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Home grown

(article, Jes Burns)


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[%pageBreakSettings maxWords=750] Battered plastic baggies, old yogurt containers, and small manila envelopes cover the hardwood floor of the Dharmalaya Yoga Center in Eugene, Oregon. Each is filled with seeds. One plastic bag bulges with millions of gossamer brown threads, as small and light as dust. Another contains a mix of beans: black and speckled, dirty white and kidney-shaped. A third holds round flakes, tissue-paper thin and swelling just slightly at their centers. There are seeds that look like blow darts, seeds that could easily be mistaken for pebbles, seeds shaped like almonds and striped with white from base to tip. 

The packages on the floor contain more than 100 varieties of seed, all of them collected by Oregon gardeners and farmers at the end of the growing season. The harvesters have brought their bounty to participate in a seed swap, a gathering organized to distribute seeds locally and non-commercially. "Seed swap" is a slight misnomer, since participants do not trade pound-for-pound or seed-for-seed. Instead, they select based on their interests and needs. 

Seed swaps build communities of growers by bringing together experience and resources. Arguably, farmers and gardeners have been informally exchanging seed since the advent of agriculture. The current incarnation of swaps is rooted in three basic desires: for diversity, for knowledge, and for control over the food we eat.

Nicholas Routledge, the organizer of this swap, is a prominent figure among the agri-activists in Eugene. Routledge is the year-round caretaker of the Food for Lane County Youth Farm, located in a working-class neighborhood in nearby Springfield. The organic farm employs at-risk teenagers during the summer to learn sustainable farming practices. 

Routledge doesn’t work directly with the teenagers; instead, he seems to take a subtle pride in playing the slightly eccentric English hermit, hovering on the periphery. For working the land, he dons well-worn Carhartt pants cinched with muddy kneepads and held up by button suspenders. He appears to trim his reddish hair and beard with the same clipper attachment. And he tends to speak in sweeping philosophical proclamations: “We’re not gardening for escapism. We’re gardening because we’re deeply political animals. We’re gardening because we think it’s the most effective, pragmatic, and hard-hitting form of personal and social transformation we can engage in.”

[%image youthfarm credit="Photo: Food for Lane County Youth Farm" caption="A day at the Food for Lane County Youth Farm" float=left]

Routledge lives in a small travel trailer surrounded by soggy, overgrown vegetation and his own small garden plot, which bristles with 30 varieties of cabbage. “Some of these won’t make it through the winter,” he says, looking at the robust heads. “They grew too quickly.” He’s in the first year of a long-term project to de-hybridize the vegetables and isolate stable, resilient lines of winter cabbage that reproduce simply, via open pollination. He calls the project “succeeding seceding seeding.” 

Since 2002, when the USDA established national standards for certifying organic food products — no antibiotics, growth hormones, most pesticides or fertilizers, genetic modification, or ionized radiation — organics have blossomed in grocery stores around the country. The market for certified-organic products is now growing 20 percent a year, outstripping the 2 to 4 percent growth rate of conventional food products. But as organic labels pop up on everything from canned soup to frozen pizza, “organic” has lost ground to “local” and “sustainable.” 

Crouching in the soft loam by his cabbage plot, Routledge points out that most of the organic products in this country — no matter what the brand on the label — are owned and distributed by a handful of large corporations. That food can burn up a lot of fossil fuel getting to market; the oft-cited statistic about American groceries is that the average piece of produce on a supermarket shelf has traveled 1,500 miles. 

And seeds may have journeyed even farther from their original growers. “The average seed put in the ground by a local organic farmer may have traveled 4,000 or 5,000 or 6,000 miles,” Routledge says. Acquiring seed locally makes those miles practically disappear.

For Routledge, truly sustainable agriculture must be a local loop: locally grown seed planted locally, sold locally, and planted locally again. “Until seeds are sourced locally,” Routledge says, “sustainable agriculture is a conjurer’s trick.” 

