By Mat Rogers
The 1979 children’s book Ox-Cart Man describes a colonial family who spends all year raising a crop and an ox, building the ox’s cart, and making mittens, brooms, and candles. Then the ox-cart man sets off to market to sell the crop and the mittens, brooms, and candles, then the ox, then the cart. He returns home carrying the supplies from the market the family will need for the next year and everyone starts over again.
Maybe at one time we all shopped at markets visited by ox-cart men. Since then, farmers, artisans, cooks, and eaters have had to develop ways to recover from the American institution known as the supermarket by developing first farm CSAs, then distribution models for the bounty of fruit trees, local meat, wild foraged food, ferments, canned goods, backyard fruit, ready made traditional food, charcuterie, homemade goods, wild game, and on, and on, and on. We’ve neglected, however, to focus all that know how and social networking on one vital lynch pin of our agricultural systems – the genetic diversity underlying all of that delicious food.
Seed companies work to exert their control on crop genetics and protect their investments with biotechnology. One way to protect their property from being co-opted by others is by producing and marketing F1 hybrids, which do not “come true from seed” and thus cannot be saved from year to year, a predicament for farmers. Big Seed is also not always interested in maintaining diversity and some favorite varieties are at risk of commercial extinction. Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farm discussed difficulty in securing Early Girl tomato seed in a recent CSA newsletter (PDF) . The patent on Early Girl, an F1 hybrid, is owned by Seminis, which controls 75% of tomato genetics and was purchased by Monsanto in 2005.
Seed banks, from national collections to doomsday vaults, are repositories of global plant genetic diversity and have their place as libraries and back-ups. However, seed held under these models is held ex situ, inaccessible to backyard gardeners or small farmers, and removes us from our crop heritage. Having a stock of seeds on hand to sow a yearly garden and some extra for larger community plots in case of food supply disruption does appeal to agrarian self sufficiency and a DIY ethic. You can buy your own mini seed bank, but even this model perpetuates seed as a commodity to be controlled by few. Seed savers, in contrast, exchange genetic diversity in cooperatives and seed swaps, forming an in situ seed bank that reconnects us with a 10,000 year lineage of crops developed to suit the growing conditions of a region and saved every growing season over these many millennia.
Correctly saving open-pollinated, also called heirloom, seed can be a bit of a challenge in small, urban garden plots. The main issue is isolation distance, the space required between plantings of the same species of crops of different varieties to ensure the variety remains pure. Recommended isolation distances vary from 25 feet for self-pollinators, such as tomatoes, lettuce and peas, to a mile or more for outbreeders, such as corn and brassicas like cabbage and broccoli. Correct isolation distances could be maintained if you were to grow, for example, Bull’s Blood Beets, Cosmic Purple Carrots, and Country Gentlemen Sweet Corn; the couple on the next block grows Chiogga Beets, Arkansas Traveler Tomatoes, and Perisienne Carrots; and the family across town grows Amana Orange Tomatoes, Strawberry Popcorn, and Tete Noir Cabbage.
With this concept in mind, Agrariana, a non-profit founded to “Rescue for Human Society the Native Values of Rural Life,” announces the Backyard Seed Vault initiative. We’re looking for approximately 100 San Francisco Bay Area gardeners for the inaugural season who would like to work as a community to save heirloom vegetable seed. A late May kickoff potluck and seed sale/swap is in the works. Agrariana will organize regular produce trading meet-ups during the summer to ensure everyone can experience the full variety of the crops grown and couple those events with workshops on composting, compost tea, cover cropping, canning, and other gardening and rural skills. As harvest approaches, Agrariana will lead hands-on workshops in participants’ gardens on properly saving seed. The Backyard Seed Vault is working in conjunction with the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library (BASIL), a project of the Ecology Center, for their immense knowledge on properly saving, labeling, cataloging, and storing seeds. Seeds not redistributed to participants will be donated to BASIL, providing an opportunity for any community member to “check out” seed to grow in their gardens. Gardeners of all skill levels are welcome to participate. You can get signed up at Agrariana’s website.
I like to think that the ox-cart man socialized with his fellow farmers at the market and returned home with a few traded seeds in his pocket to try in the family kitchen garden. A bit like at the Bailey Building and Loan, the ox-cart man’s genetic ’savings’ weren’t locked up in some safe or owned by a company, they were in the soil of his neighbors’ plots, awaiting a withdrawal should anyone need it. In an era of uncertainties – economic, environmental, political or otherwise – this is a plan I can feel certain about.
Mat Rogers is a doctoral candidate in ecological engineering at the University of California at Berkeley studying vegetated natural water treatment systems. He is the co-executive director of Agrariana, which wraps up its Reading Seeds, Planting Ideas authors series on Wednesday, April 28 with a conversation between Nicolette Hahn Niman and Claire Hope Cummings. Mat lives in Oakland, where he spends time on traditional food preservation projects, develops a micro-farm and food forest, Hidden Alley Ranch, and blogs at matrogers.com .