The first few weeks of a farm back in full-swing involve a lot of the important- sometimes less glamorous - tasks of maintenance and prep: a lot of what Jami brilliantly refers to as “picking stuff up and setting it down somewhere else.” But, more than anything else, this time of year is for seeds. As someone who arrived at farming via a fast-and-furious love affair with seeds and seed saving (so much so that my now-partner called me “seed girl” behind my back for months before we ever hung out), this part of the farming calendar reminds me of the visceral, intangible reasons I turned towards agriculture. Seeding, for me, feels like the time where you get to be most intimately involved stewarding and closely observing the entire life cycle of a plant. Don’t get me wrong; weeding, fertilizing, harvesting, washing and packing are all intimate human-plant relations we tend to on the farm, but there is something about engaging with a seed that I imagine must be akin to what being a midwife or doula feels like. At Wildroots, we’ve been hard at work in the propagation house seeding rounds of many diverse cultivars of brassicas, tomatoes, peppers, beets, fennel, celeriac, the first summer squash, herbs, dye flowers, and more! We’ve been holding in our hands the little wise, mesmerizing, and humbling seeds which contain the genetic instruction manual of the food that will fill your CSA boxes soon.
Why should we care about seeds in the first place? Well, I definitely don’t have room in this blog to cover all that. I wrote like a hundred pages about that once and still didn’t have room… So, I will just draw from the words of seed keeper (among many other things) Rowen White from her seed mentorship program I am participating in: “Let us remember and rejoice that nearly every bite that passes our lips connects back to the generosity of a seed.”
Despite the fact that agriculture - or any part of the human experience for that matter- would not exist without seeds, they are not as talked about in conversations about food culture often (although there are so many rad humxns working to change that). Humans have sowed, saved, and shared seeds for millennia. Maintaining relationships with seeds allows food growers to influence yield, taste, nutrition, as well as adapt to uncertain and changing climatic conditions. Yet, in the last half century, legal and policy regimes of biotechnology, intellectual property rights, and corporate consolidation have threatened rights and freedoms to save seeds, and the knowledge of how to do so and have disrupted intimate relationships between seed and growing. Traditional crops are being lost to climatic change, political upheavals, and developments in the biotechnology industry and in plant genetic patenting laws as the seed industry becomes increasingly consolidated into the hands of a few powerful multinational corporations.
One of the main reasons we as farmers need to pay attention to these seed trends is biodiversity. We live in a time of pretty unsettling threats to our global agro-biodiversity (aka the number of varieties of food crops in our soils and on our plates). While there are over 30,000 known edible plant species, only 30 of those plants feed the world, and about 75% of our calories comes from just 12 plants (and 5 animals). Just 5 cereal plants alone provide 60% of the world’s energy intake. This loss is a threat to our ability to withstand climate change, leaving our food systems vulnerable to unpredictable weather conditions and disease outbreaks (think Irish potato famine), and is a threat to the survival of the traditional dishes, customs, and recipes that form the beautiful foundation of our diverse personal identities, cultures, and communities. That is why we aren’t just seeding ‘cabbage’ on the farm we are seeding cabbages with stories, with cultures, with identities of their own. That is why we have to keep spreadsheets just to keep track of the varieties we sow. Many farms today don’t have the capacity to save all their own seeds because of the ways the food system has evolved, I am hell-bent on changing that, but in the meantime farms can participate in relational seed procurement by trading, saving some seed, and supporting small scale regional seed companies committed to biodiversity conservation, climate adaptation, and liberatory seed politics.
As is often the case, a thing that holds the most potential for harm can also be the site of hope and transformation we need. In a time where grief, rage, fatigue, and languish, keep crashing like waves over us collectively (over state-sanctioned police brutality, inequities in access to basic humxn rights, waning care for a truly ongoing global pandemic that continues to harm community unevenly), seeding reminds me to focus on where we cultivate hope (vaccinations, hugging a loved one, a very cool colored iris blooming). Seeding reminds me to pay attention to the inherent cycles of growth, generosity, and abundance. Seeding reminds me of the kind of resistance and radicalism from the margins I want to embody. Seeding allows me to ask exactly what our capacity is to do anything which will make the world closer to the world we want to live in. Seeding reminds me to stand in solidarity and action with those whose struggles are not our own because these seed-based practices deepen an understanding that the liberation of all humans (and all nature!) are intricately bound. Seeding reminds me of what an alternative to capitalism can look like.
I want to emphasize that my interest in seed-based resistance is nothing new, but rather learns from generations of knowledge and wisdom involving a powerful legacy of seeds linked to survival in the face of struggle, oppression, and violence. In her book Farming While Black, Leah Penniman describes oral histories of women who braided rice, okra, and millet seeds into their hair before being forced to board the ships of the transatlantic slave trade “as insurance for an uncertain future” (Penniman 2018, 149) These are the powerful stories to which we can turn which demonstrate how seed work can contain stories of hope, resilience, adaptation, tradition, and new life.
You do not need to have a farm to have a restored relationship to seeds! In fact there is a lot to be said about the ways grassroots efforts from home growers may hold the most potential to safeguard our collective bio-cultural diversity! I once interviewed a seed saver who told me this: “Gardeners are going to be the caretakers of diversity. Farmers have to think about yields and that has to make sense in the complicated economy of food. Gardeners don’t have to be that practical. I see how valuable our role is as gardeners around caring for diversity.” That is my plug to encourage you to learn more about planting and saving seeds in your own ways (this zine is a good start!).
Okay, that is all I will ramble on about seeds for now. April is such a fertile and luscious time of year in the Pacific Northwest and I hope you are drinking it up in gulps. I keep describing the plants around town as flirty and juicy, and they are therefore making me feel flirty and juicy. I hope you can take a walk around today and start to notice yourself feeling flirty with the plants of your neighborhood.
In gratitude for seeds,