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Our Seedy Evolution

My Dad’s wonderful new partner Chris found a bag of my Mom’s old seeds in their shed and opening it brought a trip down memory lane along with all the expected accompanying feelings…”How sad she never got to plant them” leads to “Why the hell didn’t she plant them? Did she just buy them to support her daughter’s business endeavors? Of course that’s what she did”…and finally “My oh my, how far we’ve come in all these years!” Hope you enjoy this little photo expose of the evolution of our seed company, as shown through the evolution of our seed packets…

 

 

Ahh, the beginning of a project…where you dive into an overwhelmingly vast sea of  hard work wearing nothing but your oh-so-transparent suit of blissful ignorance…I was with my Mom in the car when I got a call from Lindsay Schramm, the owner of the soon-to-be open North End Organic Nursery in Boise. She had heard I was into seed saving and wanted to carry some of my seeds in her new store. I went home and found about 10 varieties of horribly cleaned, likely poorly isolated seed from a clearly smaller-than-recommended population size I’d saved that year and put them into little coin envelopes with my farm logo on a sticker. I knew nothing about the Pure Seed Law, nor the laws about germination testing or needing to include the year they were packed for. I just put them in the envelopes and sold ’em. Probably made about $25. And voila…I’d caught the bug. It was 2009, and I had no idea what the hell I was doing.

 

 

The new decade brought a ridiculous new addition to the plan–in addition to learning a minuscule amount about the laws governing seed sales, I also heeded the half-baked advice of my delightfully audacious friend Lindsay Medoff, an ex- Anthropologie fashion designer turned farmer who coulda birthed Pintrest has she seen what was coming down the pipe. Instead, she convinced me, a person who had never before really sewn a thing, that it would be a good idea to sew my own packets for my seeds. Really drive home the hand-scale aspect of it, you know? And so I embarked on a multi-year project where I literally went through dozens of spools of hot pink thread and completely trashed a couple cheap sewing machines making my own seed packets. At first, this involved cutting big spools of kraft paper into rectangles, designing and printing a little card with some information (thankfully including the “Packed For” year), sewing the packet together on 3 sides, filling it with seeds, and then sewing the top closed. All things considered, it worked better than it seems like it should have, except with varieties like ground cherries with very small seeds. I think I had around 33 varieties in my collection at that time.

 

There’s nothing like spending hundreds of hours hunched over a sewing machine or cutting out thousands of little paper rectangles with crappy dollar store scissors to make you start questioning your life decisions. I started looking for ways to streamline this absurd process but still keep the “handmade” feel. The compromise: cut and fold long rectangles and only sew the packets on two sides. Then print and cut out hundreds of stickers on my home model HP printer and stick them on the packets, and use a flap with a sticker on the other side, which also added the benefit of not making the customer cut into the packet to open it. In retrospect, I think this version added more steps, and included the added suck-bonus of having to get stickers to come off their backing. On the bright side, I was getting better at seed saving by this point. My elders Donna Ferguson and Beth Rasgorshek had showed me some basic seed cleaning skills, and I’d been reading Seed To Seed like it was the last book on earth. The game was definitely being upped. I was getting lots of positive feedback from folks using my seeds, and I was actually starting to see the benefits on my own farm as well. I was surprised to see that my seeds almost always germinated better and grew better than the “real” ones I was still buying, and slowly they were working their enchanting magic on me. I was starting to believe I might actually be onto something. Beth took me to my first Organic Seed Alliance conference in Port Townsend, Washington, and I couldn’t believe it…there were all these young wackos like me who were growing seeds and selling them in packets through these tiny-ass seed companies they started. They looked at me like I was a freaking lunatic when I showed them my hand-made packets, but I think it sort of endeared them to me in some sort of twisted way as well…“At least I’ve got half my shit figured out compared to this girl,” they seemed to be thinking.

I think it was their appalled faces when they calculated the hours it must have taken me to create what they were holding in their hands that started me thinking I ought to go a different direction. So in preparation for the 2013 seed selling season I hired a graphic designer to help me design a template for a packet I could populate myself, printed on recycled paper by a local company, Lithographics, who got drug into this mess by proxy. They also had no idea what a pain in the neck they’d signed up for. They had to build special die-cutters, and use super heavy paper to get it to run through their machines OK,  and even hire a bunch of teenagers to glue them together at the eleventh hour, with stacks of people in my living room hunched over sewing machines desperately trying the meet the Black Friday deadline we’d for some reason locked ourselves into. Yes, you read that right. I still couldn’t give up the damn hot pink thread! It had latched and hooked its way around my neck, and I couldn’t let go.

