State of the Seedshed
This year, we turned to the wisdom of the Cooperative to offer our State of the Seedshed. We reached out to four growers of Snake River Seed Co-op located in Northern and Southern Idaho, and Utah. The wealth of wisdom shared with us for this article will continue to inform upcoming articles. It's a good thing too because things just got even more complicated in the food world.
National food supply chain impacts since the beginning of the pandemic have continued into 2022. In large-scale agriculture the cost of fertilizer that commercial corn relies upon had already doubled by year’s end, according to an article in Modern Farmer from December 2021. Since the last weeks of February 2022, global situations are creating new levels of concern. According to a March 7th report from Agri-pulse.com Russian fertilizer manufacturers were told to stop exporting their wares. Costs for wheat, corn, high-fructose corn syrup, and sunflower oil are expected to rise. Fuel costs are also reaching record-breaking highs, averaging $4.17 per gallon nationally in the past week. Locally grown food is becoming more appealing by the day.
Concerning our changing climate, we have known that living so far out of balance with nature would have a high cost, and we’re seeing it as our reliance on long-affordable large-scale commodity crops has already been impacted by increasing winter storms, prolonged drought, and intense annual fire seasons in the Intermountain West.
It’s no secret that areas with localized food networks and food growers have been able to pivot to the changes over the past years more quickly than large food supply chains could. Since we source our seeds from growers within the Intermountain West, the food, flower, and herb seeds are adapting to our region’s unique climate and soil conditions.
To ensure some level of food security, people all over the nation are increasingly turning to grow their own food in gardens, on patios, starting community gardens, and engaging in urban agriculture.
I interviewed Kelly Kingsland, one of our newly elected Board members governing our employee and grower-owned cooperative. She grows seeds and food for Affinity Farm in Moscow, Idaho. In February I asked her about any impacts Affinity Farm has had to adapt to over the past couple of years. Kelly shared that “We’ve been looking at this coming for quite some time.” When I noted how hard the food shortages were already hitting some portions of the country in the first months of this year, Kelly said upfront, “I’m a white wealthy American. I don’t see any food shortages right now, I go to the store and everything’s there. I’m not personally experiencing it.”
When asked about shortages in essential supplies for their operation directly, “As far as the farm goes, we’ve gotten around that. We’re a 2-person farm and flex around that. We order seeds and supplies earlier and earlier every year. That’s because we can bankroll purchases that become inventory for 6 months… before we see any money from it. It’s this versus the just-in-time supply chain. Most of our income is based on labor, not supplies. I don’t know how to be subtle about that. I know that people are really hurting out there.”
Continuing to build on that line of thought Kelly offered, “Local food and local seeds are adapted to their communities. Adaptation in seeds is one thing. Our farm is adapted to our community as well. If there’s any hope at all, it’s these small flexible systems.”
Purple Sage Farms in Middleton, Idaho has been able to adapt pretty well through the past couple of years. “We create a lot of our own supply with growing produce so a lot of our sales are direct to customers. We are leaning more on direct sales since restaurants, grocery stores, and distributors are impacted more than we are. We've been able to buffer that supply chain because we can fill in any gaps,” said Jackie Sommer.
In our February discussion, Jackie shared that “We have noticed that a lot of our costs are going up which in turn impacts our pricing for customers... and prices must go up as the increases in costs have climbed exponentially. Farmers are resilient and I feel like we adapt to all kinds of hardships and obstacles just because of the nature of our industry.”
Given the recent global crises of the past few weeks, they added that “supporting local farms and growers really is more important than ever. The motto "Support local!" is something that has been around for quite a while now and I hope that people don't tire of it because it feels like a mantra or way of life to us. Local businesses will have more in stock and available to purchase because a lot of what they produce is made here. Dollars spent in our local community also have a much greater impact that is felt within our community... keeping those dollars localized ensures that they are reinvested in our local economy to keep it thriving. Food that is grown within 200 miles of where we live is also going to serve our health and wellness in a more significant way. It's super fresh, nutrient-dense has less packaging, and overall is better for our carbon footprint. Farmers need their communities to support them by purchasing their farm products. It's absolutely essential. Otherwise, more and more farms will disappear over the next decade and we need our farms more than ever with more and more people moving to the Treasure Valley. How are we going to feed everyone if we forget where our food really comes from? Do we really want all of our food to come from other states or worse yet, other countries, trucked or flown hundreds of miles over days and weeks, to finally end up on our tables? These are big questions we need to ask ourselves. Agriculture is a vital component to the health and wealth of Idaho's future, our families' futures.”
Labor has also been heavily impacted by waves of pandemic and ongoing exploitative labor practices in large-scale production. Though it isn’t as evident in Boise or Moscow, Idaho, other parts of the country including Florida and Maryland have been seeing bare shelves over the winter, according to a January 2022 article from Civil Eats.
Reiley Ney, our Seed Production and Finance Manager recently participated in a panel discussion on labor at the 11th annual Organic Seed Growers Conference, put on by the Organic Seed Alliance. She noted that “a few of the most impactful challenges we have faced at SRSC have been land-access for growers, scaling up issues, and retail pricing. In just seven years we have seen the cost of land in the Treasure Valley increase fourfold, and this expands out to Canyon County.
We have always worked to find the pricing balance to be able to keep the seeds we hold accessible to all while valuing the labor and time of the growers because we know that farmers are underpaid and undervalued in our society. In the early days of our business, we would often receive feedback from customers that our prices were too high. We really couldn’t go lower than $3 per packet as we worked to create fair pricing structures initially, and it was a struggle to communicate the value of regionally grown seeds. As our region population has grown and changed immensely, we no longer receive this feedback about the pricing. We recognize that may largely be due to lower-income populations being forced out."
