Tag Archives: Heirloom

Planting the Seeds of Change

Guest Blogger: Joya Parsons is an organic market gardener working toward making a sustainable, local food system a reality. She runs Quite Contrary Garden and Homestead in Laurel, Delaware. She blogs at Quite Contrary Gardens and Twitters under @Kubileya

Seeds. They seem like such a small thing when compared to the big, complex problems the world is facing—climate change, poverty, war, famine, peak oil and an exploding population. They’re so small, in fact, that most will fit easily under your thumb.

But stop and think again. Without those tiny grains, what would be left on Earth?

Seeds are the bedrock of our food chain, the basic element of our sustenance. If they were to disappear tomorrow, we would follow them into oblivion with lightning speed. And, the most pressing issue people are often unaware of is that they are currently under grave and direct threats.

Sounds ominous, huh? Wondering why? Well, the answer is two-fold. First, we have witnessed a staggering loss of genetic diversity. In the past century, world agriculture has lost 75% of its genetic diversity to globalization, standardization and monoculture farming; 95% of the tomato varieties that existed in 1909 have become extinct; 91% of corn – gone. In addition, 95% of the cabbage varieties your great-great grandma grew have been consigned to oblivion. And though this may not seem on the surface to be a big deal, in reality it could mean the difference between full bellies and famine.

Genetic diversity in the food plants we grow is more than just the number of tomatoes listed in your favorite seed catalog. Diversity ensures that there are sufficient, genetically diverse and well-adapted varieties of any given plant to respond to any given situation. When a crisis arises, such as a new fungal disease or a severe drought, diverse genetics ensure that some varieties will naturally have genes that enable them to resist the threat and grow on, passing their genetic strengths on to the next generation. Without that diversity, with a significantly narrower gene pool to draw upon, crops and plants become susceptible to complete annihilation when these new threats arise. Such a disaster is not unprecedented.

The Irish Potato Famine of the 1840’s had such a devastating effect on Ireland’s population not only because they depended so heavily upon that one crop, but because they relied on only one variety. When the fungus hit, the one variety in wide cultivation was extremely susceptible and the mainstay of the Irish diet was destroyed within two seasons. Even as recently as the United States corn blight of the 1970’s, when 80% of American corn was of a similar genetic heritage and some 10 million acres of the crop were lost in a single season, we have seen the perils of lack of diversity.

The second threat to our seeds comes from industrial agriculture’s relative recent access to patents, as well as genetically modified organisms and seed company acquisitions, resulting in significant industry consolidation. Understanding this requires just a little micro-course in plant patent history (For a more complete history, check out the three-part series at Cooking Up A Story). In 1930, the Plant Patent Act was passed, which allowed plant breeders, a relatively new profession, to patent a single, specific plant that they had bred themselves. Patents were limited to only that specific plant and any asexual propagations of said plant. Seeds, as the result of sexual reproduction, were specifically barred from patent. Fast-forward to 1970 and the passage of the Plant Variety Protection Act. This legislation gave plant breeders the right to patent an entire variety of genetically similar plants, as well as their seeds and all subsequent generations. Fast-forward again, this time to 1980. The United States Supreme Court decision of Diamond v. Chakrabarty, a 5-4 split decision, gave individuals, and corporations acting as individuals, the right to a utility patent for laboratory engineered organisms, including seeds, under the 1952 Patent Act. Yes, that’s a bunch of gobblety-gook.

What it means is this: corporations have been given the power to own life. When you combine this with the consolidation of the global seed market by these same corporations, entities such as Monsanto and DuPont can not only own life, they can also control access and set the going price of those living things. In buying up every major seed supplier, they are systematically eliminating competing varieties and crowning their own patented seeds as the only choice in the marketplace.

Unfortunately, that’s not all. The right and ability to patent life extends to the genetic level, thanks to Diamond v. Chakrabarty. A corporation, like Monsanto for instance, can own a single gene and by extension, own any form of life containing said gene. This is a problem in the plant world because, let’s face it, plants are promiscuous. They pollinate far and wide with any willing partner. So, genetically modified corn containing Monsanto’s patented genetic sequence can cross-contaminate a nearby field of non-GM, non-corporate owned corn, and simply by the act of drifting pollen, transform every seed produced by that corn into Monsanto’s property.