Routledge’s cynicism about the corporate fate of organics is tempered by a deep-seated optimism evident in his day-to-day existence. For him, the change will happen on a local level, and it’s already beginning. His cabbage-breeding project is a definitive step in closing the sustainability loop; he eventually plans to provide free seed to anyone in the Willamette Valley who asks.

As with organics, the seed industry has followed a similar economic pattern of concentration, with multinational companies buying out smaller seed-supply houses. The agrochemical corporations Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta now control nearly 25 percent of the world’s total seed supply. Transgenic or genetically modified crops (plants spliced with the genes of other species to increase favorable traits), terminator crops (plants genetically modified to produce sterile seeds), and the patenting of specific plant types all pose unanswered questions about the future of world’s food supply. 

“What you are seeing is not just a consolidation of seed companies,” Robert Farley, Monsanto’s agricultural sectors co-president, said in 1996. “It’s really a consolidation of the entire food chain.” 

[[block(sidebar).

h1. Closing the sustainability loop

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For the non-gardening consumer, the first and most obvious step is to buy locally produced organic agriculture whenever possible. Organic produce available at bigger grocery stores typically is provided by corporate producers and often has traveled just as far as conventional produce. 

Seek out smaller natural-food stores and ask the produce managers where the vegetables come from. Two good starting points for finding these stores in your area are Green People and Local Harvest.

Even more effective is buying directly from local farms at farmers’ markets or signing up for shares with a Community Supported Agriculture farm.

One advantage to buying directly from the farmers is that you can ask them the exact variety of produce you are eating. Is it a hybrid or open-pollinated variety? Is the farm saving seed? If not, are the seeds sourced locally? Talk to your local producers, ask questions, and support farmers who are willing to engage.

For gardeners, there are numerous smaller seed houses and resources across the country that specialize in preserving open-pollinated, rare, and heirloom plant varieties. Below are a few specializing in seeds from particular regions.

Southwest: Native Seeds
South: Southern Seed Legacy
Mid-Atlantic: Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Midwest: Seed Savers Exchange
Northwest: Abundant Life Seeds
National directory by state: Organic Consumers Association

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Because of consolidation, farmers have fewer seed choices. Transgenic seed offers favorable crop traits, such as pest or herbicide resistance; whether eating such crops is favorable or unfavorable to human health remains unknown. Hybrid seed produces vigorous, uniform, and transportable crops, all necessary qualities when food is transported thousands of miles from places with cheap labor or amenable climates. But hybrid plants do not reliably pass on these same traits to their progeny. Transgenic and hybrid crops keep the sustainability loop open by forcing farmers to rely on commercial sources for seed. 

And as farmers shift to seed that, by design, cannot carry forward the world’s agricultural heritage, that heritage is being lost. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the U.S. has lost 95 percent of the cabbage varieties, 91 percent of the field corn, 94 percent of the pea, and 81 percent of the tomato varieties cultivated in the last century. Other open-pollinated lines, which make up the bulk of the genetic diversity in food crops, are dying out.

But what’s the big deal if biodiversity does erode? 

Consider the Irish potato famine of the 1840s. Irish farmers depended entirely on one type of potato. When a devastating blight began spreading through the country, a quarter of the Irish potato crop was wiped out, along with an eighth of the human population. And the blight is still around. In 1976, a much more virulent strain was imported to Europe from Mexico. As late as 2000, this potato blight was wreaking havoc in Russia. Scientists are now crossing Russian potatoes with similar varieties from Latin America that have developed a natural resistance to the fungus. Without biodiversity, those genes would simply not be available.

The Eugene seed swap is about as far away from industry consolidation as you can get. Each seed distributed at the swap has a story, and the gardeners tell those stories like family lore. 

“The plant grows out and creates a plant about this big,” says one gardener, holding his arms out in a hula-hoop-sized ring. He’s in rapt conversation with a small-scale organic farmer over a variety of tomatillo called Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherry. Excitedly, he explains how he pulls the husk away to reveal a pineapple-flavored fruit. The plants produced so much fruit he didn’t know what to do with it all, except make preserves.

