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The Symphony of the Seed, Part 4: The Sleeping of the Seed

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Thanks Max Pixel Creative Commons

Even on the darkest days of winter, after the leaves have let go and the skeletons of trees shiver against the cold, life continues. As humans hunker down by cozy fires and bears hibernate in mountain dens, so too do seeds sleep. Stuffed into jars in closets, burrowed into patches of bare ground, packed into sidewalk cracks, they wait.

Just as the rest creates the excitement in a piece of music, the sleeping of the seed makes the sprouting all the more magical. But there are biological reasons for dormancy as well. A basil plant is a fragile thing–even the tiniest nip of frost and its cell walls burst, turning it to a black puddle of mush. So the plant summons the summer sun into thousands of durable, hardy seeds that can survive long after the first frost hits. Those seeds know their lives are at stake when they come undone and burst upward toward the light, so they wait until the time is exactly right, respiring only the tiniest of breaths to avoid using up their stored energy endosperm.

There are many reasons why a seed chooses to sleep rather than sprout. Obviously if it is too cold or too hot, too wet or too dry, the tiny plant will not survive. In the desert, a single plant may make reckless daredevil seeds that will sprout the following spring regardless of conditions, as well as some that will wait for a year with decent spring rains, and a select few who know the magic combination of environmental factors that guarantee the plant can’t lose should it sprout. These jackpot-seekers can bide their time for decades, patiently watching the world go by until the odds are stacked totally in their favor.

Thanks to Marko Kivela via Flickr Creative Commons

Anchored in place, a plant cannot move. But seeds are portable. That portability catapulted angiosperms toward evolutionary dominance and made human civilization possible. If all the hundreds of acorn seeds produced by  an oak tree fall on the ground and sprout right next to their mother, they’ll choke each other out or wither in her immense shade, and none will live to reproductive age. But if they’re carried away from their mother in the pocket of an enterprising human or the cheek of a provisioning squirrel, suddenly their success expands tremendously. Seeds of all types have figured out just the right allure to entice animals of all stripes to spread them far and wide around the world. Whether in the digestive tract of an elephant or embedded in a fruit beloved by bats, seeds travel through the servitude of animals.

And here we arrive at the breathtaking climax of the human-seed story. Seeds not only allowed humans to stay put, they also allowed them to move. As grain seeds founded agriculture, humans organized themselves around their fields, feasting on the stored energy the sleeping seeds provided through periods of drought, cold, or rest. They planted the bigger, more nutritious seeds that could sustain them for longer periods, and different types of seeds that diversified their diets. Entire cuisines and cultures sprang up around the selection and replanting of seeds, and as humans became ever more mobile, they brought their beloved seeds with them.

Seeds traveled along trade routes between Native American Nations and by the time White folks reached the Americas, the unsuspecting wild grass teosinte had been turned to corn, and had travelled all the way from its native range in Central America to the northernmost reaches of what would become the United States through the loving care of American Indians. Hundreds of unique, locally-adapted landraces of corn found their homes among tribes from Arizona to New York. Hopeful European homesteaders loaded their ships and wagons with their favorite homegrown varieties as well, craving a familiar meal amid a vast new world. Forced to leave their homes and cuisines, African slaves planted the seeds of their native foods in the Americas. Senegalese rice found its home in the Carolinas and okra has become synonymous with Southern cuisine.  For centuries, refugees have carried hope with them on arduous journeys in the form of tiny, sleeping seeds. As an urban farmer, I’ve had to leave many of my farm plots as they succumb to development. My seeds have stayed with me as I’ve moved, providing roots despite my lack of land ownership.

Thanks Wikimedia

After the summer’s fleshy bounty, where we gorge ourselves on the houses for the seeds, in winter we eat the sleeping seeds themselves. Loaves of baking bread and simmering pots of chili keep us nourished through the darkness as we await the return of the light and the sprouting of the spring once more.

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Idaho Tortillas–Meet the Seeds

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These stunning beauties transformed our field into a glorious patchwork quilt of diversity and discovery and swelled our hearts to the very brim of bursting. Thank you to the corn and to all the stewards of the corn who have brought these joyous kernels of life to our field!

Now that the stage is set, let’s meet the actors in our little scene of this breathtaking drama that is the agricultural dance between humans and maize….

Our 2017 trials included these 24 varieties. I’ve included random tidbits and musings about some of the more intriguing ones.

Advent Gulch Blue The most “local” of the varieties in our trial, this is a landrace variety bred by amateur seedsman and incredible through-hiker Mike O’Brien, who in between treks on the Idaho Centennial Trail and even hiking around the entire perimeter of the state of Idaho spent more than 30 years developing this variety to suit his needs in Advent Gulch, near Cambridge.  Starting in 1977, for 10 years he saved seeds from a blue corn that only had a few cobs a year that would ripen in the short season, gradually getting more and more success until his progress plateaued. He then added in diverse Indian corns to increase the genetic diversity and then spent several more years selecting out only the blue kernels from that introduction. 10 years later he reached another plateau and brought in some Hopi blue corn seed to his population and has been stewarding the results ever since. He has kept some flour, flint, dent, and even sweet corn kernels in the population. It is incredibly cold-tolerant, able to be planted earlier than most varieties, and one of the highest yielding in our trials. A favorite of our initial tortilla tasting group, it makes a light blue tortilla.

Anasazi A variety given to us by Feathers and Horns farmer Mia Crosthwaite, who grows them in her family’s garden. Ears did not produce well for us, but they were in a low-water area.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bloody Butcher 105 days. Supposedly this variety makes red tortilla chips, but as it was fairly low-yielding (due to a later ripening season than many of the varieties), we don’t have enough for a decent-sized batch to trial. What few cobs we did get are absolutely gorgeous! An Appalachian heirloom dating back to at least 1845. Being a semi-dent, the aleurone layer is red and not just the pericarp, which suggests it might hold some promise for red tortillas….if only we could get enough of it…I’m tempted to try crossing it with Papa’s Red to see if we can get an earlier-ripening strain with better color…but don’t hold me to it.

 

 

Guadalajara All-Purpose (yes, I know the sign says “Guatemalan” but that’s incorrect). This variety we got from Sand Hill Preservation Center, where Glenn Drowns says he understands it’s a good tortilla corn. It’s supposed to be yellow and white, with occasional other colors, but we had a lot of blue in ours. In our preliminary trials, the multicolored varieties make a grey-ish, muddy colored tortillas. So if one were interested in working with this variety for tortillas, which I think is a pretty good idea as it is mid-season ripening and quite drought-tolerant in our trials, I’d recommend only planting the white and/or white and yellow kernels.

 

 

Harmony Grain Corn From SRSC grower and landrace seedsman Joseph Lofthouse. In our trial it was incredibly drought-tolerant. Here is the description Joseph includes on his website: A union between a hybrid swarm of North American grain corns and a synthetic composite of 6 races of South American grain corns: Tuxpeno, Coastal Tropical Flint-Dent, Southern Cateto, Cuzco, Coroico, and high-altitude Andean. Harmony was developed to reunite various races of corn and to create a strong genetic base from which to conduct plant selection and breeding. Contains flint, dent, flour, pop and a small amount of sweet corn. Adapted to temperate growing conditions. Not day-length sensitive. About 85 to 115 DTM to grain stage. Selected for resistance to predation by birds and small mammals. OSSI-pledged.

Hopi Blue Another Idaho-adapted variety, this one has been growing in southern Idaho since the 1970s, when Hopi elder Thomas Banyaca gifted the corn to Suzanne Lewis and asked her to steward it. She passed the seeds along to us and we have absolutely loved growing this stunning variety. It was the first flour corn I grew, with tall, graceful plants that produce long ears. Takes a longer season to ripen than some other blues, but in my opinion it’s worth the wait if you have the season length. It makes the darkest blue tortillas I’ve ever eaten, with a nutty, earthly flavor that will make you weep with joy.