 

 

 

Finally in 2014, I let it go. We traded it for that particular high of rubber cement and prayed through the year that the department of ag wouldn’t noticed that I accidentally put the wrong “packed for” year on every single packet when I sent them to the printers…with around 100 varieties at that time, this whole seed business thing was becoming a kind of a big deal, and we were thousands of dollars into those packets. Luckily, no one seemed to notice, even though we’d expanded into several more retail stores by then. I’d also gotten my act together on germination testing, which really amped us up for the next big move…

 

The Snake River Seed Cooperative was born in 2014! We launched our first line of seeds for the 2015 season, with 7 growers, and with that I was whisked into the world of seed company management. The benefits were numerous–with more growers, we could offer more varieties of seeds to our growing customer base of Treasure Valley gardeners. It was also a selfish move for me. As more folks started relying on my seeds, my anxiety about letting them down also ramped up. With more growers, we could spread out the risk and create more resilience, and that’s what we’ve been working on in the 4 years since. We started working with Cambridge Pacific, who makes seed packets for small seed companies all over the country, and they’re hella fancy…self-sticking and everything! Our packets have stayed the same over these years, except for the little slogan at the bottom of them, which has changed as we’ve expanded from an Idaho-only seed company to a bioregional seed company based in Idaho. We still have the same commitment of providing a living wage for farmers while offering gardeners an increasingly diverse selection of locally-adapted seeds. And the added benefit of our newer year’s packets…….no ABOUT!!!

 

For those who’ve never had the pleasure of packing seeds with us, you may not notice that on the back of some of our older SRSC packets there is a word crossed out. It is the word ABOUT, and we have literally crossed out tens of thousands of that word over these years, after we were informed by the Department of Weights and Measures (yet another entity I didn’t realize existed until they came a-knocking…) that you are not allowed to use “approximations” on seed packets. You cannot say “at least” 100 seeds or “about” 100 seeds, or “minimum” 100 seeds. Nope. You have to say “100 Seeds” even though you and they know darn well that the likelihood of there being exactly 100 seeds in a packet is about the same as the likelihood of me being able to complete a triathalon. But nevertheless, we have dutifully purchased dozens of sharpies and crossed out every damn ABOUT we come across, and each time we finish an old 500 packet box and move into a new box that doesn’t say ABOUT the office crew cheers. Slowly and surely, we’re wiping every shred of approximation out of our collection….and along with it, becoming more “legit” as an entity all the time….I’ll leave you with the picture of me with my first Seed Dealer’s license to prove the point…just don’t look at the year I got it….

 

Thanks to everyone for following along the journey, whether you early adopted in the rogue coin envelope days, logged hours behind a sewing machine with so stinking much pink thread, or are a relative newcomer who had no idea that your beloved local seed company has such scrappy roots. What a ride it’s been. And I think it’s now safe to say this baby that took a lot of pushing and pulling to birth is now standing on its own 2 feet. Now if we can just survive adolescence……

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Special Delivery

This week I received several deliveries of seeds from seed folk near and far. Admittedly, this has been an emotional year for me. I have been questioning many of the basic assumptions I’ve held about work, my role in our community, and the sensibility of hope amid a seemingly unstoppable tsunami of status quo exponential growth and bottomless consumption. My adolescent self-righteousness gave way to practical, skill-based satisfaction almost a decade ago and I’ve been plodding along fairly contentedly since then, doing whatever tiny part I can to care for the Earth and our community in small but valuable ways. But now this new middle-aged angst looms large, set against the overwhelming backdrop of our “Fastest Growing State/City in the Nation” banner. A 4th generation Boisean, my home city has been growing for my whole life, but all of a sudden it feels like it’s not mine anymore. The traffic is bigger, the drivers meaner, the prices higher, the pace quicker, the aesthetic more chic. I feel confused by my emotions about this–a mix of guilt, powerlessness, and most unsettling for me, apathy. One of my dearest friends has been working tirelessly to save some of the last remaining pieces of agricultural land in the valley from development and I can barely get it together to sign a petition, let alone lend a hand in their coalition’s efforts.

Beautiful native flower seeds!

A package arrives in the mail, from a new Co-op grower who wild harvests native plant seeds to help in restoration work. The seeds are to me like old friends. Showy Goldeneye, Lupine, Penstemons. These are the plants I first fell in love with. Before I traded backpacking for farming, the wild for the domesticated. They are the Idaho of my soul, along with their majestic conifer and sagebrush counterparts.