So, this is a screwed up situation. But what can we do about it? We’re just the little people, with no real say in what happens on the giant, global corporate stage, right? Well, not really. We can take our seeds back. We can keep them out of the hands of Monsanto and DuPont. We can breed back our lost diversity in our own backyards, with our own hands, to serve our own communities and interests. Here’s how…

First, we must learn how to avoid plants and seeds that are already under patent, which can be difficult! If you are lucky, there will be a number next to the plant listing in the seed catalog, or a quick Google of the variety name will turn up a number. If the letters PVP are in front, you can search the Plant Variety Protection database. Now, this doesn’t always work, since many PVP registrations refer to a variety number, rather than a name and you may have to scroll through the entire “tomato” section (or whatever section is relevant) to double check that your variety is not listed or, if it is, that the patent has not yet expired. Another tactic is to check through the USDA Plant Inventory files, which list all varieties to come on the market in a given year going back to 1998. As a very general rule, all seeds listed as F1 hybrids are probably patented (or at least they were at one time) and any seeds introduced more than twenty-five years age can no longer be under patent.

These information sources are great, but they are not 100% reliable or complete. In order to really make sure that your money isn’t going into Monsanto’s pockets, heirlooms and open-pollinated plants that came into existence before 1970 are almost a sure bet. These seeds have been perfected over decades, centuries in some cases. They’ve survived through the years because farmers and gardeners have recognized their merits, superior taste and performance. They were, by and large, created on the front lines, in backyards and farmlands far, far from the clutches of any corporate entity.

But planting patent- and corporate-free seeds is only the first step. The next step is where we really begin to take back our seeds. We have to save them from season to season. We have to relearn what our grandparents knew and cut the corporate stranglehold by providing seeds to ourselves and our communities– tomatoes, peppers, kale, radishes, lettuce and more. When we begin to do this, magic will happen.

Seeds and plants are not static copies of their ancestors. Even the oldest heirlooms are dynamic, living beings constantly adapting and evolving. If we understand, even on just a very basic level, how to choose the best plants to save seed from—the ones with the best tasting fruit, the ones that get through the season with the least pest damage, the ones that grow the fastest or yield the most, then the seeds we save will grow into better and better plants every year. They will adapt to whatever region of the world we live in. After a couple generations and a few genetic mutations and cross-pollinations, our seeds will begin to transform. Even if I start with a Green Zebra tomato (developed by private citizen and plant breeder Tom Wagner) and another gardener across the country starts with the same tomato, within a matter of a few years saving seeds, we will have created two different, genetically divergent lines. Within a decade or so, the two lines may not even bear much resemblance to one another anymore, both having changed and adapted to local conditions. I’ve seen this phenomenon first-hand among my local gardening group. The seeds we select and save from season to season become the superstars of our gardens, performing better and better every year. This is how the great diversity in heirloom vegetables came into being in the first place and we can repeat it to create new ‘heirlooms’ that we can pass on to others. If we the people can do this, we will begin to rebuild the lost diversity in our agricultural heritage.

It will be a slow process. It will take decades, possibly more than one lifetime, to regain even a fraction of what we have lost. However, with the looming threats of climate change, new diseases, and corporate gate-keepers intent on restricting access to the most basic elements of human life, this project, this truly grassroots mission could not be more important. It’s time to take back what belongs to all of us. It’s time to take responsibility for preserving and rebuilding the agricultural wealth that genetic diversity assures, corporations be damned.

Who knows? When the next devastating plant disease comes rolling through the countryside, the variety that saves the entire crop for the future of humanity may be the very one we grew and saved in our own backyards.

Some seed sources dedicated to diversity and non-patented seeds to get you started:

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Seed Savers Exchange

J.L. Hudson, Seedsman

Freedom Seeds

Organic Heirlooms

Native Seeds of the Southwest

Amish Land Seeds

Heirloom Seeds

Victory Seeds

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Bringing ProFood to the Backyard

Guest Blogger: Joya Parsons is an organic market gardener working toward making a sustainable, local food system a reality. She runs Quite Contrary Garden and Homestead in Laurel, Delaware. She blogs at Quite Contrary Gardens and Twitters under @Kubileya

Suppose you are an avid supporter of local food. You get your vegetables from the local farmer’s market or CSA, your eggs from your neighbor’s free range chickens, and your bacon from a pastured hog farm where you know the pigs by name. Maybe you’re thinking about taking the next step toward really, really local food–growing it in your own backyard. Or maybe you’ve been gardening for a while and you’re ready to try your hand at saving seeds from your favorite vegetables from season to season, in the process creating locally adapted lines that thrive in your region without the need for heavy applications of pesticides, fungicides or fertilizers.

Well, I am here to help and encourage. Saving seeds from our best vegetables and growing them ourselves is a serious exercise in ProFood principles. ProFood is a growing movement invigorating local and sustainable food systems. ProFood is pro-farmer, or pro-gardener in the case of backyard growers, and saving and growing your own seeds keeps you in control of what is planted and keeps corporations like Monsanto out. It is pro-consumer, pro-cooking and pro-eating, all of which are supported by learning to grow and prepare food ourselves, bringing the freshest, tastiest local produce to the table in the process. ProFood is also an entrepreneurial movement spurring innovation and change within the food system by focusing on developing an alternative, local system and the home grower can become the first link in that new chain. And don’t forget, when those bushels of tomatoes come rolling in around August, you can foster a wonderful ProFood sense of community involvement by sharing the bounty with friends and neighbors.

