Sunday (September 8, 2013) I attended the first ever gathering of Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) members in the southeast region of the U.S. It made for a busy weekend, since some of us had been involved in the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello the previous day or two. In fact, that is why this SSE event was scheduled for this particular day, thinking that it would be convenient for folks who had traveled to the Heritage Harvest Festival. It turned out that the majority of the more than 85 people present showed up just for this. I don’t have any specifics, but I know that some came from afar. I should have paid more attention to the out-of-state license plates that I saw in the parking area, but I do know that some of the other states represented besides Virginia were Ohio, Maryland, and North Carolina. I’m sure there were more. This meeting was the brainchild of Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Ira’s passion is connecting folks with seed saving and everything it involves.
Grant Olson, education coordinator at SSE, gave a presentation about stories behind the seeds. There is a lot of talk about saving seeds and how to do that, but it is also important to save the stories that go with the seeds. That is part of our heritage. Preserving the stories is preserving our cultural history, besides the genetics of the seeds. Preserving the stories is a big part of what Seed Savers Exchange is all about. In addition, when you save a particular variety, you also preserve the cuisine that has developed around it. Seed Savers Exchange publishes a seed catalog that offers only a fraction of the seed varieties that they preserve. Many more varieties can be found in the yearbook that they publish each year. The yearbook lists varieties that are offered by members. Anyone can order seeds from the catalog, but the print copy of the yearbook is only offered to SSE members. However, a peek into the yearbook online is now available to everyone and can be accessed at https://exchange.seedsavers.org. If you are not a member you can see what’s there, but you can’t see who is offering it. A notice on this website indicates there will be a webinar on how to use the new online exchange on September 18, 2013. This new database is searchable by geographical area, variety, and other specifics. The webinar at http://www.seedsavers.org/Education/Webinar-Archive/#yearbook shows how to use the print yearbook. Membership in SSE helps them continue their work. If you are not a member, a peek at the yearbook just might entice you to join. Members receive the quarterly publication The Heritage Farm Companion.
Member Craig LeHoullier spoke after Grant. He also mentioned reuniting people with their heritage through what we grow and eat. A big concern of Craig’s (and mine) is how to keep the momentum going in seed saving. There are too many accounts of long-time seed savers who are getting on in years, or their life has changed, and they need to turn over the responsibility of their seed collections to someone else. Seed Savers Exchange can’t do it all. Connecting more seed savers, such as with this meeting, and developing regional hubs would be a start for not letting these collections disappear. I have begun to do some research on seed libraries and believe they may be an ideal place to help fill this need. Of course, these efforts involve the work of many gardeners, such as you, to take care to follow the necessary guidelines to carry on the traits needed for each variety.
The afternoon was spent touring farms in Louisa County, VA. This part of the day was sponsored by the Virginia Association of Biological Farming. There were five farms on the list, but my daughter and I only made it to three. These were all farms that grow seed on a commercial scale for seed catalogs. First up was Twin Oaks Community. Edmund Frost showed us around the seed fields and cut open a watermelon that we ate on the spot. Our visit with Edmund was about seed saving, but if you would like to know more about how they grow enough food to feed the 100 residents of Twin Oaks, check out Pam Dawling’s book Sustainable Market Gardening. Pam heads up the food garden at Twin Oaks.
The next stop was Acorn Community, home of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Irena Hallowell was our tour guide, explaining seed saving techniques and encouraging us to sample things as we went along. Ira Wallace led us to the flower gardens and demonstrated saving flower seeds using seed screens. An added treat was seeing the progress on the new building being constructed at Acorn.
The last stop we had time for was Living Energy Farm, a farm being developed with the goal of being free of fossil fuel. It was a really busy day for them, managing tour visitors in the midst of laying cement block for the foundation of their first house on the property. Nevertheless, Alexis Zeigler , author of Integrated Activism, showed us the seed fields and their drying shed. The fan for the drying cabinet you see in the picture is powered by the sun. The farms we had to miss are All Farm Organics (no website) and Forrest Green Farm. At All Farm Organics William Hale grows grain, including rye and popcorn, for seed companies and makes compost on a commercial scale for his use and to sell. The diversity at Forrest Green Farm includes an educational component. If we had had time to get there, I believe we would have seen a demonstration on saving seeds from herbs.
It was a good day. We hung out with old friends and met some new ones. Hopefully, this is just the beginning of a southeast regional gathering of seed savers. We need gatherings like this in every region. Most of us have a vision of how we would like the earth to be. Every bite we take and every action we make determines how the earth is used to produce our food. We are the creators of our future—a future that needs to include seed saving.