Another package arrives. Corn seeds from Native Seeds/SEARCH for our ongoing corn trials project. Grown for thousands of years and adapted to countless small farms and villages, the partnership between the corn and its ancestral stewards is the most stunning example of sustainable domestication I can think of. 60-day flour corn planted by the Tohono O’odham with the summer monsoons, grown and harvested entirely in concert with the rhythms of their place. White corn from the Santo Domingo Pueblo. Dia de San Juan dent corn grown and used by the Mayo. My European ancestors violently drove Native people from this valley and the legacy of systemic racism keeps people like me on top even though I don’t want that to be the case. Who am I to say people shouldn’t move here? Is it possible to develop a sustainable agriculture here as a relative newcomer with foreign crops to this land? Is it prudent? Complicated questions that don’t have simple answers.

Now another delivery, this one from two new seed steward friends in Ogden, Utah. Several of their current favorite varieties, along with a couple ongoing breeding projects. Hand labeled, with meticulous notes and stories about each. How much care has gone into this little gift package! I feel an overwhelming surge of gratitude for these new acquaintances, and for all who sow and harvest and deeply care for the seeds.

Lastly a delivery of 25 pounds of Magic Manna corn from Wayne. With this deepening friendship I explore the particulars of scaling up, of feeding more than yourself, of being of use in the larger agricultural community. I know only a tiny part of this corn’s ancestral story. Wayne got it from Carol Deppe, who bred it out of Painted Mountain, which in turn has been bred by Dave Christensen out of over 70 varieties of Indian corns, each with their own remarkable story, journey, and legacy of seedkeepers who are anonymous to me. It goes back through the millennia to Teosinte, and before that, who knows? A farm intern last season said the most profound thing she learned on the farm was that the seed is a bridge between the past and the future. It holds within it all the generations of seeds and their stewards past as well as the hope and potential for all the generations to come. It is truly a gift to hold and plant a seed, to add my life as a small link in an awesome chain across cultures and borders, between families and friends and even enemies. Perhaps there’s still some hope in me yet.

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Fit for the West

At Snake River Seed Co-op, we take pride in offering varieties that grow well in our unique corner of the earth…places where temperatures can fluctuate 80 degrees in 24 hours, with caliche and raging winds and parsed-out irrigation water, and intrepid gardeners who brave it all for the singular satisfaction of a fresh-from-the-garden meal.

While its obvious that all the seeds in our packets grow here–we know they grow here because they, um, grew here, and that’s why they’re in the packets–but there’s a bit more to the story of how specific varieties find their ways into our catalog.

We employ 3 basic strategies to trial varieties:

1. We Know You Can, But Who’s The Best?

We trial varieties of things we know we can grow here to select the best varieties for our area, to see how individual varieties do right here, and choose from those the best performing varieties to offer to our community. Check out these beauties, which are some of the winners of our trials over the years…

Emerald Gem Melon Winner of our 2014 heirloom melon trials in the EARLY melon category. In this trial, we looked at how varieties performed in the field (i.e. Did they crack? Did they ripen before frost? Did they slip well when ripe or offer other visual clues as to ripeness? Were they disease resistant?), and then we did taste tests on those who performed well in the field to choose the best-tasting, best-performing varieties.

 

In the MAIN SEASON melon category, the winner was Hearts of Gold , with over 90% of taste testers choosing it as their favorite. In 2015 we started growing these varieties in isolation for seed production and both have won huge followings in the years since.

 

 

 

Giant Musselburgh Leeks Won the 2015/16 overwintered leek trials. We were looking for leeks that sized up nicely, had decently long shanks, and then survived the winter well to provide delicious food through the April following their planting, as well as produce seed! Some varieties, like Lincoln, won our hearts in the fresh eating category but sucked at overwintering in Idaho, so they took a backseat to the wonderful heirloom Giant Musselburgh.

 

Blacktail Mountain Watermelon Was actually bred in Idaho by now-famous plant breeder Glenn Drowns, and indeed, in our 2012 watermelon trials, Blacktail was the most successful of all. Over all the years we’ve saved seeds from it, it is becoming more adapted to our climate each year! This was the first variety Drowns bred–when he was 14 years old in northern Idaho!

 

 

Tuxana Sweet Corn With some crops it’s especially tough for open-pollinated varieties to compete with hybrids. Sweet corn is one of those crops. Tuxana, bred by organic seed grower Jonathan Spero, holds its own among the sweetest and crisp-est of hybrid favorites. It even earned co-op grower Seedster a Grand Champion medal at the Canyon County fair in 2015!

 

 

Prize Pac Choi Another example of an open-pollinated variety that can hold its own against the hybrids. Co-op grower Earthly Delights Farm has trialed it against several hybrids for their CSA and Prize takes the prize every year!