 

 

Hopi Turquoise We got the seeds of this variety from Sand Hill Preservation Center, who lists it as having good drought-tolerance. It was in a more well-watered place in our trials so I can’t attest to that one way or the other. What I can say is that Joseph Lofthouse when he visited said it was “so Hopi.” What he meant is it has lots of tillers coming up from the base so it resembles more of a shrub than a single-stalked plant. Each plant produced multiple ears with a mixture of white, blue, and turquoise seeds (some plants had yellow kernels as well). One of the highest-yielding varieties.

 

 

 

Magic Manna An OSSI-pledged variety bred by Carol Deppe,  grown from seed we got from Wayne Marshall at Banbury Farm in Buhl. 85 days. Deppe bred her Manna series from Painted Mountain and selected it for flavor and cooking characteristics. Magic Manna is described in detail in Deppe’s book The Resilient Gardener along with recipes. According to Deppe’s notes: “Seed Saving information: Magic Manna has a white endosperm and a clear aleurone and is variable for pericarp (skin) color. Yellow and black kernels don’t belong in the variety. Very pure flour corn type. If any flinty, dent, or sweet kernels appear, cull the entire ear they are on. Ear row numbers between 8 and 12 are acceptable. All “Manna” varieties are sister* varieties and can be grown side by side in the same field. Just eat the edge row where another Manna variety is adjacent and save seed from the rest. A little gene flow between the different varieties in the Manna series is fine.”

 

Millennium Seed was given to us by Bevan Williams at the Mountain West Seed Summit. Bevan said he bred it out of Painted Mountain for its resilience in cold-weather climates as well as its nutritional value for livestock. It was all over the map, color-wise, and actually not quite as early as Painted Mountain, or the Papa’s or Manna series. Beautiful but probably not the most practical for tortillas.

 

 

 

 

 

Nebraska We found his variety to be lackluster–didn’t ripen very many cobs in our season, and what did ripen was unappetizing, in that commercial dent corn kinda way. Here’s what Sand Hill Preservation Center has to say about it, though…”115 days.  Plants average about 9 feet tall and have good stalk standability. Ears have good, tight husks that then become more open as they mature, decreasing the time to dry down yet protecting the ear from insect damage in the early stages. One to two 10 inch ears with 14 to 18 rows of medium yellow kernels per red cob.”

 

 

 

Northwestern Red Dent What a beautiful and intriguing surprise of a variety this was! It produced very well for us, with stunning, fat ears with red kernels that have an iridescent cap on the end. It was supposedly quite drought tolerant and I would attest to that. I am intrigued to try tortillas with it and will report back later. It seems to be only semi-dent.

 

 

 

 

 

Oaxacan Green Dent Golly what a gorgeous plant this is! Cobs vary from having mostly kernels that are deep emerald green to almost neon green-yellow to blue-green or teal, with a few cobs tinted purple. I have eaten delicious green tortillas in Oaxaca and understand this is the variety to make them, though in our own tortilla trials they are more of a pale white-green than the deep green ones I’ve eaten there. The flavor is great, though, and they seem to have real promise for our area with selection for shorter season and culling the bluer ears. We got our seeds from grower Mike O’Brien who grew them for SRSC last year.

 

 

Oneida Hominy This was the variety Chef Antonio Ortega was most excited about. It’s a flour corn from the Oneida Nation with wide, flat kernels that are great for posole as well as grinding into flour. This resembles the kind of corn Chef Ortega’s mom would use to make tortillas. I can attest that the variety is one of our very best for eating, both whole in posole and ground into flour for tortillas. It grows well here–I would call it a mid-season variety, perhaps 100-105 days.

 

 

 

Painted Mountain The father (with many, many generations of grandmothers and fathers before!) of so many of the early-season corns, bred by Dave Christensen in Montana at 5,500 feet. He has worked tirelessly for over 40 years on the variety, selecting it out of a mix of over 70 different strains of corns. It is the earliest-ripening flour corn in North America, and produces a rainbow of long, skinny cobs on 4′ tall plants. Quite drought-tolerant. It’s probably my favorite plant I’ve ever grown, but when it comes to tortillas, as I’ve mentioned before, the multitude of different colors makes a muddy-colored, grey tortilla. As a side note, though, it makes a delicious cornbread with only corn flour!

 

 

Papa’s Red The Papa’s series were bred out of Painted Mountain by seedsman Ed Schultz, also in Montana. Dave Christensen spoke very highly of this series, describing them as very uniform and brilliantly colored. We agree–they have all the great attributes of Painted Mountain, with the benefit of having single-color strains, which we’ve found makes better tortillas. Chef Ortega is especially excited about this variety, which he said almost looked fake–it’s that deep red! We’re worried that the color, being in the pericarp, will not transfer to the tortillas which is why I am considering taking on a life project of crossing it with Bloody Butcher and other red varieties from Michoacan that will make red tortillas. Regardless, it’s absolutely stunning, on those crazy-short 4′ tall, super-early Painted Mountain-esque plants. We trialed the series on the recommendation of Brad McIntyre of McIntyre Farms because his neighbor recommended it as being a good candidate for the project. We got the seed from Baker Creek heirloom seeds.

 Papa’s Blue In addition to the notes made above about the red variety in the series, here is what Baker Creek seeds has to say about it: “Bred by Ed Schultz outside of Bozeman, Montana, The Papa’s Series corns all feature earliness and tolerance to cool conditions. Ed first began breeding his corns about 1985. He started with all the really short-season flour types he could lay his hands on: Mandan Red, Painted Mountain, Fiesta and others. Allowing these types to cross freely, he simply selected the earliest and best each year, for planting the next year. Then came the lengthy process of selecting single-colored ears out of the mix. Some 30 years later, the result: short plants (only to about 4’ tall) that yield very early. Surprisingly long ears—typically 8” long, running occasionally to 12”. These slim, 8-row ears grow from a narrow cob, and are very graceful and beautiful. All the Papa’s Series varieties feature a brilliantly colored exterior, enclosing a white interior comprised of a soft, white flour-type starch—excellent!”

 

Papa’s White See notes about the Papa’s series in the Red and Blue sections above. I’m not sure if the reason some of the kernels in this variety were almost translucent was because of the variety itself or of cross-pollination with other varieties.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Po’Suwegeh Blue We got this variety from Elizabeth Johnson at the Mountain West Seed Summit seed exchange. It is a corn from the Pojaque Pueblo, sold by Baker Creek for them. It is a lovely blue variety, reasonably well-suited to Idaho, though it makes sense that our more locally-adapted Advent Gulch blue and Hopi blue corns did better here.

 

 

 

 

Rebellion (Cycle O)  Though not the best variety for our area, and unappetizing in that industrial sort of way, this variety is nonetheless extremely valuable. Here is what Sand Hill Preservation Center has to say about it: “115 days.  This is a new Open Pollinated variety synthesized by crossing together classic inbreds and some Open Pollinated lines from the central corn belt and beyond. Its heritage includes lines descended from Reid’s Yellow Dent, Lancaster, Minnesota 13, Pride of Saline, Cateto, flints from Argentina, Iowa Stiff Stalk Synthetic, Iodent, and more. It carries the Ga1s allele from popcorn and should be more resistant to outcrossing with other dent corn, but will readily cross with popcorn and will pollinate any corn. It should not be planted near any popcorn fields. The development of this variety was carried out by Frank Kutka with support from the Organic Farmig Research Foundation and the assistance of university corn breeders. Management of this trait will be very important for seed savers and everyone is invited to learn more about the trait via this video Breeding “Organic Ready” Corn with Gametophytic Incompatability on YouTube. Frank sent us this variety to help perpetuate it this year. I must say I was completely impressed with its vigor, yield and standability. I planted it on June 4, it tasseled from August 1 to 3, and was ready to harvest by late September. Every stalk had 2 full sized ears, one stalk even had 6 ears, 3 good and 3 half sized. This is a perfect corn for the person wanting good yields and performance of a modern development. Plants averaged 8 to 9 feet tall. Deep red cob with rich golden kernels. To help further Frank’s important work, we will be sending a portion of the sales back to Frank to support his projects.”