At the same time, the value of regionally grown seeds is a conversation that is reaching a new level of relevancy.
Farmers Mike and Jackie Sommer pose in front of blooming valerian at Purple Sage Farms. Photo by Arlie Sommer
Some growers have been putting in efforts for years in anticipation of difficult times. James Loomis has been a grower with us since the beginning, based in Salt Lake City, Utah. James follows a key principle in permaculture practice, which is to ‘use the surpluses of today to prepare for the scarcity of tomorrow.’
I couldn’t help but smile when he said, “I’m patting myself on the back because I did it! I’ve been saving the stuff! With a supply chain pinch, it is important to nurture a system that requires very little input to begin with. Far less water, far less fertilizer. A farm should be a magical exporter if we’re doing it right. Powered by sunlight and waste from other processes, food waste... I use a lot of bone meal, blood meal, feather meal, these things are waste products of other industries.” Location plays a part with Green Phoenix Farm. James noted, “I live in the city, and have access to significant amounts of material I can turn into compost to create the fertility that I need.” He says that “A lot of the things that make ecological sense make economic sense.” One area of the supply chain did impact him though. “At one point I worried about toilet paper, but then I looked around my back yard and realized I had so much Mullein and that’d be an upgrade anyway.”
It is a great relief to be able to turn to a collective of people for shared strategies, especially for relatively new gardeners. We asked if there was any advice the experienced growers of the Co-op wanted to offer, and from this question, we got a wealth of useful information, which we’ll continue sharing in the coming months.
- First first and foremost, get seeds from people you know who’ve been saving their own stuff.
- Buy from local seed companies because they’re doing awesome. Plants just wanna grow, if you start with something that already has an advantage, you’re that much closer to success.
- Plant a whole bunch of different stuff, some of it’s going to do awesome. Some of it won’t. Nature loves diversity.
- Read the freaking seed packet! I considered myself a successful gardener for 5-6 years and then I started to read the seed packets and I got way better when I started to do that.
Katie Painter of City Gardens in Garden City, ID was candid, practical, and efficient.
- The first piece of standard advice, go on the Johhny’s seed website,* order their catalog because it’s free. Learn about what you want to grow. There’s a whole bunch of details that are specific to each crop, such as when you’re going to plant it and harvest it. Concise info in one place.
- Pick something you like to eat, and go from there.
- Start with plant starts vs trying on your windowsill. If you’re growing a dozen or fewer starts it’s probably easier to start that way. After 1-2 years under your belt, you’ll have more experience.
- You can get information from all kinds of sources online, or get from one reputable source.
Kelly Kingsland speaking from Moscow, ID
- Buy adapted seeds and/or starts from local growers who are selecting for your climate. I’ve gone to major retailers and seen varieties of tomatoes that will never fruit. People will share that they don’t think they can grow tomatoes. You can’t when you’re hands are tied behind your back. People get tricked by corporations who only want to make a sale. It’s rude to take their money on one hand, but it’s also undermining their ability to grow. People get down on themselves for their failures. Their failures aren’t always their fault.
- Know your climate, your growing zone, and what you’re purchasing, with Days-to-Maturity (DTM). Casey has been hesitant about listing DTM because she thinks it varies depending on where you are. There are a lot of variables, that have to do with night temperatures. When you go to [major retailers] and you see a tomato with 110 days to maturity, that’s not going to happen in Moscow, ID. Just be aware of how long it takes for plants to adapt to their environments.
- But just do it! But pay attention. Observation is a really great way to learn in your garden, without second-guessing yourself. It will lead to a better garden next year. It’s weird how disempowered we are as food growers. It’s because the last generation didn’t garden, they transferred all their food acquisition to a store. For new younger gardeners who’ve never gardened before it can be pretty intimidating.
- Soil is profoundly important, whole books are written on it.
- Paying attention to seed varieties, watering.
- We get a lot of questions at the farmers market. 'What’s wrong with my garden?' It could be a million things, A) It could be very simple or B)or it could be very complex.
The Snake River Seed Cooperative is a collective of 54 Intermountain West farmers and gardeners who steward an expanding selection of locally-adapted, open-pollinated seeds for our bioregion. We’re on a mission to empower Intermountain West farmers and gardeners to plant, grow, save, and share locally-adapted seeds.
We are committed to reimagining an equitable world and are doing our part to strengthen a food system that is currently facing economic, social, and climatic challenges. It is due to these factors in these times that our trust in (and relationship with) these seeds is growing stronger year by year. There is much hope stored in each and every seed, however small, they all want to live. Helping seeds thrive helps us all.
In Seed We Trust
*In this transitioning time we have some resources available to us that offer concise information efficiently. Although we are not the same kind or size of company Johnny's Seeds is, we acknowledge that a lot of farmers turn to them for supplies and information. We're growing, and building our information! We're referring here to a planting guide based in a different bioregion, but as we build our resources this is a good one to utilize.
Daybreak March 7: Fresh warning signs on food costs | Agri-Pulse." 7 Mar. 2022, https://www.agri-pulse.com/articles/17315-daybreak-march-7-fresh-warning-signs-on-food-costs.
"How The War On Ukraine Will Affect The U.S. Food Supply - Mashed." 7 Mar. 2022, https://www.mashed.com/791030/how-the-war-on-ukraine-will-affect-the-u-s-food-supply/.
"Supply Chain Crunches Are Affecting Every Corner of Agriculture." 13 Dec. 2021, https://modernfarmer.com/2021/12/supply-chain-issues-agriculture/.
"Why the Food Supply Chain Is Strained. Again. | Civil Eats." 13 Jan. 2022, https://civileats.com/2022/01/13/why-the-food-supply-chain-is-strained-again/.