 

 

2. Who Says You Can’t Grow That Here?

We trial varieties of things that seem marginal to grow here (judging by the fact that you don’t see them offered hardly at all at local farmers markets and most farmers and gardeners don’t grow them) and see if any of the varieties perform well enough to warrant our attention and care, and then we work to select them year after year so they perform better in our area. Here are a few examples:

Mizspoona Succulent spring greens are notoriously hard to grow in the high desert, where our hot early summers just annihilate anything leafy. This superb mild mustard green, bred by Frank Morton, is a cross between Mizuna and Tatsoi, and where both Mizuna and Tatsoi bolt almost immediately here, Mizspoona stays supple and tasty for weeks longer!

 

 

Rare Grains  In 2015 we did a trial of lesser-grown grains, including Teffs, Sorghums, Millets, Rices, and Amaranths. It was one of the most enjoyable farming experiences we’ve ever had. Several rockstars came out of these trials that show real promise for seed/grain production in Idaho, including this Finger Millet, Eleusine coracana. Check out our grain offerings for the expanding selection of high-desert-appropriate grains!

 

Flour Corns 2017 brought an extensive trial of flour corn varieties suitable for production in Idaho in conjunction with a local restaurateur who wants to source locally-grown corn for the tortillas for his new downtown Boise restaurant. You can read about the trial here, and read about the varieties we trialed here. This beautiful hominy corn bred and stewarded by the Oneida Nation was a standout in our trial. The trial will continue this summer and will include a public tour, so stay tuned for an invitation!

 

Beer Friend Soybean We wanted to love this edamame variety the best, because of its name, and the first time we did the trial in 2011, we did! In 2018 we’re going to work with the Idaho Department of Agriculture to do another soybean trial, as well as trialing all sorts of other legumes for their potential in Idaho agriculture…Tepary beans are at the top of my list for crops to watch!

 

 

Alice Elliot Okra During our 2017 okra trial, I can’t count the number of folks who said, “You can grow okra here?” Indeed you can! It does great! Just pick it often! Alice Elliot was a standout variety in that trial.

 

 

 

Tenacious P Peanuts! These beauties have earned their name, being moved to multiple plots of land, being rescued from in front of a bulldozer, and so much more. Yes, you can grow peanuts in Idaho. No, the don’t produce as well as they would in the southeast, but who cares? I know you want to grow a peanut just once, to see how it grows….but too bad! We’re sold out for this year!

 

 

3. Only the Tough Survive

We de facto trial varieties by seeing how they respond to specific challenges and pressures in our fields, and save seeds off those varieties that can hack the tough conditions on our low-input, organically-managed farms. Here are a few of the tough contenders:

Payette Tomato One of the few varieties that survived the massive curly top virus outbreak of 2015. I have a bad feeling about curly top in 2018 due to our mild winter, so we shall see who can survive this year!

 

 

Rainbow Chard Sometimes its not about the variety itself, but it’s the variation within a population that allows for resilience. Since chard is a biennial, we only can save seeds off plants that overwinter. Lucky for us, this highly variable variety provides enough diversity that some plants are able to survive and set seed. If we keep planting these seeds, we’ll end up with a variety that reliably overwinters in Idaho!

 

 

Sierra Batavia Lettuce Growers Affinity Farm offer this variety to the co-op because it stands up to one of the quintessential challenges of Idaho agriculture: can it sit in the field without bolting? In this case, yes! Sierra is one of the slowest bolting varieties in our collection, offering succulent, crisp leaves well into the summer!

 

 

Thanks for visiting! We take pride in offering field-tested varieties to give Intermountain West gardeners a leg-up in their gardening efforts. Every variety in our catalog has a unique and interesting story of how we decided to include it. Thanks for taking the time to read about some of them, and thanks for supporting our efforts by choosing Snake River Seed Co-op seeds for your garden! Here’s wishing you a bountiful harvest!

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What I Learned from Vandana Shiva, Part III: 10 Everyday Actions To Take Down the Poison Cartel and Grow a Resilient and Delicious Regional Economy

See What I Learned from Vandana Shiva, Part 1 for a refresher on the poison cartel and the struggle for seed freedom.

  1. Plant a garden. Each year, you’ll get more intimately connected to the way food grows. The soil life, the seeds, the pollinators, the flowers, the fruits, the bugs, the challenges, the wonder and intrigue make us more connected to food and better able to appreciate it. This also allows us to make better decisions about food, whether we grew it or not.

