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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!

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Why are our seeds so expensive…or, such a great value?

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Why are our seeds so expensive such a great value?

a.k.a. The Seed Creates the System

Garden crops going to seed
Garden crops going to seed

Seeds are mysterious. Even many avid gardeners couldn’t tell you much about the life a seed has had before they shake it from the packet into moist soil. Everything from how plants actually make their seeds to where the seeds were grown to all the steps required to harvest, process, clean, dry, germination test them, and pack them into packets are largely absent from our consciousness when we line up in front of seed racks full of colorful photos and choose our hopeful summer bounty.

In the same way consumers are waking up to the stark differences between factory farmed feedlot beef and animals raised on healthy pastures, seeds deserve our critical eye. The ways different brands of seeds find their way to our shelves create vastly different agricultural and economic systems in their wake.

Most large-scale seed companies, even ones who offer “organic” seeds, source their seeds from all over the world, shipping seeds from China, industrial organic hybrids from Europe, etc. So while we might grow local food to reduce our carbon footprint, the seeds we’re using have already got some serious food miles on them. The packet tells you nothing about where the seeds were grown–only where the company is headquartered. We can assume the seeds have been purchased from large-scale farmers who will grow them for the cheapest price.

Once they arrive to be packed, most of the process is automated. Big hoppers are filled with a certain seed lot and a machine fills and seals the packets. With the really cheap seeds, multiple companies’ seed packets are filled in the same warehouse with the same poor-quality seed, slapping different companies’ names on the same seed. The machine simply replaces one company’s packet with another and keeps filling. But even integrous seed companies like Seed Savers Exchange have automated seed packing equipment. A video posted on Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds’ facebook page just recently  shows their shiny, new warehouse full of conveyor belts and computers to pull orders for shipping to every corner of the world.

Mike bringing in his seed crops!

Our seeds are literally a world apart from this global food chain. For starters, we only work with small-scale growers in our own bioregion. Our seeds are born and raised in and around Idaho, and over 95% of them remain here for sale in our independent retail partners’ garden centers and co-ops.

We are working to get more local farmers involved in growing seeds on their farms,

Krista winnowing seeds with box fans
Krista winnowing seeds with box fans

and offering them a viable marketing outlet for this important work. The cost of production is built into our seed prices. In order to create a viable localized economy, farmers have to be able to make a living. We pay our farmers often ten times more for their seeds than large-scale seed companies will pay, because that’s truly what it costs to produce these crops. As farmers, we work hard and pour our hearts and souls into our farms and our seeds. We will not support the system that keeps farmers in poverty so the rest of us can have cheap food. Seeds provide an additional winter income stream, allowing us to mitigate gaps in our farms’ financial solvency and helps keep us farming!

All but one of our growers is small enough that we harvest our seeds by hand and clean them with small-scale equipment like fans and screens. This takes longer but allows more farmers to participate, because they do not need lots of land or fancy, expensive equipment. We germination test and pack the seeds by hand in a small shed on one of our farms. It is truly a labor of love, and we are putting people to work with important, low-tech, community-sustaining jobs. The independent garden centers and food co-ops who carry our seeds are also doing this in a way big box or virtual online stores don’t.

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Hand-packing seed packets

So when you’re comparing the prices of different companies’ seeds, remember that THE SEED CREATES THE SYSTEM! With each packet of SNAKE RIVER SEED COOPERATIVE’s  seeds, you’re getting enough locally-adapted seeds to grow at least 250 delicious carrots, or 175 Broccoli plants, or hundreds of Black Krim tomatoes, all for $3.25 cents! All the while, you’re supporting an entire local economy that begins with healthy soils on small, sustainable farms and travels through happy, well-compensated farmers and thriving locally-owned retail nurseries and into your own lovingly-tended garden. How’s that for a value-packed bargain?!

The Earthly Delights Farm crew processing wet seeded crops.
The Earthly Delights Farm crew processing wet seeded crops.

THANK YOU FROM THE BOTTOM OF OUR HEARTS for supporting our cooperative by buying our Idaho-grown seeds!

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2016 State of the Seedshed

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PrintAs we busily thresh and winnow the last of the 2016 seed crops under the 70 degree November sun, I heard a climate change denier has just been appointed to head the EPA. Perhaps our future offerings will include figs and olives!

Nevertheless, the close of the 2016 growing season and the start of the 2016/17 seed slinging season brings me great pride and comfort. Hundreds of jars of locally-grown seeds are now tucked safely inside our walk in cooler, awaiting their journey into your hands, your gardens, and your kitchens to claim their place in the tapestry of your culture.