“I’ll take a couple and try them out,” says the farmer. She takes a few seeds out of the bag and drops them into a paper envelope.

All around, swappers are placing seeds in the old junk-mail return envelopes provided on the floor. Minnie Miller’s Pole Bean goes into a Capital One credit-application envelope; “Ianto’s Parsnip” tumbles into an envelope printed with “Season’s Greetings.” The gardeners ask each other practical questions. 

“Ethiopian Lentil? What’s the likelihood that an Ethiopian lentil will grow in the Willamette Valley?” 

“Does anyone know about this edible lupin?” 

“Can you grow lavender from seed? I usually start it from cuttings.”

A woman picks up a bag of seed that looks like tiny pearls of gunpowder. She tries to read the label buried inside, then asks, “What is this?”

The seed is from an Andean grain called Hartman’s Giant Amaranth, an heirloom variety developed in the 1970s by a farmer named Hartman in Jacksonville, Oregon. The plant isn’t widely grown in the United States, but just half a cup of the grain provides about 25 percent of a person’s daily protein — much higher than most other commercially available grains. This particular amaranth seed was grown on one of the oldest organic farms in Oregon: River’s Turn Farm.

Taylor (whose last name has been withheld at his request) lives out on River’s Turn Farm, outside the small town of Coburg. Taylor rents an apartment and helps maintain a kinship garden (a garden where similar species are planted in close proximity to each other) with more than 250 species of plants crowding into an eighth of an acre. He is also involved in the farm’s seed-saving efforts. The conservation operation is housed in a small heated shed that is constantly under attack by a gaggle of hungry geese and free-range chickens. 

Inside the shed is a 12-foot aisle skirted by drying racks. Wire mesh stretches taut over wooden frames full of Painted Mountain corncobs. Below the mesh, fans blow slightly heated air up through the corn, slowly drying the kernels. After a few days, the cobs are brittle to the touch, and the kernels fall away with a flick of a thumb. Some of the seed has already been bagged, sorted roughly by color. Next year, this seed will be used to replant the fields at River’s Turn.

[%image circleofcorn credit="Photo: Mary Hensley" caption="Painted Mountain corncobs" float=right size=small]

Taylor’s studio apartment, not much more than a cozy storage shed, is full of seeds that he has collected during the past season. There are four 48-quart Coleman coolers full of baggies of seed. On shelves near the ceiling lie three antique hard-sided suitcases, also filled with seed. Taylor takes down one of the suitcases and opens the sticky latches.

“We store the seeds by family,” he says. “These are Cucurbits (gourds). That cooler is full of grasses. That suitcase has miscellaneous seed.” Taylor has millions of seeds stored away. “The ideal way to store seed is the exact opposite of the conditions you want to grow the seed: dry and dark.”

Outside, walking between rows of Painted Mountain corn, Taylor disappears from the chin down. Only his dark eyes and a tousled nest of matching hair protrude above the stalks. Taylor is nearly six feet tall; commercial corn would normally reach well over his head. 

He walks up to a stalk that’s beginning to brown and, with a flip of his wrist, pops off an ear of corn. He holds it up and demonstrates a trick he uses with the school groups that tour the farm each year. 

“I’ll break off a stalk of corn and hold it up and ask the kids what color they think the corn is. They all yell out ‘Yellow!’ Then I peel back the husk.” Taylor demonstrates, revealing the corn inside. It’s black. It’s so dark, the kernels almost shine. 

The kids, he says, are amazed. Most have never seen non-commercial corn. Taylor then lets the kids loose in the rows. And they rush to find what gifts grow in the garden. 

p(bio). Jes Burns is a radio host, producer, writer, and gardener who lives with two sassy chickens in a yellow house in Eugene, Oregon. A version of this story originally appeared in Etude.


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