 

 

  1. Save seeds from your garden. Or just grow one plant in a pot with the purpose of saving seeds from it. Seeds are remarkable teachers in their abundance and generosity, and they teach us about the life cycle of plants. If you’re looking for a way to be helpful to
    Seeds from RMSA’s heritage grain trials!

    the larger food movement with just one pot on your back patio or balcony, check out the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance’s Gardening with Grains project. You can sign up to grow just a few seeds of an endangered heritage grain, like an ancient wheat or oat, and help multiply those seeds from the 5 or 6 you planted into your pot to dozens that you can send back to increase the seed stock. What an awesome way to play a big role on a very small scale! Of course, you can also save seeds off whatever else you are growing in your garden, and if you’ve never tried, I highly recommend it. It’s easy, fun, and saves you money on seeds! We offer a printed beginning seed saving guide through our webstore, as does Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance. The Organic Seed Alliance offers a free downloadable pdf, and there are so many other great resources out there to get you started! Plus, we offer several seed saving classes each year. The next one is free, and will be held on Feb 17th, 2018, at Edwards Greenhouse in Boise as a part of our annual Seedy Saturday seed swap.

  1. Visit or participate in a local farm, especially one where seed saving is a part of their production model. Farms vary in the ways they invite the public to participate, from classes to farm tours to you-pick hours to volunteer opportunities to apprenticeship programs to employment, and everything in between. Earthly Delights Farm in Boise offers a season-long, curriculum-based internship program in partnership with the Snake River Seed Co-op that really dives deep into the world of urban food and seed production. Many of our SRSC partner farms offer other opportunities, from you-pick to on farm classes. Research farms that offer the type of involvement you’re looking for in your area, and contact them about the best ways to get involved. A word of caution on this: farmers work hard for very little pay, and it’s important to remember that when approaching them for a tour or some education. If you are asking them for something they don’t have an explicit program in place for–say a tour, or advice on your own farm or garden project, consider offering to pay them for the time they’re willing to spend showing you around or giving you consultation. Your recognition of the value of their hard-earned wisdom and limited time goes a long way.

 

  1. Choose more diversity in your diet. The more diverse diet you choose, the more diverse agriculture you support, which creates better resilience in our food system. See Part 2 of this series for an in depth exploration of the benefits of eating a biodiverse diet, from better health to a stronger economy to a more resilient agriculture. As a general rule, landrace varieties and heritage or heirloom varieties are often more diverse in their genetic makeup than more modern varieties, especially hybrids or genetically engineered crops. That genetic diversity is extremely important both in the field and inside your body.

 

  1. Use locally-grown seeds to plant your garden. Seeds that were grown in your area are better adapted to thrive there, and using them as the foundation of your garden will bring you more success. In addition, by buying locally-grown seeds, you help in creating a local seed system and a local economy. In our work with the Snake River Seed Co-op, in 2017 we sold over 30,000 packets of seeds to local gardeners. None of that seed was available 6 years ago, which meant that, at that time, every seed gardeners were planting had been grown and trucked in from somewhere else. While saving your own seeds is amazing and useful, simply purchasing seeds from a local seed company (who actually sources their seeds from local farmers and doesn’t just ship them in from all over the world and pack them locally as is the common practice) brings many of the same benefits. You allow more farmers to grow a greater diversity of seed crops and to be compensated for doing that important work. That is the backbone of a healthy regional economy.

 

  1. Buy from local farmers. Do not underestimate the power you have as a consumer. You absolutely vote for the world you want by choosing what you spend your hard-earned money on. And while you’re at it, encourage the farmers you buy from to grow more open-pollinated (non-hybrid) crops or to source the seeds for the crops they grow from a local seed source if they don’t grow their own. In most farmers markets, the vast majority of the crops farmers bring to market were grown from seeds grown and trucked in from somewhere else. Without local seeds, we don’t have a local food system. And when purchasing prepared foods from local processors, ask them about the source of the ingredients in their product. Many folks buy their ingredients from big box stores like Costco, then make their salsa or granola locally and sell it as “local”. Use your power as a consumer to encourage local sourcing.

 

  1. Educate yourself. We live in a world dripping with sound bytes and marketing hype. When a chain grocery store is selling something as “local,” ask questions. What does that mean to them? Grown in your city? Your state? Your region? The United States? When someone says, “We need GMOs to feed the world,” start asking questions. Who is saying that? Who is being rewarded and who is being left out by that declaration? What policies might be in place that support the type of agriculture they are espousing? Who might be paying someone to put that message out into the world? There is tremendous power in education, and there is tremendous pressure to keep us ill-informed for the benefit of those who wish to keep us buying what they’re selling. Our own curiosity and inquisitiveness is one of our most powerful tools as individuals. When we do our own research and when we engage in thoughtful dialog with others, we begin to reclaim our power as architects of our democracy, not just passive consumers. On the seed front, the film SEED: The Untold Story is a great place to start.

