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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

Seed Catchers...harvesting more from America's garden

Updated: May 1, 2020

I'm putting the final touches on a new Talk to Me About Food podcast episode about the growing movement of folks growing their own food. I muse on different aspects of this trend but don't touch on the importance placed on building back diversity in crop genetics by advocates for this movement. An article in Civil Eats the other day about seed saving got me thinking a bit more about protecting and promoting plant diversity, and enjoying more of what can be grown from this diversity.

I'm reminded of the scare we heard about several years ago when Arctic melting was thought to be threatening the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. This irreplaceable cache embeds more than 10,000 years of seed breeding knowledge; it is truly a lifeline for future generations should we muck things up. Measures were taken at Svalbard to shore up its defenses against continuing climate change predations. Given the scale of what is at stake, growers of all stripes should also take on some the responsibility of saving seeds.

The Civil Eats story encourages food gardeners and crop growers to save and share seeds as a strategy for coping with climate change, indirectly. The more encompassing benefit of saving seeds, and being part of a community of seed savers, is about food sovereignty for farmers: control. Saving seeds, and having access to open source seeds gives growers control over costs, and the flexibility to adapt to local changes in climate and related conditions.

"Creativity" was also cited as a benefit of growing plants for seeds. Creativity to experiment. To find breeds that work best for your soil and climate. For my podcast on growing your own foods, I talked to Marjory Wildcraft, founder of the GROW network. She mentioned that her father-in-law breeds a variety of heat resistant tomato that thrives in central Texas summers, and a squash that stores well all winter.

This creativity can also provide the flexibility to develop vegetables and fruits with a variety of tastes, textures, and shapes. I found my way to a catalog of open source seeds at the Open Source Seed Initiative. The site lists 107 varieties of lettuce. 33 peppers. And 11 varieties of carrot I can grow, or have someone grow for me somewhere up the line; yellow, purple, golden, red, and white carrots. Sweeter ones too, and carrots shaped like turnips. I've seen carrots of different colors before. Not often, and priced high. What if we had more access to this potential cornucopia of produce? What if we asked for it?

We either crave variety, or have been made to expect variety by food makers over the years. Think about the wash of flavor colors at the yogurt aisle, or the variety of pasta sauce options, or salad dressing types, or flavored tea options. How many varieties of Cranberry+Other Fruit has Ocean Spray got on the shelf!

Why not leverage this expectation we have for affordable variety to make this idea of open source seeds and seed exchanges stick? The broader and deeper the network of available breeds of plants, the more access to a mishmash of heirloom produce. A growing number of us consumers are open to heirloom (sometimes less than perfect-looking) breeds. Food growers and food makers could, and maybe should nurture and cultivate this latent curiosity about what serves as the base of the food pyramid.

The word "heirloom" in front of anything, tomatoes, corn, eggplant, makes it sound even more delicious; a delicacy, ephemeral and exotic. It doesn't have to be a once-in-a-blue-moon thing, if it's regularly in your favorite food stores and local markets, or if it comes from your own hyper-local community of food gardeners.

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