Each seed my mentor, I marvel at how much a small group of conscientious growers, retailers, and

consumers can collectively change business as usual by spending some portion of our time doing very small, impactful things. A tiny seed will come completely undone, cracking itself open and plunging upward in the hope of finding light and nourishment. When it does, it will grow and flower with everything it has and make hundreds of seeds where just one was planted. A tiny gardener, choosing to plant a seed that was grown in her own bioregion, sows not only a season of bountiful food but a viable livelihood for her seed farmer, who can continue to grow seeds for her neighbors for years to come. An independent garden center who chooses to carry locally-grown seeds sees the impact of their choice multiplied ten-fold in the economics of their community.

Many of our growers at the Flicks screening of SEED: The Untold Story
Many of our growers at the Flicks screening of SEED: The Untold Story

Last year, 17 local farmers expanded their farm models to include growing seeds for Snake River Seed Co-op. Together, we grew and sold over 25,000 packets of seeds around Idaho. That’s 25,000 packets of seeds that didn’t exist 5 years ago. This year, we worked with 17 local farmers to steward 258 varieties of seeds, which with each generation of planting, selecting, and saving, are becoming more adapted to our unique place on earth. This year, we expanded outside the Treasure and Magic Valleys, adding excellent growers from Moscow, Orofino, and Twisp, Washington, and we’ve been expanding our efforts into the northern and eastern parts of Idaho to unite us in the beautiful work of growing seeds!

It is not easy for these farmers to include seed production in their already full farm schedules, but we are making the effort and doing it because we appreciate the reality of where we are at, seed-wise:

-We’re losing seed biodiversity–over 95% of the seed varieties that were commercially available in 1900 have been lost, or abandoned in favor of more lucrative and uniform industrial hybrids that require more synthetic fertilizers and by nature require the farmer to buy new seed from the company every year.

-We’re losing bioregional seed companies–in 1970, there were over 3,000 seed companies in the US. Now, with impending corporate mergers, three multinational chemical/seed companies will own over 75% of the world’s seeds. Snake River Seed Co-op is part of a growing movement to put seeds back into the hands of the farmers and gardeners in our communities who are better able to steward them like the treasures they are, ensuring the future of our bioregional food security.

-We’ve lost our connection with our food, and especially our seeds. Even though the local food movement is picking up steam, we largely still see seeds as just another faceless input that can be bought from wherever. Without locally-grown seeds, we don’t have a viable local food system. As we’ve worked to expand access and production of seeds right here, we’ve learned the crucial lesson–locally-grown seeds react to our place, adapting themselves each year to better grow in our unique climate and soils. Every year we save and replant a seed in the Intermountain West, we bring it that much more into harmony with our farms and gardens, so every year we grow better and better gardens and better and better seeds!

Each of our growers has contributed in vital and unique ways to the co-op, amid the ever-present challenges of farming.

Growers Kyle and Cassie from Eat-A-Turnip-Garden
Growers Kyle and Cassie from Eat-A-Turnip-Garden

James Loomis of Salacia Farm brings us Mammoth Basil and Marketmore Cucumbers despite half his crop being lost in a fire that consumed a large Acai berry hedge at his farm this summer. Anaka Mines of Twisp River Farm grew Yellowstone carrots and Hungarian Blue poppies while growing a baby–she’s due December 15th! Mike Sommer of Purple Sage Farm showed up with a veritable haul of Dragon Carrots and Culinary Sage amid building a certified kitchen on his farm. Earthly Delights Farm trained 6 new interns in the art of small-scale seed and produce production. In the midst of my husband’s work accident and recovery, they learned how to plant, isolate, rogue, harvest, thresh, winnow, decant, and dry over 75 varieties of seeds in the middle of Boise. Lori Bevan at Field Goods Farm gained, lost, and regained farmland this year, contributing Dwarf Scotch Blue Curled Kale and Armenian Cucumbers despite her uncertain situation. Carrie Jones at Draggin’ Wing Farm managed to grow Cuore di Capra Tomatoes and King of the North Peppers in addition to starting graduate school and raising her daughter as a single mom, and her mom Diane helped her clean her remaining seed crops amid her own ever-expanding offerings of native and drought-tolerant flower seeds to the co-op. Dana Rassmussen at Fellowship Farms nervously waited out a solid month of excessive rains in Paul, Idaho, to thresh his windrowed bean seeds.

All of our farmers make extraordinary efforts to bring us the food and seeds they grow each year. Each seed in our collection comes with it a remarkable history, from domestication through countless generations of hands who have cared for and improved and passed it down to the next steward. Each seed carries bold, shining hope for an abundant future of delicious nourishment and lively culture. Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, for caring about these tiny seeds and choosing to support our efforts by planting them in your farms and gardens. In the uncertain future ahead, we will continue to plant these little bundles of hope, and by their generosity we will collectively reap what we sow.