 

  1. Resist laws that criminalize seed saving. From white laws in Europe to utility patents to a crackdown on seed libraries, our fundamental right to steward the seeds that feed us is under attack. When someone wants to take away our right to save seeds, the line of questioning in #7 is crucial: Who is making that law? Who does that law benefit? While we sleep, corporations are working hard to dismantle our democracy. Resistance takes many forms and has many heroes, from Mahatma Gandhi to Rosa Parks to countless others. It can be as simple as saving and planting a seed that you’re supposedly not “allowed” to save and replant, or as complex as joining or leading a movement to resist these laws in the places they’re written, like the Organic Seed Alliance and Food First so powerfully do. Every person possesses a unique skillset, and all the skills are needed in this resistance!

  1. Learn to cook from scratch. By working with whole ingredients, you bypass large parts of the most corrupt portions of our food chain and have the opportunity to plug in more effectively in the movement to create a local food system. Plus, it’s cheaper when you learn to do it well, which means you can stretch your food money farther, allowing you to afford local and organic foods you might otherwise not be able to afford. Learning to cook beans, for example, saves you money over buying cans of beans or boxes of pre-made, frozen burritos. And for the record, Idaho has a LOT of varieties of organically-grown beans that consumers can purchase at the Boise Co-op and elsewhere, thanks to the efforts of farmers like Mike Heath, Nate Jones, and Fred Brossy. As an aside, joining a CSA: Community Supported Agriculture farm is a great way to get introduced to the large variety of seasonal foods grown in an area, and most CSAs offer cooking tips and recipes to help you make the most of your season’s worth of possibly scary and unfamiliar foods. Many of our SRSC growers also offer CSA programs, so you could support their local food production AND local seed production efforts by joining their CSA for the season! And actually, right now is the time of year when folks are accepting new members for their CSAs!

 

  1. Pay more for good food. According to the USDA, most people in the US spend less than 10% of their income on food. That’s less than in any other industrialized country, and it’s also less than at any other point in our country’s own history. Of course, we’re not actually paying less for the “cheap food” pushed on us through fast food and processed food. We pay for it through our taxes, in the form of subsidies that overwhelmingly support, massive, chemical-intensive monoculture agriculture. When Dr. Shiva talks about the Poison Cartel, she’s talking about the companies who pay off our congresspeople to keep their GMO seeds and their chemicals flowing into the farmlands of the US, subsidized by taxpayers. Our “free market” is anything but free. It’s unfair that we are forced to subsidize unsustainable agriculture through our taxes while simultaneously paying the higher prices for the foods and farm models that make up a healthy, bioregional food system, but that’s the reality we live in. So often I have heard middle-class liberals complain that local food is too expensive for poor people, and somehow that gets them off the hook from buying it. Just because at this point in our juncture good healthy food isn’t available to every person doesn’t mean we all shouldn’t use whatever means we have to build functioning local food systems. Folks across all socioeconomic classes are working on this issue from different angles. It’s up to us to plug in how we can, using the resources we have. Every dollar into a local food economy is not only a dollar withheld from the poison cartel, it’s a dollar into the creation of a food system that feeds us well right now and has the promise to do so well into the future. Think about it next time you’re faced with the choice to pay 50 cents more for a locally-grown cucumber of packet of seeds. That price difference is actually quite trivial when you think of the power behind your decision. And to bring it back around, learning to grow more of your own food and seeds will save you money! For the inside scoop on SRSCs views on seed costs, check out this blog post next!

 

THANK YOU FOR READING THIS. I truly believe that the world Dr. Shiva describes is possible.  A world where a network of small- and mid-scale farmers stewards a large diversity of crops that provide good food that nourishes their communities, and a world where their communities value and nourish them right back. Slowly but surely, we’re building it, as our 2018 State of the Seedshed highlights. Together, we CAN DO THIS!

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2018 State of the Seedshed

Now that the gardens have gone to sleep and I’m holed up in the seed shack with the crew, tucking these little miracles into packets, it occurs to me that 2017 is the year I started to believe in what we’re doing. I mean, really truly believe in it. I know over the years we’ve been doing important work, convening a community of people who care about biodiversity and resilience and regional economy, building a functional model.  But this year for whatever reason, it all just gelled for me. Perhaps it’s because 2017 was a call for all of us in the US to double down on what matters to us. Perhaps it’s because we’ve simply reached a critical mass. Perhaps it’s the year we started to see real jobs created out of this thing. Perhaps it’s simply because of the corn and all it inspires in me. But seriously, I’m excited to admit that we’re growing something powerful here!

