There are many things I’ve come to learn in my short, yet full life, that are better done with others. Canning, fermenting vegetables, shelling peas, winnowing seeds, to name a few. Not only do they get done more quickly, but they are immensely more enjoyable. The work becomes more meaningful with the human connections you make in the process. It is satisfying, rather than cumbersome.
At the scale I tend to work at, i.e. processing 50 lbs of tomatoes into sauce, cleaning 20 gallons of radish seed, de-stemming a couple gallons of blueberries….yeah it can become a dreadful proposition when done in solitude.
Seed saving, is one of those acts that has revealed itself to be an activity best shared in community. It’s not new, this is how it’s always been done, but in today’s world this has been entirely lost. Like any system the more diverse, the more resilient it is; whether we’re talking ecosystems, political landscapes, financial investments, or seed collections. Many people in a region should save at least some of their own seeds, share the surplus, pass along the accumulated knowledge, and work collaboratively to grow, gather, distribute and protect their agricultural biodiversity.
Over the years as I’ve sharpened my skills and focus on this important task of building a regional community seed collective, I’ve learned the value and challenges of sharing this responsibility. If someone else grows for the seed collective, I don’t know exactly how it will turn out. Whether or not they will grow the number of plants I hope they will, if they will care for them as I would, and if, in the end I get any seed returned at all. It’s possible I might even get too busy to keep up with them in my own pursuits that consume me in a given season.
But this is fine, even if it doesn’t work out, the responsibility of seed stewardship is being cultivated, which is what really matters. People start to care, because they connect. It’s also addictive. Once you start saving your own seed, there’s no stopping you!
Weeks ago, Sarah and I drove out excitedly to Angie and Ethan’s farm at the end of the day to see the arugula they had been growing for the community seed collective, and to gather some up. The stock I had in our collection was still viable, but going on 5 years old we needed something fresher. It was a crop Angie liked to grow anyway, and given her large garden space, saving seed for a highly outbred crop like arugula (it needs lots of arugula plants flowering to stay diverse), it fit well for both us.
She was also growing dill for the collective, and saving much of her own seed, which is willingly shared when there is abundance, like carrot (yes! In Florida!), celtuce (Google that one!), various lettuces, her own line of adapted tropical squash, tomatoes, and more.
Sarah and I bopped along the bumpy dirt road in the Working Food van, passing tobacco fields, finally meandering to their magical farm. We wondered if we’d be hauling back what we call plant carcasses, i.e full plants removed roots and all, sometimes as tall, or taller than me, and then dragged into the van to go back to our barn to dry down more.
But it was better! We were able to harvest right from the plants, the fully mature seeds. It’s more enjoyable to work meticulously through the patch, finding ripe pods that are nearly ready to burst out into the soil, squeeze lightly over a bucket, and have them plink, plink, into the bucket. That sound!! I’ve come to love it. It also means you are capturing the seed at the perfect time.
So the three of us worked like this, chit chatting about life, gardening, kids, community, and the new baby goats on the farm, which reminded us constantly of their presence with their exacerbated cries! In the last few remaining hours of daylight, with buckets in hand we did this ancient and restorative work; plink, plinking the seeds into the buckets, leaving behind green pods that still needed more time.
In the end we had maybe a half gallon of seed, and we’d go back a few more times to get it all. Some will inevitably have been eaten by birds and insects, and some will plant itself there next year, so Angie won’t have to. That’s the beauty of a seed, there is always an abundance to share.
Melissa is one of those invaluable members of the community who make things happen to the benefit of everyone. She is always up to something wonderfully ambitious and very useful, whether it’s her work with the Southern Heritage Seed Collective, a part of Working Food, where seeds of regionally adapted plants are saved and maintained for the community, or the youth garden initiative, which brings high school students with special needs into the garden to learn about growing, harvesting, and preparing fresh food (among other things, of course…she always has so much going on).
She also writes about seeds, gardening, food, and life on her beautiful blog Seeds and Stories.