Archive for April 15th, 2009

What Your Neighborhood Needs is a Seed Library

Sharon April 15th, 2009

A while back I got an email from a guy named Ken Greene, asking if I knew about his enterprise - the Hudson Valley Seed Library.  I didn’t, actually, and I was just plain thrilled to hear that it existed.  Their farm and seed catalog are dedicated to preserving seeds with historical ties or specific adaptations to our agricultural region.  And I can’t think of a more valuable project.

I was lucky enough to run into Ken Greene and the Library’s founder, Doug (whose last name I was told and can’t remember, and can’t locate on the site - sorry!) at the Schenectady Greenmarket a few weeks ago, and I got to not only introduce myself, but also see their seed selection, including the flat-out stunning seed “art packs” that they sell some of their seeds in, showcasing a local artist’s works.  I took home a packet of Hank’s X-tra Special Baking Bean in a gorgeous package, and now I just have to wait for the soil to warm up enough to plant them.

I have two intentions in this post.  The first is to draw attention to their work, and membership to their seed library.  Their work is incredibly important - for most of us not lucky enough to live near a major seed company, finding really local seed sources is tough - and even if we do live near a seed company, often most of their varieties were grown a long distance away.  The commitment of the HVSL to growing out seeds locally, and choosing ones that are particularly well adapted to our region is deeply important - it isn’t just one resource, in some sense, seeds are the master resource of any regenerative future.  As Vandana Shiva writes in _Earth Democracy_,

“The seed, for example, reproduces itself and multiplies.  Farmers use seed both as grain adn for the next year’s crop.  Seed is free, both in the ecological sense of reproducing itself and in the economic sense of reproducing the farmers’ livelihood.

This seed freedom ia major obstacle for seed corporations.  To create a market for seed the seed has to be transformed materially so that its reproductive ability is blocked.  Its legal status must also be changed so that instead of being the common property of farming communities, it becomes the patented private property of the seed corporations.

The seed is starting to take shape as the site and symbol of freedom in the age of manipulation and monopoly of life.  The seed is not big and powerful, but can become alives as a sign of resistance and creativity in the smallest of huts or gardens and the poorest of families.  In smallness lies power.”

If you have seed orders yet to place, and live in this general region, I would encourage you to order through them.  If you are a small local farmer, perhaps you might raise out a seed crop for this wonderful project.  Even if you don’t garden, consider supporting them and donating their seeds to local community gardens.

But not only do I want to support this wonderful project, but I want to encourage other people to think hard about establishing local seed libraries, seed saving cooperatives and small seed companies.  We are at the beginning of a fundamental shift towards home agriculture - we see it in the garden on the White House Lawn and in the rising sales of local seed companies.  We see it in the sheer number of people who are recognizing that an access to food that depends on jobs in the public economy represents a vulnerability.

Having access to safe, affordable and most of all, adapted breeds of seed that thrive in your climate and location is a first step in gardening.  Seeing those seeds multiply in your own garden from year to year is the first step in gardening as a means of saving money - when you realize that two lettuce seeds tucked into an old yogurt container provide you with a large salad and a thousand more seeds, you begin to see the hope of real economic growth - the capacity to enrich without theft from the future. 

Fundamentally, seed is not an industrial product - it is a living thing.  It is easy to say “oh, I want to grow Black Brandywine” and order seed from a company that got its seed from a farm somewhere.  But the truth is that two strains of Black Brandywine, one grown out in a long, warm growing season in Missouri and another in a cool short one in Minnesota, will have fundamental differences.  Save it long enough, and your strain of tomato or bean will become something genetically distinct from the one you obtained, as the plants genes work to adapt to the conditions it finds.  We have become accustomed to seeing seed as something that can be standardized and produced like a factory product - but it is not - seed is local, seed is specific to its place and time and circumstances.  And thus, there is no way to get the best possible results from an industrialized agriculture that treats all places as though they were the same and all seeds as though they were destined to the same future.

I think there is no doubt that saved seed, whether bought or traded, will be a large part of any hopeful future.  So I would encourage those with the power to do so to invest their time and energy in supporting institutions like this one, and national and local seed saving groups.  And I would encourage you all to learn to save at least one or two varieties of seed, to trade and share them, and perhaps to establish local seed libraries that can hold the seed, the site of so much possibility, resistance and bright hope, in its right place of honor at the center of our communities.