 

 

 

2017 brought further consolidation of the world’s seed supply in the hands of what Dr. Vandana Shiva calls the “Poison Cartel.” Bayer merged with Monsanto, Dow with DuPont, and Syngenta with ChemChina, leaving over 75% of the world’s seeds in the hands of 3 massive chemical companies. We’ve also seen the continuation of another disturbing trend–the rise of globally-produced and distributed, patented organic seeds and certified organic hybrid seeds, which are finding their way onto the farms of small- and mid-scale organic farmers like all those in our own communities who we consider to be at the forefront of building a local food movement. So many of the companies we small-scale farmers have historically turned to for high-quality seeds have gotten bigger and bigger and at this point it’s hard to know what their ethics are. Of the 79 new varieties Johnny’s Selected Seeds says they’re introducing this year, 52 of them are hybrids (which means they won’t breed true-to-type if you save and replant them so you have to keep buying seeds every year). Only 18 of them are open-pollinated (true-breeding), and of those, several are patented, meaning it’s illegal to save and replant seeds from them. I mention this merely as an example of where we seem to be headed, not as a condemnation of these mid-scale seed companies, nor of hybrid seeds, or even patented seeds. Because as with all things in our complicated modern world, nuances abound.

 

However, Snake River Seed Co-op is gaining ground every year, weaving an ever-greater community of Intermountain West farmers, gardeners, eaters, teachers, and others in service to the seeds and all the abundance they bring into our region. This year we added 30 new varieties to our seed offerings (with an exciting new partnership which will bring dozens more in the very near future….ooh, the suspense! Stay tuned!) and ramped up the seed stock of hundreds of old favorites, bringing the total number of varieties stewarded by the co-op to

The boys at Fiddler’s Green Farm cleaning their first co-op seed crop: Red Core Chantenay carrots

over 300!

 

Other highlights of the 2017 season include:

 

-Working with 9 new co-op growers, helping them select the best seed crops for their farm models and walking them through their first

season of seed production. Their willingness to expand their farm models to include seed production means a greater variety of seed crops became available to local gardeners and the seeds under our care became a little safer by having more skilled growers to steward them. In the era of corporate consolidation and seed patents, the more hands that hold them, that learn intimately the ways of caring for them, the safer they are.

 

Joseph inspecting a zinnia seed crop with the Earthly Delights Farm crew.

-Forming partnerships with several remarkable independent regional plant breeders. These folks have for decades been pouring their life energy into stewarding, selecting, and crossing a vast number of plant varieties for the benefit of humanity. Joseph Lofthouse left his job as a chemist to focus on creating landraces–wildly diverse genepools of plants that become adapted to a particular place over time–in the mountains of northern Utah. One of the problems with modern plant breeding is our obsession with “uniformity.” We want varieties to be uniform so they’re easier to farm on a larger scale using machinery. But when we select for uniformity, we necessarily decrease diversity, making these varieties more susceptible to disease or pest outbreaks, climactic vagaries, etc. Joseph’s work is inexplicably valuable, and we’re pleased to be able to offer a handful of his gorgeously diverse landraces through the Co-op as well. He served as an inspiration and a mentor to many of us when he came to Boise last summer for our annual grower meeting.

 

The first of many accessions of Thumbs’ life’s work into the co-op.

-This year also brought a collaboration with iconic Idaho plant breeder Thumbs Heath, who has grown seeds in and around the Gospel Hump wilderness near the Frank Church in central Idaho for decades, offering his selections largely through the Seed Savers Exchange network as his Peaceful Purple Produce People project. A PhD candidate in plant breeding in the 1980s, Thumbs left the program due to philosophical differences about the ways to work with seeds to serve the future of humanity. Like Joseph, Thumbs believes that breeding varieties for uniformity so the breeders can make money by serving the industrial agriculture machine is going in the wrong direction. That in that model, the seeds, the crops, the environment, and the humans all lose out in the end. He has instead devoted his life to stewarding hundreds of varieties of vegetables, garlics, and staple crops, including dozens of oats, barleys, wheats, amaranths and others, which he believes will prove useful as the follies of the present system accelerate to a breaking point. Of particular interest is Thumbs’ focus on purple plants. He suspects that something in the chemical composition of the purple color in plants makes them more winter-hardy, drought-tolerant, and offers other evolutionary advantages. We are thrilled to be working with Thumbs to list an increasing number of his hundreds of varieties through the co-op, to get them into the hands of more people who will help steward them as a continuation of his beautiful life’s work.

 

Thumbs, who was born with an extra segment in his thumbs, says this sign means Peace but also, Be Yourself!

I also must say that while both Thumbs and Joseph are offering up some of the most breathtaking seeds that point toward the most beautiful agriculture I can imagine, that’s only part of their inspiration. In this year of deepening friendship with them, both men have humbled me with their willingness to think truly outside the box, to stretch far outside our mainstream culture to find physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health. Thumbs doesn’t have a phone, or internet, or a car, or a bank account. To communicate with him, one must sit down and pen that most gorgeous of near-obsolete accounts: the hand written letter. Joseph also doesn’t go in for banks. Furthermore, he spent most of 2017 not wearing shoes and sharing the insights gained from that experience. His generous spirit overflows with the most lovely and sparkly contagiousness. It is impossible not to feel the wonder of the world when in Joseph’s company. These two are absolutely one of the greatest gifts of 2017 for me and our little co-op. I’m thrilled that what we are building can help folks like them who are doing this vital work to get it out to a wider number of potential seed stewards.