Tomatoes are generally the first vegetable that people think of when they consider a backyard garden. They’re tasty, popular, and generally easy to grow. The only issue is that some people may be turned off by growing them from seed or saving tomato seeds because it seems complicated and time-consuming, so they resort to buying transplants instead. Problem is, many transplants that you find in stores come from big, commercial nurseries hundreds or thousands of miles away, which may go against the grain of the local, sustainable food movement. Your food dollars are still flowing out of your community, even if the food in question is not quite ready for the plate.

The solution is growing and saving your own tomato seeds. It’s not an arcane science or incredibly difficult, I promise. It’s something anyone can do. You can save seeds this summer from the plants in your garden or even from tomatoes you’ve purchased at the farmer’s market– any ripe tomato will do (see note below about tomato varieties). If you’re saving from your own garden, be sure to select the biggest, healthiest, tastiest plants you have to ensure you’re passing along a robust genetic line. Decide how many tomatoes you want to save from (I usually figure 50-75 good seeds from a Brandywine type, less for smaller tomatoes). From there, it’s just three easy steps involving only about twenty minutes of actual hands-on time to save hundreds of seeds.

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Step One: Collecting the seeds

The easiest way to collect seeds from a tomato is simply to slice the fruit in half across the equator and squeeze the ‘goopy guts’ into a bowl. Use your fingers or a spoon to scrape out any stragglers.

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Step Two: Fermenting

This is the step where many would-be seed savers get confused or intimidated, thinking it sounds way too complicated, but I’m here to tell you it’s not! You simply have to provide the right environment (a jar and a bit of sunlight) and Mother Nature takes care of the rest. Fermenting is an essential step to remove the jelly-like goo surrounding each seed in order that the seed may germinate and to destroy any disease-causing bacterial or fungal spores that might be hitching a ride.

Transfer your tomato goop into a clear jar, preferably glass, and add a bit of water– you want the consistency runny. Cover the top of the jar with a breathable material like cotton cloth. You can use plastic wrap if that’s what you have on hand, just make sure to poke a few holes in it first.

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Now just leave it on a sunny windowsill for about three days. Try to remember to give it a little shake and swirl each day. The top of the mixture will start to look a little scummy and it will smell pretty gross– this is alright! It’s exactly what is supposed to happen. When the process is finished, you should see the good seeds on the bottom with a layer of thick pulp and mold sitting on top.

Carefully pour out the top layer of pulp (it’s great for the compost pile!) and floating seeds (these are not viable and will not germinate). Add a little more water to the jar, swish for a minute, and carefully pour out again. Repeat this until the water in the jar comes out clear. Then, pour the contents of the jar through a strainer to drain the seeds.

Step Three: Drying

The last step is as easy as it sounds. Arrange the seeds in a single layer on a breathable material like paper towels, coffee filters, or a paper plate. Leave in a warm place out of direct sunlight. It helps to have air circulating underneath as well. You can lay paper towels on a cookie cooling rack so that there is adequate air circulation all around or make sure to remember to give the seeds a stir every day so that all sides get some air flow. Depending on humidity, it could take a few days to two weeks for your seeds to be completely dry. You’ll know they’re ready for storage when they not only feel dry, but they are light and easily scoot across the plate or towel when you give it a little shimmy.

That’s it! Now your seeds are ready to be stored until planting time next spring. You can use the small paper or plastic envelopes found in craft stores, or make your own. Store them in a cool, dry place, preferably in an airtight bin to keep the humidity out. Make sure you label them well to prevent any later confusion!

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A note about tomato varieties: For the very best results of your seed-saving efforts, try to find heirloom or open-pollinated varieties. These have been bred and inbred over generations to produce consistent and genetically similar seedlings. You can be sure seeds from your Cherokee Purple will produce Cherokee Purple babies.

Hybrid tomatoes are produced through cross-pollination of two different varieties and seeds from hybrids do not generally produce seedlings consistent with the parent type, or, in gardening terms, they don’t “come true” from seed. They tend to revert to the genetic traits of the hybrid’s parent plants, which may not be awful, but it will be unpredictable and probably not as desirable. Also, in a final note, many hybrids are patented or corporate owned. For instance, the popular Early Girl hybrid tomato is owned by Monsanto, whose life-patents and petrochemical dependence make them the very opposite of ProFood.

Check the Seed Savers Exchange, Baker Creek Heirlooms, J.L. Hudson, Organic Heirlooms or Freedom Seeds for non-patented, non-corporate, heirloom and open-pollinated varieties.