 

Reid’s Yellow Dent This is the quintessential dent corn variety, the variety from which most modern dent corns originate. It is an heirloom variety stewarded by the Reid family from around 1847 onward, and the winner of numerous corn competitions. Turns out it’s not a real winner in Idaho, but that’s OK. It was fun to grow the granddaddy of modern corn, I reckon. Stalks were easily over 15′ tall, which was quite the contrast to the other 4′ tall early-ripening varieties we trialed. Hooray for biodiversity! The blue kernels in the photo are from cross-pollination from other varieties.

 

 

Strubbes Orange We trialed 2 of the Strubbes series, mostly spurred by my desire to see if we can get a rainbow of tortillas in different colors because I think that’s what will really catch folks’ attention and turn them on to the concept of biodiversity. Supposedly this man Strubbe bred a rainbow of distinctly colored dent corns for use in making seed “paintings” or mosaics using seeds. Though we haven’t done culinary trials yet, both varieties we trialed performed quite well in the field and are quite beautiful. We will have to see if a variety bred for aesthetics can prove to be delicious as well…which frankly the beloved Instagram-worthy Glass Gem still leaves in question. Will report back on how Strubbes measures up in the kitchen! Ripened mid-season for us–around 100 days.

 

 

Strubbes Pink See my notes above for the history of this variety. In addition to REALLY holding out hope for a pretty pink tortilla (haven’t tested it yet), I also think this is the variety for someone to work with who wants to cash in on this whole Princess-craze for young girls. I have to admit, though I’m not the most feminine of women, this one was one of the most beautiful to me–such a lovely carnation-pink color!

 

 

There were a few varieties in our trials that did not work at all, but, at least in the case of Neil’s Paymaster, it got the shaft in being planted in a spot with afternoon shade. It was just how it worked out, but he didn’t really get a fair shake. Don’t hold it against him.

These varieties didn’t produce a single cob for us in our trials:

Neal’s Paymaster

Glenn Beasley Red

On the field side, I can offer a couple of insights as well as a couple more questions. First, it seems we should stick with varieties that have no more than 105 day maturity, even though our season here is considerably shorter. I don’t know for sure whether the longer-ripening ones were trying to tassle when it was too freaking hot, or if our mid-September frost did them in, or what, but that 105 days seems to be the cutoff for my area of southern Idaho.

I was also surprised about how little cross-pollination we had, even given a relatively short distance between varieties (like 15′ or so). I planted them in an area that was more sheltered from wind, and it made a big difference, I think. Of course, you can’t rely on this for more open farms, but in all my epiphany was that I can grow considerably more varieties of corn than I thought possible, especially since I shell them by hand and can remove any crossed up kernels before shelling. In the future I will likely steward 2 different flour corns per season, plus my CSA sweet corn patch, in my 1 1/2 acre field. This will allow us to get to a point where we can scale up more varieties in a shorter period of time. Plus, I’ll get more diverse tortillas for myself to eat!

A few questions still remain, some of which I am soliciting the advice of larger growers to help answer and some of which will be determined in the kitchen:

  1. Combines. I think the shorter varieties actually hold a lot of promise for their early ripening. But can they stand up to a combine? Can any flour corn really stand up to a combine? Over much of the world flour corns are stewarded in small acreages and shelled by hand or with hand-crank shellers.
  2. Some of our most lovely varieties in the trials have some sweet corn kernels mixed in with them. Do we need to be selecting out the sweet corn kernels from these populations for larger scale production, processing, and storage?
  3. Wayne Marshall spoke about how Tim Cornie will be sending his flint corn he grew and harvested with a combine to Oregon to be run through some sort of laser eye to pick out broken kernels, debris, and other imperfections in the seed so it can become food-grade. Will that have to be done with these varieties after they’re harvested mechanically?
  4. What of the original color of the kernel’s pericarp and/or aleurone will remain after the nixtamalization and grinding process?
  5. Price. It’s obvious that smaller-scale farmers can’t compete on price with huge-scale industrial ag. But is there a middle ground where a smaller-scale farmer can afford to grow corn at this scale, and sell it to a restaurant who obviously can’t break the bank just buying corn for tortillas. So is there a magical price point where the farmer gets a decent price for the corn, the restaurant gets the margin they need, and the eater isn’t on the hook for a $20 taco? We hope so, but it remains to be seen.

 

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Idaho Tortillas–An Introduction

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We’re thrilled to be participating in a project that is helping to bring more biodiversity to Idaho’s farms and tables in the delicious form of biodiverse tortillas. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this role is not without its existential angst for me, but for the purposes of this blog, I’m sticking with the facts of the project. For some ramblings on intersectionality in food and my role as a white girl in Idaho growing Indian corns to be made into the Mexican staple tortillas, this is the post to read.

The impetus for the project is that Dave Krick, the restaurateur who has created an enormous market for local farmers to sell their food through his Bittercreek/Red Feather restaurants bought the old Pollo Rey restaurant in downtown Boise and is going to open Diablo and Sons in its place. Because he’s such a badass (and a savvy business owner who knows locally-grown food tastes better and is sexy as hell), he wants to source as much food as possible for the restaurant locally. And the backbone of the food the restaurant will serve is of course corn, much of it in the form of tortillas.

When I heard this, I got hella excited, because I freaking LOVE fresh-made tortillas and you can’t just buy those anywhere in Boise. It just so happens that I’ve been in the midst of a personal enlightenment about the amazingness of corn and its practicality for small, hand-scale agriculture. I’ve been learning to incorporate more flour corns into my farming and more homemade tortillas into my own cooking. I was told by a woman in Colima, Mexico who was graciously showing me to make tortillas not to quit my day job, and I hear her. I’m not very good at it. But frankly I don’t care, because even my crappily made tortillas from corn I grew myself are in another league compared to the cardboard bullshit you buy at the grocery store.

Plus, Dave told me his plan to source locally-grown corn for tortillas right after I’d watched the movie Seed: The Untold Story, where they profile the restaurant Itanoni Tortilleria in Oaxaca City. This place buys landrace corns from small farmers for its tortillas, which means small farmers have a reason to continue to grow these landrace varieties, which like everything else in an increasingly globalized agriculture is at risk of disappearing under a tsunami of tasteless, uniform, chemical-laden, genetically-engineered corn. So while the restaurant is helping farmers to preserve biodiversity, eaters also get the awesome experience of sampling tortillas made from all these different corns, all of which have their own unique flavor profiles. It’s a delicious win-win! So of course I got all hopped up on the concept of doing something like that HERE, and Dave seemed stoked on it too.

