight years.
Seed saving is more than a hobby. It is an essential element of the resilience of any individual in a food system dominated by global monopolies. And seed savers contribute to the resilience of the wider food system; they manage the diversity that dwindles as monocultures fill grocery stores. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, just three crops – rice, wheat and maize – account for almost 60% of the calories of the world’s population. And since the 1900s, around 75% of plant genetic diversity has been lost as farmers abandon landraces for genetically uniform, high-yielding crops.
Sylvia Davatz, a seed saver for decades, and Ruth Fleishman, a former middle school teacher who learned the skill from Davatz, both attended the potluck. They founded the group about 13 years ago.
Saving seeds opens up a whole new dimension to gardening, Fleishman said. Seed savers see their plants grow for a long time when a gardener would typically harvest their vegetables. Whole life cycles take place in their gardens.
It also complicates growth, she said. Seed rescuers must maintain population sizes large enough to maintain genetic diversity. Distance between some varieties is necessary to guard against cross-pollination because a hybrid does not replicate the traits of its parents. “It’s fascinating,” she said.
Smith explained his full experiences with his failures and successes.
In one of his gardens, rye grew in a thick bed that looks like a more appetizing version of crabgrass. Smith had planted the Finnish strain of rye from seed Fleishman had obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s seed bank. The rye had flowered.
But the carrots she had planted to sow had suffered. Only a few survived. Fleishman’s carrots hadn’t fared any better. Carrots, a biennial, are a challenge. They will only produce seeds in their second season. But they need to come out of dormancy early; otherwise, they will flower at the same time as Queen Anne’s Lace, a wild carrot, pollinate with it and produce no viable seeds.
“We’ll finally get it,” Smith said. Carrots – along with onions, parsnips and cabbage – are among the seed saver collaborations. They often work together to maintain distance between varieties that would otherwise cross pollinate.
Towards a resilient food system
A resilient food system requires diversity, said Dan Tobin, rural sociologist at the University of Vermont. As of 2018, just four companies – Bayer (which bought Monsanto in 2018), Cortes, Chem-China and Corteva – control more than 60% of the global seed market, according to Michigan State University professor Philip Howard. And they sell the seeds that bring in the most profit; often staple cereal crops designed or bred to grow in a monoculture system, he explained.
Farmers have become very dependent on seed companies. Farmers cannot save hybrid seeds to grow another season. They have to buy them back because the hybrids do not breed consistent offspring. And since the 1980s, intellectual property laws have extended to living organisms. Thus, farmers cannot save seeds of certain self-pollinated varieties whose seeds would be viable due to intellectual property rights.
Monopolization has gone hand in hand with the decline in the diversity of agricultural fields around the world. But when the human diet relies disproportionately on a handful of crops, it is vulnerable to any disease or pest that can take hold of the narrow foundations of our food system.
Seed banks and seed reserves are our insurance against human and environmental disasters, Tobin said. The Syrian civil war has destroyed the land of this Middle Eastern country, leaving its farmers without the means to feed their country. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault has been opened to reseed Syrian fields. In an arctic mountain, Norway stores thousands and thousands of seeds that represent almost every known crop in the world.
But seed banks have a weakness, Tobin said.
“When seeds are locked in a freezer for 30 years, there is no benefit in adapting to environmental changes.” Left to reproduce, the plants evolve according to the local climate. Imported every year, they never have the chance.
The Upper Valley Seed Savers are doing “ongoing evolutionary work with their seed saver,” Tobin said. “They are absolutely amazing at adapting new crops to the area, adapting and embracing rye and different types of grains.”
Growing and saving seeds over generations gives plants the ability to adapt to the local climate. When Davatz first planted Yellow Pointou, a sweet, yellow-green leek, in his garden, he struggled with the cold Vermont winters. Over the generations, it has become more winter hardy. It appears to have adapted to the climate, although warming winters may have contributed to this development, Davatz said.
“It’s a very, very informal form of herding,” she said. “It allows plants to express their personality and preferences. You choose from those in the population.
Davatz first saw his favorite varieties disappear from seed catalogs in the 1980s. Meanwhile, prices continued to climb. That’s when she decided to start saving seeds. Over time, she realized that the stakes were much higher than losing her favorite flavors from her vegetable patch.
“If we want to continue to be able to eat, we had better learn to save seeds,” she said. She responded to the urgency she felt: she saved over 250 varieties of seeds at her peak and grew about 80% of her food.
For an individual or a family, saving seeds can mean resilience. But seed saving is a demanding undertaking for a commercial farmer, Tobin said. To keep their seeds pure, seed savers need distance to prevent cross-pollination, and that distance costs soil. While an increasing number of New England farmers are saving seed, the warmer, drier climates of the Pacific Northwest remain the stronghold of seed growers stocking smaller seed companies.
The Upper Valley Seed Savers are also growing, though the core group remains below 10, Fleishman said. During the pandemic, they launched a free seed library, giving people access to local seeds at a time when seeds were hard to come by. This year, about 40 families requested seeds through the catalog, Fleishman said.
Seed saving is itself a skill that is in danger of disappearing if the knowledge is not passed on from one generation to the next. Fleishman and Davatz hope to hold workshops in the near future to teach the practice to more people.
Fleishman sees the fragility of the systems around him. In Vermont, organic and local food is a pride. “But where do most of the seeds come from? Most, really far,” Fleishman said. She describes herself as an empowered person and saving seeds is one way to put her philosophy into practice.
“The world is such a weird place right now,” she said. “You never know what might happen. It’s great to be able to take care of yourself. »
At Smith’s, the seed savers shared a meal after the garden tour. They sat in a half-moon cradled in the L of Smith’s house. She had prepared pug peas that she had grown. They have a warm, nutty flavor somewhere between a lentil and a chickpea. They taste both new and familiar. The seed saviors ate together, swapping seedlings and anecdotes as the evening light lingered.
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