 

-Another highlight of 2017 is the corn project, which I have written extensively about. At the close of the year, we have the framework to scale up promising varieties through our own ladder of farmers, and have made a crucial partnership with Tim Cornie at the forthcoming Thousand Springs Mill. He is extremely excited about the partnership in that it will be able to utilize the framework we’ve built to work with our chosen corn varieties to bring any number of other promising grains up through the same ladder. I cannot express how grateful I am to have stumbled into this role. As a very small-scale farmer, it is easy to feel like what I am doing on my own farm is inconsequential, that it doesn’t do enough for the greater food system. The concept of farmers of varying scales working together to bring diverse staple crops into our locally-grown diet feels significant. Grains constitute the bulk of our calories as eaters, and by golly, grains are seeds! How apropos to be helping to take more diverse, low-input adapted and nutritious grain seeds from a handful to a field full, then into a mill and onto our plates. Thrilling!

 

-Through our partnership with the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, we had a couple of amazing opportunities in 2017. We traveled to and presented at the first Mountain West Seed Summit, which was held in New Mexico last March. Hands down the most inspiring seed conference I’ve ever been to, it brought together Native and non-Native seed stewards together for several days of powerful discussion and education. It is awe-inspiring and humbling to sit in a workshop or visit a seed bank with folks who have been stewarding varieties of seeds on the same ground for millennia. When we’re looking for models for sustainable agriculture, the southwest overflows with them. The next Summit is slated for spring 2019, so mark your calendars!

 

We also had the opportunity to present at the Sun Valley Wellness Festival in the company of Dr. Vandana Shiva. A longtime shero of mine, it was as powerful as I could have dreamed to be in her company. She inspired the larger audiences she presented to and also gave those of us with RMSA a laser-focus clarity on the issues at hand and what our role is in solving them.

 

A quick anecdote: when I asked her advice for us at this stage of the Co-op, she said, “You must first connect the seed to the seed. (That is, you must first learn to grow and save the seeds.). “Then you must connect the seeds to the food.” In other words, you must learn how to eat the food you can grow from your seeds, and not just that–you must have a culture that has fallen in love with the food and eats it as a regular part of their diet in order to create a truly sustainable model. Upon my return from the conference, our Earthly Delights Farm crew gathered around to organize the day’s CSA harvest and I shared with them what Dr. Shiva had said. As CSA farmers we have built a culture of people around our farms who love the foods we grow and have done that most important work of incorporating them into their diets. I looked at our harvest list for the week, and counted down the varieties, noting which ones were grown from our own farm-saved seed, or the seeds of another Snake River Seed Co-op grower.  One by one, we ticked off the varieties: “Red Giant Mustards, our seed, Pac Choi, our seed, Sugar Snap Peas, our seed,” and by the bottom of the 13 variety harvest list I had tears in my eyes. All but one of the varieties we were harvesting that day had been grown from seed we grew. We all stared at that list with wonder–what we are doing is working! What started as a market farm who, like most others, used to buy literally every seed it planted from a faraway seed company had over the years of incremental changes, first saving one seed, then another, then another, had grown into a farm whose own seeds supplied over 90% of what they produced! What had started as a ragtag group of eaters who hadn’t a clue what to do with any of the food they purchased through their CSA share had grown into a full-blown food culture, where folks look forward to the coming of certain beloved CSA crops and the meals they love to make with them. It hit me: WE ARE SUCCEEDING. Even now as I write this I’m choking up. In farming the pay is never that much, but this realization has made the last 15 years of my life’s work feel completely worth it.

 

The SRSC office crew

There is so much more I could share about the Co-op over this year. We added several part-time staff including our wonderful bookkeeper Colleen and our intrepid, spreadsheet-loving office manager Reiley. Lori reached thousands more folks through her social media and marketing work, and we added nursery partners in Ontario, Oregon and Ketchum, Idaho along with several others. There is a seemingly unstoppable forward movement whizzing us into 2018, and we welcome it with gusto.

 

 

 

If you have read all the way to the bottom of this, you are obviously a crucial part of this project. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for all the ways you have helped us, be it by reading and engaging with our ideas, by buying and growing our seeds, or by learning to save your own. This is truly a collaborative community project and it takes all of us working together to see it into the future. Thank you.

 

Love,

Casey

Seed freak and Snake River Seed Co-op co-founder

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

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

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

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

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

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!