Only we have a problem. Several interlocking ones, actually. Unlike Oaxaca, where many farmers are still farming smallholdings and growing landrace corns, our agriculture in Idaho is different. We grow tons of corn here, but almost all of it is that aforementioned tasteless, uniform stuff, mostly grown for feeding to cattle. So we need to introduce varieties that will grow well here AND make delicious tortillas. And once we find those varieties, we have to bulk up our seed because a lot of these varieties you can only buy packets of seed for, and a bigger-scale farmer can’t deal with a packet of seed. So that’s where Snake River Seed Co-op comes in. We’re in the sweet spot in that we have growers in our network of varying scales. Folks who have tiny farms like I do can grow a packet or a pound of seed into 20 or 50 pounds of it, and then we can give it to farmers in our network with a little more land, who can grow out one or two or five acres of it, which will make enough to give seed to someone who can grow 10 or 50 or 100 acres of it, and voila! So much good work for farmers of many scales to do! And once we get good at growing a diversity of beautiful and tasty corns, I’m sure other folks will fall in love with some of them and jump at the opportunity to offer delicious tortillas in their restaurants or taco trucks or home kitchens or what have you.

So to begin this spring we sourced 24 varieties of corn selected for their potential suitability for our area as well as their potential to create a tasty rainbow of fantastic tortillas. We planted them this spring at Earthly Delights Farm, and at the close of our first season we are now in possession of bags and bags of stunningly beautiful kernels, as well as an experience none of us will ever forget. Antonio Ortega, the chef at Diablo and Sons, has been coming out to the farm all season to follow the progress of the corns and to pick some he’s excited to start trialing in the kitchen, and he’s got quite the list he’s ready to try! To read all about our gorgeous contestants and get a sneak peak at Antonio’s in-the-field favorites, follow the journey!

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The Symphony of the Seed, Part III: The Squirrelling of the Seed

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What are we gonna do with all these tomatoes?!

The crescendo of summer’s relentless light and heat comes to a climax in dripping, swollen fruits slipping and slopping their way from vine to table, overwhelming harvest baskets and gardeners alike with the incredible bounty. Even the “worst” garden in September bears the burden of overabundance of some of its inhabitants.

While we gardeners curse the oozing piles of overripe tomatoes and baseball bat zucchinis that demand our beleaguered attention, we cannot help but marvel at the facts: a handful of seeds made all this! And every single tomato and pepper holds a hundred more seeds!

This particular miracle of unfathomably exponential growth is enough to throw even the most miserly of humans into exuberant fits. Being a seed saver is like winning the lottery with every fruit. As farmer Eliot Coleman says, “At 1,000:1, you can’t get a better return than a tomato.” Eat your heart out Wall Street!

 

Of course, this wealth extends beyond the fruits that hold ripe seeds when we harvest them to eat, like watermelons and tomatoes. All

Ripening carrot seeds courtesy of the scientific gardener

vegetables have as their ultimate goal to make seeds, and in fact that’s what they’re aiming for when they grow a fat carrot root or a voluptuous head of lettuce. After a winter’s nap, a carrot will draw all that stored energy out of its taproot, pushing it upward into splashy, progeny-spawning flowers. Its root shrinks to a fragile anchor as it grows top-heavy with ripening seeds. It summons all its resources to concentrate its life force and wealth into thousands of tiny, nutrient-dense, spider-legged babies, leaving behind a shriveled plant to rot back into the ground.

 

If the spring seeding and transplanting is a call to embrace vulnerability, fall harvest season offers the opportunity to contemplate selfishness. After a summer of incomprehensible symbiosis with a vast number of species and elements, the work of the harvest is noticeably human. We know only a tiny fraction about what made these fruits and seeds and yet we hoard them largely for ourselves. Moreover, these seeds are a product of centuries of doting human selection in concert with natural forces. Our ancestors noticed plants they liked better, with bigger seeds or fatter roots or sweeter leaves and selected and crossed them over generations to transform wild plants into cultivated ones that better align with human desires. They are wild yet domesticated, just like us. One would not exist without the other.

The rainbow of fermenting tomato seeds
Pillowcases of drying seeds waiting to be threshed

And thus, we are inducted into the lineage of stewards of land and seed. We scurry around collecting as much as we can possibly carry, can, dry, freeze and eat. We stuff dried seed heads into pillowcases, tarps, and windrows, fending off the mice and the rain as they dry down completely so we can thresh and squirrel them safely away. The rafters and the counters and every available flat, dry space fills up with curing seeds. Sloppy piles of tomatoes and cucumbers fill buckets and any available vessel for seed processing: ferment, decant, dry, repeat, a hundred times or more. Tiny piles of seeds at the bottom of jars grow larger until they overflow the brim.

Brianna and Daniel dancing the seeds free

The rhythm of threshing and winnowing seeds has fed souls as well as bodies for millennia. Percussive dancing on piles of dried stalks to free the seeds attached and then pouring them into the wind or shaking them through a screen links us in an ancient, unbroken chain of seed keepers. As we watch huge piles of dried stalks shrink to tiny handfuls of life-perpetuating seeds, the immeasurable satisfaction of this humble work comes full circle to feed us now and for years to come. We tuck them into rows of shelves in the cooler for safekeeping. As one high school visitor to the farm recently remarked, “Yo hold up. This is LIFE in here!”

My wee little zucchini baby

In the presence of such bounty it is easy to see why cultures the world over have created rituals and prayers surrounding the harvest of seeds. The gluttony of squirrelling a huge cache away for ourselves is a necessary one, playing on our vulnerability in an uncertain winter and year to come. Some amount of prudence and a hefty gratitude seems only right.

And like the seeds themselves, it sets us free. Free in the best, most interdependent sense. We belong to something as much as something belongs to us. What a cozy place to hunker down for a winter’s rest.

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What I learned from Vandana Shiva, Part II: Eat as if Life depends on it, because it does

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photo: Satya Murthy via Flickr Creative Commons

In part one we left off with Dr. Shiva saying that if we want to stop Trump (a.k.a. the accelerating destruction of the earth, rising inequality, and corporate co-opting of our democracy), we should start saving seeds and eating a biodiverse diet. I likely intuited your response:

“Wait? So she’s saying that if I want to bring down oppressive regimes and create an abundant economy grounded in care for the earth and care for people, I can do that by eating a diet of diverse foods? If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is….I wasn’t born yesterday!” Am I right?

Of course that’s not all we have to do. After explaining to her audience one night that we must build the world we want with one hand and push back against injustice with the other, Dr. Shiva said, “That’s why I love Hindu Goddesses–they have so many arms! They can do so much!”

Still, I think the concept that biodiverse eating is remarkably powerful is worth fleshing out a bit. Barbara Kingsolver says, “Food is the rare moral arena where the most ethical choice is also the one most likely to make you groan with pleasure.”

Consider that over 90% of the varieties of seeds available in seed catalogs in 1900 have been lost. We are losing biodiverse farming at an alarming rate, and with it goes the seeds, wisdom, tools, and processes that make it possible.

Closer to home, during the weekend with Vandana Shiva, I sat on a panel discussion about seeds with Brett Stevenson, a young barley

Credit AgriLife Today, flickr Creative Commons

farmer from Bellevue. She has taken an active interest in heritage grains, citing their nutritional benefits as well as their increased biodiversity and ability to thrive in less “ideal” growing conditions. Brett talked about the rise in gluten intolerance in folks, and how many times if people who have a hard time digesting wheat try breads or other goods made with ancient wheats like Emmer, Einkorn, or even just pre-WWII wheat varieties, often their bodies have no problem digesting the food. Dr. Shiva connected these dots further for us. When you have an industrial agriculture that needs uniformity to function (to harvest, to process, etc), what you get is a very genetically uniform strain of plant. When we eat this variety, our bodies, our digestive systems, are just getting hammered with molecule upon molecule upon molecule of the exact same thing, and they freak out.

