Seed Shopping Fun and Glory: The Seed Stock Crisis and Preserving Our Seed Heritage

by admin on December 26, 2012

By Tracy Sweely

Remember the Wish Book? You know, long before the Internet, Sears and Montgomery Wards used to come out with a special Christmas edition of their catalogue, and us kids would be SOOO excited. We’d circle in big bold marker all the things we knew that we literally couldn’t live without. I don’t recall ever actually getting something from the Wish Book though…. Instead of the Easy Bake Oven that I swooned over, I got an Easy Bake Oven Cake Mix that we bought at a toy store and cooked in our regular oven (which somehow wasn’t quite the same thing…). But in the end it didn’t matter. Before Christmas we experienced the dreamy hopefulness of all possibility with all the shiny things in the wish book, but Christmas morning those things were all but forgotten as we tore off the wrapping paper thrilled with the surprises we found inside. As an adult not many things compare to that pre-Christmas childhood sense of wondrous hope and magic. But I’ve discovered as a farmer that one thing actually kind of tops it.

Along about the middle of October I start getting really worn out from farming, especially since we’ve been doing a winter CSA. But then they suddenly start arriving one by one in the mail… and as the weeks go by more and more start arriving in earnest every day: seed catalogues!!!  With their high resolution, glossy pictures and multitude of varieties, they shamelessly cross that line from childhood wish book to “adult entertainment.” Yep, in the matter of a few short weeks I start getting excited about next year’s growing season like a kid feeling that pre-Christmas hope and magic all over again. I can’t imaging that the designers of seed catalogues know that besides taunting us with images that make us want to buy far more varieties than we need, they are actually reviving the entire exhausted farmer community into saying “Well, yeah, maybe I’ll go ahead and give it another try again next year after all.”

The frenzy is about to begin! The planning is of course first, and every one of you new farmers reading this, remember to do that step first. No matter how excited you are to order the seeds, plan first, order next. But then… where to start? Which seed catalogues have the most variety, the best germination rates and the best PRICES?  Because when you are starting out, especially if you have a small operation, experimenting with varieties is key to finding out which ones grow best under the conditions of your farm. Testing out varieties can get kind of expensive since you are generally buying small quantities, and the price of all those little packets can quickly add up. These important short-term goals aside, in the long-term, price actually has to take a back seat to one other thing... Like honeybees and glaciers, our worldwide seed stock is in a bit of a crisis.

Since we started our farm in 2009, I’ve only vaguely been aware of the extent of the crisis, but this year I had a sudden wake-up call. Among the huge number of incoming seed catalogues one caught my eye. It was slick and colorful and I could tell right away that the prices were super low. Hmm, attractive… I hadn’t quite seen anything like it before, and not that I’m a suspicious person by nature, but something about it didn’t quite feel right. I guess it just seemed too good… So, I drew upon a little policy I employ, for better or worse, when I meet a guy on an online dating site who seems like he might have some potential, I Googled them. Jackpot! Turns out this seed company was recently purchased by a real big, and real bad, multi-national conglomerate that I’m sure you’ve heard of. I refuse to electronically utter this company’s name here to avoid invoking evil, but also simply because I don’t want to possibly contribute to their web traffic statistics. I digitally thumb my nose at “The Big M” who is no friend of the farmer.

Ranting aside, the authors of the article Organic Vegetables Start Out as Seed, report that not only does The Big M own 40% of the US vegetable seed market it also owns one of the top vegetable breeders in the world. The Big M and a few of their industry buddies like to tinker with DNA, moving genetic material between species to “improve” on seed characteristics. Never mind that through selection Nature has just spent millions of years, and our ancestral farmers the last 12,000 years, doing just that. The genetic material of the “improved” seeds can contaminate surrounding crops with unknown consequences. In addition, the hybrids produced by these companies are either sterile or the characteristics eventually revert back to their parent species.

It’s true that humans like to select seed for specific characteristics and our ancestor farmers were no exception.  But companies like The Big M are actually limiting our access to, and breeding out, the very seed diversity that Nature and our ancestors have bestowed upon us. Our seed heritage is disappearing.  In a period of erratic climatic conditions we need more seed diversity not less in order to meet possible long-term changes to the regional environments we find ourselves farming in. With both wild lands and farmland shrinking because of human population pressure, edible plants are far less capable of seeding themselves through the natural processes of selection that have been effective for millions of years. The edible plants that get propagated are the ones that we farmers choose to sow. So we are in a powerful position. Do we just take the limited types of seed that the seed conglomerates are forcing upon us? Do we allow ourselves to be seduced by their glossy pictures and cheap prices? Not only is it within our power to demand more diversity from seed companies it is also our responsibility. Who else besides today’s farmer is in the position to foster seed diversity for us and for the future?

Given that The Big M produces so much of the seed stock available in the marketplace, buying organic, heirloom and open-pollinated seed varieties is the best way to avoid having our choices limited to a standard set of genetically-modified and hybrid varieties. At the end of the article I mentioned above there is a list of reputable seed companies. I buy from several different companies when I put the seed order together for our farm and I’ll admit I do buy a few hybrid varieties along with many heirlooms, as part of an effort to hedge my bets during a given season on certain crops that are vulnerable in my region. But while navigating the list for my own seed order I stumbled across a company that I was really pleased to buy from, www.edenbrothers.com. They sell many heirloom and organic varieties, along with a few hybrids, and they have really great prices right now on 1 oz packages compared to other seed companies.

One ounce of seed for many crops is a lot more than I usually buy, but the price made it doable and I’ve got seed for next year and possibly the year after that too, if I store it properly. I haven’t yet planted any of the seed so I don’t know about germination rates, but the seed looks to be good quality, for example there are not a lot of broken seeds.  The main thing though is that Eden Brothers has made it easy for me to do my part to foster seed diversity by providing a wide selection of heirloom, open pollinated and organic seed at prices my farm can afford.

If you’d like to support the effort to get the word out about the seed stock crisis click here.

Update 1/13/13: Just stumbled across this handy looking tool for locating organic seed: The Organic Seed Finder.

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