2019 State of the Seedshed
As I prepared our seed rack for the winter farmer's market last month, organizing the packets for all the hundreds of varieties Snake River Seed Co-op now offers into the little wire slots of the seed rack, I stopped for a rare moment of reflection in this ever-forward project.
"Look at this!" I said out loud to Christina, our newest office cohort. "Look at all this diversity! I never dreamed six years ago this is where we'd be now."
It propelled my thinking into the truth behind that adage about just putting one foot in front of the other. The work of building this business has been by turns tedious, over my head, and careening out of control, often within a single week. I would not say that at any point I have felt I have a grasp on how to do well the work of building a regional seedshed, and yet, here is a living, breathing example of one right in my fingertips as I carefully place each packet onto the rack. "It's working!" I say to Christina, shaking my head in awe. "I can't believe it, but it is."
It turns out, if you just do the next thing on the list, make the next list, and keep going, eventually you have something functional. You just have to stop every once in awhile and take notice.
So in that spirit, let's look back over the past year in this seedy endeavor...
In 2018, we added seven new growers to the Co-op. Six years ago, it was just little ole me flappin' in the breeze, growing and selling my tiny amount of seed to a handful of local businesses. This year, 36 regional farmers expanded their farm models to include growing seeds for our bioregion and our seeds are being sold in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Utah! At this rate, hundreds of us will be engaging in this rewarding and important work in the Intermountain West in six more years!
In that vein, SRSC also launched its new Seed Savers Club this year, to provide an opportunity for folks who aren't production farmers to nevertheless play an important role in the Co-op. We see their role as part cheerleader, part student, part community leader in the work of bringing more seed sovereignty and seed literacy to our bioregion.
Thousands of pounds of regionally-grown seeds have flowed into and out of our little seed shack this year, tucked into packets on the shelves of our nursery partners and into the mail headed directly for the gardeners who, come spring, will place them into moist soil and become a partner in the dance between seed, earth, and seed steward. Over 1300 packets of them have found their way into the hands of community groups growing food and plants around our bioregion through our community seeds donation program this year as well, and proceeds from our expanded "Carrots For Human Rights" selection is bringing a trickle of money into worthwhile community organizations working to uproot inequality. And of course, countless home gardeners saved seeds for the first time this year, bearing witness to the incredible cycle of seed to plant to seed again.
We added 28 new varieties to the Co-op this year, including the ever-elusive beets. At this point there are only a handful of vegetable crop types we're lacking. We've come a long way from the days of a catalog full of lettuce and tomatoes! Of course within each crop type a thrilling number of varieties have yet to find their way into our Co-op....ahh, how I love knowing there is a lifetime of intrigue and good work yet to be done, new crops to enchant us, new dishes made with them to tickle our little palates.
But perhaps most notably for me this year is a crop that left the stewardship of our Co-op growers. Through our corn trials project, we inadvertently found ourselves bulking up seed for a sacred white flour corn from the Oneida Nation. Several Oneida women generously reached out and asked us to consider the implications of our actions and upon so doing we gained a deeper level of understanding about the ways our nation's legacy of colonization and genocide has separated Native people from their sacred seeds. As a white-owned seed company, we have to confront the reality that our legacy is one of taking without asking permission, and due to the portable nature of seeds we run the risk of unintentionally doing this all the time. The Onieda corn is returning home now, and we are fully committed to taking full account of the varieties in our collection and taking the necessary steps to rematriate, offer tithing, benefit sharing, or reparations, or whatever other actions would be helpful in the important work of reconciliation and healing as it relates to seed stewardship on a variety-by-variety basis.
Seeds are by nature generous and because they are tiny they are very mobile. In countless conversations about this issue I have heard from other white people the argument that Native folks can't or shouldn't control how they move. "That's like patenting seeds," I've heard. But we cannot ignore that the human hands that have carried them are fraught with our own animal natures, biases, and limitations. Humans, after all, are capable of stealing and patenting seeds that have been used as medicine in Indigenous communities, and suing farmers who save their own for patent infringement. They are capable of engineering them to be sprayed with Roundup and not die. It is sensible for people who have deep, ancestral connections to specific seeds to be concerned about their safety when they leave their hands. Many seed people Native and non-Native see their seeds as their children. It makes sense to want to see them come home.
2018 also brought the finalization of the merger between chemical-seed company Monsanto and pharmaceutical company Bayer. This is in the wake of two other massive seed industry mergers--the one between Syngenta and ChemChina, and the one between Dow and DuPont. These deals have consolidated the ownership of over 75% of the world's seeds into the hands of 3 multinational corporations. Make no mistake. The powerful are getting more powerful every day, and every day working people get squeezed a little tighter. The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act put billions of additional dollars into the pockets of the wealthiest 1% of Americans and only 13% of the corporations who received the bulk of the tax cuts said publicly that they would give bonuses or wage hikes to their employees with their tax cut money. They try to turn us against each other, poor against poor, Republican against Democrat, white against black. They tell us to blame our neighbors who are "scamming the welfare system" for our struggle instead of looking up at the top where they're pulling the puppet strings on all of us.
Seeds are potent medicine in these times. Where this corporate machine makes resources more scarce for more of us every day, seeds are exponentially abundant, with one producing a hundred, or a thousand, or even a million in the case of tobacco or amaranth. It is the work of our time to create power structures that embolden the many over the few, that give us collective hope, sustenance, and beauty. However messy, this is the work at the core of SRSC.
Every single seed in our collection carries in its DNA the memory of an epic journey through countless hands, across continents, through the rise and fall of empires and the atrocious and also heroically compassionate things humans have done to and for each other and our earthly cohorts along the way. They're a river, a ribbon of life and sustenance that reaches far back in time and offers the promise of an equally infinite future. We are holding them in this one moment in time, attempting to enmesh them into the fabric of the Intermountain West. By belonging to them, we fall in love with each other, with our home whether original or adopted, with the meals we make with them that nourish us through all the seasons of the year, with the bees that drink their nectar and the birds that dine on some of them as they ripen in the field.
These seeds hold the promise of a drastically different way of organizing ourselves around a culture of health, abundance, and respect. Whether by sowing and caring for them, by learning to eat from their bounty, or by witnessing their miraculous procreation to seeds once more, we all play a part.
Thank you to the generations of Indigenous Seedkeepers who have coaxed humanity's food crops from their wild relatives, to all the hands that held and continue to hold them, to the earth that allows them to grow, and to the seeds themselves who through their generosity sustain us.