Wheat has an enormous genome, containing five times the DNA than the human genome. Crazy, right? We all know that if you hook up with your cousin and have a baby, and then that baby hooks up with its cousin and has a baby, it doesn’t take long before those kids are, well, to be PC, unfit to thrive. Purebred dog breeds experience all sorts of health problems because of their highly inbred genes. Plants are the same way. You can look at a huge field of very uniform modern wheat as the Poodle of agriculture–and just as dog lovers are increasingly turning to Labradoodles and Golden Doodles, farmers like Brett Stevenson are looking to more biodiverse strains of wheats. The ancient wheats might be more like the pound mutts in this analogy. Goofy looking, all over the map, but extremely resilient, healthy,

Doug Brown, Dog Park Action! (2013), CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

and adaptable. Imagine a field of wheat that looks like a brimming full dog park, with some Poodles perhaps, but also that crazy Basset Hound/German Sheppard cross that looks like a raked low-rider and that obsessive Border Collie mix that won’t leave the ball alone. Some are wrestling, some laying in the shade, some biting at the sprinkler, some obsessively sniffing for God knows what on the ground. That’s what a field of biodiverse wheat is like.

So while our bodies are better off eating a more diverse diet, that diversity also creates resilience in the field. In a biodiverse field, some plants might sprout early and get nipped by a late frost but there will still be some later-sprouters in the field that will be fine. Some plants might be too tall and get blown over by a big wind storm, but their shorter sisters will still thrive. Some may be more drought-tolerant than others, able to withstand a longer period without rain, and that could make all the difference. When a field is extremely uniform, it must have the exact conditions that variety needs to produce. While in good years the harvest and payoff is remarkable, in bad years, it can be abysmal. Usually a large amount of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and water is used to attempt to guarantee the uniform field of plants will have exactly what it needs to produce. Some Native American pueblos have been farming in the southwestern United States for thousands of years using the biodiverse model, taking the opposite approach and saving seeds from “All their children”, as Hopi farmer Leigh Kuwanwisiwma says in the film SEED: The Untold Story.

So what does this have to do with us as eaters? As consumers, we have enormous power. If we incorporate more diverse foods into our diets, this demand will encourage farmers to plant more of them. At his famous Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant, chef Dan Barber offers a “Rotation Risotto” on his menu. He had been buying heritage wheat (Einkorn) from Klaas Martens, a skilled organic farmer, for the restaurant’s bread. When he visited the farm, he realized that Klaas had to grow a large number of other crops just to grow the wheat. He had to rotate the wheat year after year with a nitrogen-fixing legume, a phosphorous accumulating buckwheat cover crop, a weed- and disease-suppressing ryegrass, etc. All so the wheat could grow well, with ample fertility and lower weed and pest populations. Barber realized he needed to learn to cook with all the crops in the rotation to support the healthy farming practices of the farmer economically, so he started making the risotto to do just that.

At Earthly Delights Farm, we’re engaged in a grand collaborative project with Dave Krick, proprietor of Bittercreek/Red Feather restaurants. His new restaurant Diablo will feature a “masa menu” of several different types of corn masas for tortillas. We’re trialing dozens of varieties to figure out which ones grow the best here, and then working with farms of varying scales to scale up through a gorgeous corn ladder. We can grow a handful of seeds into several pounds of them, and then pass them along to Peaceful Belly or another mid-sized farm, who can grow a few acres, which will produce enough seed for a larger-scale farmer to grow 200 acres, and voila! A new variety of corn finds its way into the diverse diet of Idahoans through the collaborative efforts of farmers, breeders, and chefs. So freaking exciting! And all we have to do as eaters is show up and eat delicious tortillas and this biodiverse agriculture can thrive!

Flickr: Tinos Tacos, Roseburg, Ore.

During the same inspiring weekend with Dr. Shiva I had the pleasure of getting to know another, closer-to-home hero: Thumbs Heath, who has made it his life’s work to cultivate and care for hundreds of varieties of seeds in the vast majesty of the forests surrounding the Salmon River. He laughs about the myths that have been created around him: he lives totally off the grid, growing all his own food like an iconic hermit Mountain Man and Johnny Appleseed all in one. “What I’m trying to do is to learn how to grow what I eat and eat what I grow,” he says simply. He still buys bags of oats from Azure standard, but he’s also growing several dozen varieties of oats, learning their ins and outs both in the field and in his kitchen.

There is real power in what we choose to eat. While it might not seem possible to do as Thumbs is doing and grow 27 different oat varieties

thanks Wikimedia commons!

alongside hundreds of others, we can all make an effort to seek out diversity in our food choices. If we continually choose Hamburger-French Fries-Coke, we create a uniform hamburger-fry-coke corn palace of monoculture on our farms and we contribute to the loss of biodiversity. If every time I cook beans, I simply buy a can of black beans, I am supporting black bean monoculture. But if I choose black beans sometimes, but other times Pintos, Tiger’s Eyes, or Navy beans, I’m encouraging more biodiversity in the field by welcoming it into my kitchen. The final part of this series offers more concrete actions we can take to promote and preserve biodiverse agriculture.

Dr. Shiva told me that we must first connect the seed with the seed. That is, we must learn to save seeds and create that beautifully abundant, regenerative system. But for it to really take hold, in a society, in a culture, in an economy, we must connect the seed to the food. We must do that Thumbs has dedicated his life to: we must learn to eat what we can grow (or what can grow in our bioregion). When the seeds become embedded in the food that forms the fabric of our cuisine, that’s when we will have succeeded in creating a sustainable food system. In place of an industrial-chemical agriculture, we will have a biodiverse, life-sustaining model that creates greater health, for people and planet.

I for one think that sounds delicious. Let’s dig in!

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What I Learned from Vandana Shiva, Part 1: Gandhi, Resistance, and Seed Freedom

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Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance peeps with Dr. Shiva

Last weekend brought one of the greatest honors of my life–I got to spend part of three days in the company of Dr. Vandana Shiva, an Indian physicist inspired by Mahatma Gandhi to dedicate her life to working for seed freedom. Which is, of course, crucial for human freedom.

For those who have been out of school and in the nose-to-the-grind real world for too long, here is a refresher on what made Gandhi such a people’s hero:

Gandhi resisted the oppressive tyranny of British rule by inspiring a movement of peasants to disobey unjust laws forced onto them by the British that stood to impoverish Indian people for the benefit of British businessmen. Sounding familiar in these times? When the British tried to make it illegal for ordinary people to make their own salt so the British East India Company could sell it to them at a profit, Gandhi and his compatriots resisted by continuing to make salt as they had for centuries. When the British attempted to exploit Indian labor to turn parts of India into

Gandhi spinning

textile factories, Gandhi found an elderly woman who had a spinning wheel in her attic. He asked her to show him how to use it, and then he travelled around the countryside teaching other folks how to spin their own cloth. The spinning wheel worked as a tool for liberation, Gandhi said, precisely because it was so small. Anyone could use it.

We now live in a world of global trade, commoditized and subsidized toxic agricultural systems, genetically engineered seeds, and exploitative politics in the name of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), the God of limitless growth. In the last year, six of the largest corporations on earth merged, leaving in the wake of that tsunami 3 corporations–Monsanto/Bayer, Dow/DuPont, and Syngenta/ChemChina–in control of roughly 70% of the world’s seeds. However, they are not seed companies. They are chemical companies. Their job has always been to sell chemicals, and after wartime munitions plants shut down, they looked to agriculture as a potential new market. We haven’t always farmed with chemicals. In fact, the experiment of chemical agriculture has only been in going on for last 70 or so years, while our ancestors farmed without them for 10,000 years or so, and many folks (like us!) still do today.

Photo courtesy of GWP via Flickr Creative Commons

But if you’re a chemical company, your job is to figure out how to sell chemicals. Thus ramped up, in Dr. Shiva’s words, the “War on the Earth”. The Poison Cartel, as she refers to these now-3 chemical corporations, led a successful campaign to convince governments, educational institutions, farmers, banks, and consumers that indeed the ONLY way to “feed the world” is by dumping ever more toxic chemicals onto the soil. Period. And when the living seed got in the way of that agenda, they modified it to either contain a poison or to be able to withstand being sprayed with a poison. In her keynote this weekend, Dr. Shiva said, “We do not have a seed industry–we have a chemical industry at war with the seed.” Now we’ve got a 6,500 square mile dead zone at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico where the Mississippi River, simply doing her duty, has carried poisons from thousands of chemical farms downstream. Poisoned groundwater, an epidemic of diet related diseases, family farmers in bankruptcy, rising inequality, and a government willing to throw its citizens under the bus have converged into the mess we find ourselves in today. They’ve poisoned the soil. They’ve poisoned the water. They’ve poisoned the seed. They’ve poisoned our bodies. And they’ve poisoned our democracy.

Whew. Time to get back to Gandhi. Dr. Shiva describes her moment of enlightenment as she puzzled over this huge nest of interconnected environmental, political, and health problems, all of which point to the humble yet powerful seed.

As Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance director Bill McDorman says, when you choose a seed, you choose an entire agricultural system. If we want to be free, the seed must also be free, because we are literally of the seed, alive only by the gift of her sustenance.

Vandana Shiva defines seed freedom as 3 things:

1. The freedom of the seed to evolve.

As agriculture has become more mechanized, we have replaced farmers with machines. If the farm is to be as efficient as a factory, it must be standardized and uniform. Seeds are of course not inert–they are alive, and their health comes in their diversity and adaptability. A seed is remarkable in its ability to take in information about its environment and pass down adaptations to its seed children. As we grow seeds in Idaho, each season they are adapting to our little corner of the earth.

Monoculture crops. Photo by Jan Tik via Flickr Creative Commons

The problem with having multinational corporations in control of our seeds is that they approach agriculture like a multinational corporation. If the goal is huge-scale industrialized, mechanized monoculture, the seeds that make that system possible will need to all germinate at the same rate, be uniform in size and days to maturity, respond positively to industrial inputs, and work well in industrial harvest and processing systems. When such big money is poured into breeding plants with these characteristics, it keeps seeds from being able to evolve on their own terms. As Dr. Shiva says, “Life is self-organized, and nothing self-organized tends toward uniformity.” So they’re shoving the seeds into these genetically narrow boxes which make them less able to perform under diverse weather or biological conditions, which are certain to become more prevalent as climate change accelerates.

By saving seeds in a “low-input” system like ours where we are not adding synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, the seeds are evolving to thrive in that system. As small-scale seed producers and farmers, we are not interested in complete uniformity, we are interested in plants and populations of plants that continue to produce food for us in varying weather, water, and cultural conditions so we always get some food from our fields.

2. The freedom of farmers to use, grow, save, and exchange seeds.

The simple fact that for thousands of years farmers have saved and replanted seeds each year is a real problem if you want to make money selling them seeds (and the chemicals that go with them). For years, activists like Dr. Shiva have fought to keep the so-called “Terminator technology,” a process that makes the seeds in a plant sterile and unable to reproduce (thereby forcing farmers to buy them anew each year), illegal. Still, patents on seeds effectively do the same thing, requiring farmers to pay royalties to the corporations that sell them the seeds each year. All over the world folks have had to vigilantly resist proposed laws which make saving or exchanging seeds illegal.

This was one of the most profound but difficult insights I gained this weekend. These corporations are ABSOLUTELY in the business of taking away the rights of people around the world to save their own seeds. I suppose I knew this, but I didn’t totally believe it until Dr. Shiva hammered us with example after example of that very thing. She explained that natural disasters where farmers lose their seeds make them exceptionally vulnerable to predation by multinational corporations. She talked about a gift of seeds she and the other farmers at her Navdanya seed cooperative put together at the request of Nepali farmers after the terrible earthquake, that sat at the border for a month waiting for government clearance to get through. They were told there were laws that wouldn’t allow the seeds to come in, but when she actually looked into it, there were no such laws on the books. Rather, Monsanto had made an official-looking form and distributed it to customs officials at the border prohibiting the entry of seeds. These companies see natural disasters as a way to open up new markets, to lock farmers into the treadmill of having to buy seeds from the company every year rather than saving their own as they have done for generations.

There is so much more to document about these issues, including laws that prohibit seed libraries (in the United States), laws that require people to pay hundreds of dollars to register seed varieties in a national database before they can be offered for sale (in Europe), and IMF/World Bank laws that force countries to grow industrialized commodity crops for export markets rather than food for their own people (in much of the developing world). For more information about the very real struggle for seed freedom, along with many uplifting and fascinating stories from the seeds and their caretakers, check out the superb documentary Seed: The Untold Story.

3. The freedom of the eater to have access to biodiverse diet of healthy food.

It’s common knowledge at this point that our food system is very broken. As consumers, we are kept in the dark about many aspects of what goes into the bringing of food to our tables. As a rule, we do not actually know what we are eating. If a corporation is in business of convincing us we need chemical agriculture to feed ourselves, it must also work to assure that we nearly exclusively have access to the food they control, regardless of how it affects our health or communities. As a result, we are suffering from an epidemic of diet-related diseases due to lack of access to healthy food and skewed education about which food will actually bring us health. The US government’s own website states that over half of the adult population suffers from one or more diet-related diseases. But it is not only the nearly $400 billion these diseases cost us that we’re paying for. Through our taxes, we pay billions of dollars a year in agricultural subsidies to this exact, broken system, with 75% of them going to less than 10% of farms. This, plus all the money we pay in taxes that go to subsidies to the fossil fuel industry have created a system where somehow it is cheaper to buy a package of Doritos, which contains 20+ ingredients, all gleaned, processed, and combined from various corners of the world, put in a pre-made shiny package which itself contains whatever ungodly number of materials, all mined and trucked from somewhere, than it is to buy a bunch of carrots grown in your own town. This is not because local farmers are greedy, money-hungry snobs who are trying to rob you of your hard-earned cash. It is because there is no such thing as a “free market”, and we do not live in a democracy. We live under an oppressive regime of, by, and for 1% of people at the expense of the 99% and the earth…in my humble opinion.

 

So what do we do about it?

 

An easy start to that answer is quite simple. Dr. Shiva articulated it this way:

Photo: Flickr / Creative Commons / Toni Fish

“You want to stop Trump? Save seeds.”

“You want to save the earth? Eat a diverse diet.”

 

Right about now, you might be thinking, “Wait! So she’s saying that if I want to bring down oppressive regimes and create an abundant economy and world grounded in care for the earth and care for people, I can do that by eating a diet of diverse foods? Sounds too good to be true, and if it sounds too good to be true….I know a scam when I see one.”

Well, for some much-needed context, check out Part II of this saga!

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Symphony of the Seed, Part II: The Spawning of the Seed

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As our end of the Earth tips closer to the sun and the frost migrates southward, the gardeners among us begin transplanting our coddled babies outside. One by one, we tuck them into freshly prepared soil, give them a hearty drink of water, and reluctantly retreat like nervous parents waving good-bye on the first day of Kindergarten.

The world is immense for a tiny seedling as the shelter of the greenhouse gives way to the outside world beyond it. Now, it is literally a baby in an orchestra that becomes, in Wendell Berry’s words, “a music so subtle and vast no ear hears it, except in fragments.” Delicate, bright white roots touch the soil of their new home for the first time, tickled by literally millions of teeming soil micro-organisms. The harsh sun baptizes its leaves and the wind whips at its stem. So much could go wrong in such a vulnerable state.

It learns, as all beings must, how to occupy a seat at this incomprehensibly interconnected table with strength and grace. It must etch food from rocks and to grow strong but flexible in the wind, like the hardened trunks of trees that still sway in the breeze. To share of itself, but not too much.

We humans have a distaste for bitterness, so we have over centuries bred it out of our beloved garden vegetables, transforming bitter, wild plants into sweet, cultivated ones. As we’ve taken away our plants’ natural bitter defenses, we too must play an important role in protecting them. Thus, we’re inducted into the concert as our cultivated gardens become members of the orchestra, working alongside the ladybugs and mantises to keep someone besides us from eating our dinner.

By D. Gordon E. Robertson via Wikimedia Commons

Sun-eating leaves multiply rapidly when roots can drink from the soil, and our baby plants soon grow voluptuously large. Their breath and ours intertwine in the elegant exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Yet the seed has a higher purpose–to make more seeds.

The method the plant employs is the stuff of sonnets, the very definition of beauty for some. While some plants like tomatoes can pollinate themselves, the majority of our cultivated vegetable crops need help. Without the ability to move, a plant must lure in an unwitting accomplice to aid it in the act of copulation, to move its sperm to another plant’s egg.

Thus, plain green stems birth garish flowers splaying petals, pistils, and stamens open for the taking, wafting alluring scents into the air, hoping to catch the attention of a passing pollinator. Guided by ultraviolet maps on petals unseen by human eyes, a pollinator reaches the sweet cache of nectar the plant generously provisions, in the process covering her hairy body with sperm-filled pollen. Plants don’t get insects to do their bidding through force or violence–they do it through irresistible sweetness and beauty.

And through unique mechanics. Umbellaceae family plants like dill and carrot shoot up umbrellas of tiny flowers on tiny stems, attracting tiny pollinators like solitary bees and small flies. Big squash flowers are better suited to big pollinators like honey bees and squash bees. Scrophulariaceae plants provide a little pedal of a petal for the bee to land on, releasing the pollen-drenched anther on a long filament to bop her on the bum while she drinks. Tomatoes shed pollen only for bumblebees who can buzz correctly. Thus the intrigue continues for the curious gardener, who passes awed summer hours observing the ingeniousness of flowers and the industriousness of bees.

Often we think of germination as something that only happens to seeds, but pollen grains germinate too! When a pollen grain lands on the sticky stigma of the female flower, it grows a pollen tube that stretches down the style of the female, unleashing the sperm to swim in and fertilize the eggs inside. The fertilized eggs will grow to become the seed babies of the plant, housed variously in an ovary as large as a pumpkin or as small as the button of a chamomile flower.

Now that the sexy work of pollination is done, there’s nothing to do but wait for the seed to ripen, which is the very definition of summer’s bounty. The juicy tomatoes, spicy peppers, and buttery squashes we covet are simply the houses for hundreds of ripening seeds, seducing us as the flowers seduced the bees into doing their bidding. We feast in their excessiveness as we await the autumn’s chill.

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Symphony of the Seed, Part 1: The Sprouting of the Seed

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At first, the process is intimate. You, alone in your greenhouse, bundled up against the cold, seeding alliums. Outside the window, the world is still sleeping. A brave bird calls forlorn, oddly exposed on a naked branch, perched over the patchy snow. You scatter a small scoop of hard little lumpy seeds across the top of each pot and cover it lightly. The whole thing just seems so implausible, flat after flat of plain brown soil stacking up on the shelves.

“There’s no way this can work again!” you think.

You water and wait. A week goes by, sometimes more, and you’ve almost forgotten there was anything in those pots. But then, a single blade, bent against itself, pushes through the soil, like a lone oboe squeaking out clearly in a quiet theater while the entire orchestra waits in captivated silence behind it. It creeps taller, millimeter by millimeter, finally breaking free, heaving the shell of its seed out of the ground and lofting it overhead like a  trophy. Others follow, first timidly, then boldly by the thousands, waving the black pompons of their seed skeletons in the air like chaotic fireworks dancing in chorus. Flat after flat, they sprout and grow–Brassicas, lettuces, tomatoes, peppers, filling the shelves and saturating our dull winter eyes with impossible vibrancy.

Of course, the real magic happened underground, before that first blade showed itself to the world above. As the water seeps in to soak the soil around the waiting seed, it begins to soften the seed’s protective shell. The parched seed, which has lain dormant and thirsty for so long, starts to drink in water through its hilum bellybutton. As the water quenches the seed, its radicle root starts to grow, and soon it busts through the seed coat, springing the plant to life once again. That radicle plunges deep into the soil, anchoring it and beginning to slurp up food from the soil. The plumule shoots steadily upward until it bursts through to the light, unfurling its cotyledon leaves to bask in the sun and be nourished. And thus, the seed is born a plant.

Seeds have a  way of knowing when the time is right. It’s a matter of life and death, whether the world is ready to support the seed once it sprouts, so each seed carries a built in intelligence to know when it’s time. Some seeds in the desert will lie dormant for months, years, or even decades, waiting for the perfect conditions to make a go at their one chance at life. Garden seeds, having co-evolved with doting human caretakers, are more trusting. As long as we place them at the right depth, and provide them the right temperature and moisture, they’ll sprout, throwing their survival into our hands. “I trust you,” they say with each sprouting cotyledon. And so we engage in the centuries-old dance between faith and doubt that is agriculture, partnering across vast kingdoms of life to nourish another species.

                It’s happening outside now, too. Spring is the whole world waking up, sprouting seeds dotting every available surface, from the furrows in the fields to the cracks in the sidewalk. It’s such a blindly optimistic thing to do, putting hard little lumps into rows of bare brown ground. Yet here they come, by the hundreds, then the thousands, almost invisible at first. Then one day you arrive at your farm and the whole thing wears a blanket of soft green. The symphony is in raucous crescendo now, all the horns and the toms and the violins have joined in fully and are climbing toward the joyful cacophonous climax of summer.

Charles Darwin once counted 527 individual seeds in a single teaspoon of pond soil, each with the potential to create millions more of itself over generations. Though each one is precarious in itself, as a whole, the process is unstoppable, seeds cracking open and leaves climbing insatiably forward, eating the sun and multiplying ever more surely as roots do the same. It’s one of the grandest feats on earth, and one of the most miraculous for the gardener to behold–the humble seed splitting apart and bursting forward into the light.  As author Cynthia Occelli describes, “For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. For someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”

And yet all around us, countless spring seeds coming undone bring the promise of another bountiful season. Thanks be to the sprouting seeds!

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Spring Planting Guide

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Tips for your best garden yet!

I sure can grow ’em, but where the heck am I gonna put all of them?

For gardeners old and new, the first sunny days of spring incite an industrious fervor that can border on insanity. If ever there was a way to bite off more than you can proverbially chew, it’s planting a garden after a long winter’s amnesia-inducing nap. Weeds? What are those? Canning? It’s heaven on earth!

So you rip up half your lawn and start buying seeds. As paychecks disappear into mountains of seeds and plant starts and bags of compost, may these tips help your (huge) gardens grow, well, huge…

 

What to grow:

  1. Grow what you like to eat. Seems simple, but many folks plant what they think they’re supposed to plant rather than what they actually want to eat.
  2. If you’re short on space, consider skipping things that are inexpensive to buy from local producers and/or that take up tons of space (cabbage, onions, potatoes), and focus on stuff that’s either expensive (kale, greens, herbs) or that tastes infinitely better homegrown (tomatoes).

 

When to plant:

Gardeners classify crops into cool- or warm-season crops. Cool season crops can handle frost and are generally planted in spring. Warm season crops can’t be planted outside until after the danger of frost has passed.

Some crops are “direct-seeded”—seeds planted right into the ground—while others are generally started indoors and transplanted outside later. The list below tells you which common garden crops are cool or warm season, and which should be direct seeded vs. transplanted.

 

Direct Seeding Tips:

  1. Don’t seed too deeply. Plant small seeds no more than ½” deep.
  2. Keep the ground moist until seeds germinate. Be patient—carrots especially take a long time to come up (sometimes 3 weeks!).
  3. Be sure to thin! Root crops like radishes especially need space to grow. Be a ruthless thinner, or you’ll end up with lots of leafy tops and no roots! Seriously, THIN like the dickens! Don’t feel bad!

 

Starting Indoors Tips:

  1. Light is crucial. It’s the biggest reason home gardeners end up with spindly plants. You can use a regular shop light (no fancy bulbs needed). Suspend it just a few inches above your seedlings and raise the light up as they grow. A window (even a south-facing one) is generally not enough light to avoid leggy seedlings! Keep your light on for 14 hours a day.
  2. Use potting soil (not regular soil). It is sterile and full of compost to help your plants grow strong!
  3. Keep seedlings moist, but cut back water if you notice mold growing on the surface.

 

Transplanting Tips:

  1. Harden seedlings off by setting them outside for a few hours a day for a few days before you transplant
  2. MAKE SURE TO WATER YOUR TRANSPLANTS! Transplanting is stressful on your plants, so make sure they have plenty of water in their new homes or they will surely perish with their tiny little roots.
  3. Make a small depression in the soil around the plants as you plant, like a moat, and then fill it up with water to get plenty of water to the tiny roots of your plants. Water deeply and often for at least 2 weeks to help them root deeply. You can also add compost to help feed them!

 

Planting Timeline:

Dates are for Treasure Valley. For other areas, look up your last frost date and work backwards from there. Some crops are listed for both direct seeding and starting indoors because they work well both ways.

 

Spring/Cool Crops 

Direct Seed (plant directly into the dirt outside) as soon as the ground can be worked in spring (March-April)

Peas

Radishes

Carrots

Beets

Turnips

Rutabagas/parsnips/other roots

Potatoes (protect tops from frost)

Scallions

Onion sets

Dill

Greens like spinach, arugula, mustards

Lettuce

Fava beans

Cilantro

Chard (April or later)

 

Start indoors early (Feb, or one month before ground thaws) and transplant outside in spring (March-May)

 Brassicas like broccoli, kale, collards, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kohlrabi, cabbage

Alliums like onions, shallots, leeks

Head lettuces

Chard

Mustards

Parsley

Perennial flowers

Celery

Fennel (transplant Apr-May)

 

Summer/warm crops

 Direct Seed (plant directly into the dirt outside) after danger of frost has passed (late May/June)

Squash (summer and winter)

Basil

Beans (pole and bush)

Melons

Cucumbers

Corn

Soybeans/edamame

Sweet potatoes

Calendula

Short-season annual flowers

 

Start indoors in spring (March-April, or 6-8 weeks before last frost) and transplant after danger of frost has passed (late May/June)

Tomatoes

Eggplant

Peppers

Basil (start 4 weeks ahead)

Tomatillos

Ground Cherries

Long-season annual flowers

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The Life of a Snake River Seed: A Photo Blog

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Do you ever wonder how all those tiny seeds get into all those colorful garden seed packets?

It depends on what kind of seed company you buy your seeds from; the main distinction is a matter of scale: big companies likely don’t grow their own seed but buy it, and machines are used to fill packets and pull orders.  (for more details on the way bigger seed companies, check out this previous post).

Well, our small human-scale company’s seeds live a very different life than most commercial seed companies.

Here’s a little photo journey through the Life of a Snake River Seed…

Growing

Of course, a seed starts with a seed…sometimes into a flat to sprout in a greenhouse, and sometimes directly into the ground…

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When they sprout, we transplant them outside!

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Since much of Idaho has dry summers, watering is a must, whether by drip tapes, hand lines, or even, in a pinch, with your thumb on the end of a good old fashioned hose.

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We hoe and hoe, and walk our fields to select only the best plants to go to seed, and we rogue (pull out) the rest!

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Growing Plants for Seeds

The best part of growing seeds is the opportunity to see the plants go through their whole life cycle. On a vegetable farm, we would pull radish bulbs to eat…But as seed savers, we get to watch our radishes go through the rest of their crazy-wonderful life cycle!

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First, the radish roots get REALLY, REALLY big, like the size of your forearm sometimes, and then they grow taller and taller until they start to flower! The pollinators LOVE their flowers……

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After the pollinators pollinate their flowers, they grow these CRAZY seed pods which turn a rainbow of colors before drying out completely so we can harvest them…

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Once they’re dry, we harvest the seed stalks to dry further out of the field. For bigger lots, we might harvest them onto tarps or for smaller ones, into pillow cases…

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Dry Seed Process

Then we put them somewhere out of the elements to finish drying…

img_1173drying-seedsOnce they’re dry, we start cleaning them. Bigger growers have mechanized equipment to do a lot of this, but at Snake River Seed Co-op, our small family farmers use small, hand-scale equipment. It might not be as quick as machines, but it works very well and makes seed production accessible to smaller scale growers since they don’t need to buy expensive equipment.

First we THRESH our seeds, usually by dancing on them in a bucket.  This results in lots of seed mixed up with broken up stem & pods.

Then we WINNOW them using fans and screens. The fans are surprisingly effective: when you pour seeds in front of them, the good seeds are heavy and they fall into the first tub, while the immature ones and the chaff are lighter and they fly into the second one or beyond. Voila’!

 

 

 

Then we further separate the seed from the chaff by pouring the mixture onto a screen, shaking it and the seeds stay on the screen and the chaff falls through.

Wet Seed Processing

Seeds that grow inside a wet fruit take a slightly different route to get clean: we break up the fruit by slicing, blending, scooping or grating it…

Some things, like tomatoes, cucumbers, and melons, go through a fermentation stage as well to break down the gelatinous sack surrounding the seed….

After they’ve fermented, we decant them by adding lots of water to the seeds and pulp mixture. Again, the good seeds are heavy and they sink, while the immature ones and the pulp are lighter and they float. We pour off the immature seeds and pulp and repeat until we get down to just pure, clean seeds at the bottom of the jar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then we pour the clean seeds onto plates to dry in the shade.

 

Once each grower has processed his/her seed crop into clean, dry seeds on their farms by following similar procedures, they bag them up and deliver them to Snake River Seed Co-op so they can be prepped for the upcoming seed season.

Mike Sommers of PURPLE SAGE FARM delivering his seed crop for 2017!

In the fall and into the winter, we intake seeds from all of our 17 farmers by weighing them, doing additional cleaning if needed, and backstocking them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Germination Testing

Then we start the process of germination testing to ensure the seed’s viability.  We do this by arranging 50 seeds of each lot onto damp paper towels and then load them into 3-ring binders. We put the binders in the conditions right for each crop: hot crop binders go on a heat mat while cold crop binders stay in our seed room. After 2 weeks (or so) we count the seeds that have sprouted to determine their germination percentages.

After we’re sure the seeds are viable and germinate well, they are packed into glass jars, labeled, and put into our seed storage vault while they wait for the season’s first orders to start trickling in.

Seed Packing

Once an order has been received, we individually pack the seeds into packets on-demand, to ensure you receive the highest quality, fresh and viable seeds every single time.

(Of course, designing and getting the packets printed is a whole process in and of itself, but that’s for another day…)

All of our seed packing is done by hand in old fashioned “packing parties” – no machines, conveyor belts or robots here! We stamp each packet with a lot number and pack date. Then we fill them with a specific teaspoon or tablespoon amount – depending upon the size of the seed and quantity per packet.

By the time a Snake River Seed Co-op seed packet has gotten into your hands, it has passed through a minimum of 12 times by doting seed stewards and seed packers.

Happy Planting!