I recently attended Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance’s six day Seed School in Buhl, Idaho. Bill McDorman and Belle Starr founded Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance (RMSA) this year, along with their friend John Caccia. John manages the Wood River Seed Library that was formed in early 2014. According to their website, the mission of RMSA is to “connect communities with the seeds that sustain them. Through education and other supportive services, this organization would help people reclaim the ancient tradition of seed saving and stewardship to grow a more resilient future in their towns, neighborhoods, and backyards. Their vision: a region filled with local farmers and gardeners producing a diverse abundance of crops—food, wildflowers, and grasses—from locally adapted seeds.”
Bill and Belle founded RMSA after three years with Native Seeds/SEARCH. Native Seeds/SEARCH (NS/S) is the go-to place to find seeds native to the Southwest. There are educational programs at NS/S, but the emphasis is on the seeds—preserving them, growing them, and sharing them. The emphasis at RMSA is on education. Through education there will be more people and organizations available to do the preserving, growing, and sharing work.
Information covered at Seed School included, but was not limited to, seed breeding, germination testing, harvesting and processing, seed libraries, and seed enterprises. Although seeds can stay viable for many years, it is good to know the germination rate to know how much to plant, particularly if you are sharing them with others. The germination tests I do at home are done with only 10 seeds at a time and are sufficient for my own use. This summer a new seed library in Pennsylvania was challenged by the PA Department of Agriculture and asked to conform to the same laws that govern seed companies. One of the requirements was to have germination tests done–the kind that require 100 seeds to be tested at a time. I don’t believe that is necessary for a seed library, but the test is actually something you can do at home. Put 100 seeds on a damp paper towel, roll it up and keep it moist for a few days, then check it again. We did that at Seed School using wheat seed. Whether you are using 10 seeds or 100 for your germination tests, it is a good activity to do with volunteers if you are involved with a seed library. You receive valuable information to pass on with the seeds and your volunteers receive valuable experience, not to mention the camaraderie that develops with people working together.
We visited a USDA lab and a native plant nursery. Everyone we met was passionate about their work. The nursery produced most of the native plants that were installed in the region regardless of which company or government agency was the local supplier. So much for diversity of sources. Likewise, there are fewer sources of organic seed than you might think. Seed companies don’t necessarily grow all the seeds they sell and some don’t grow any. High Mowing has always only sold organic seed. According to their website, although they grow more than 60 varieties themselves, other varieties are supplied by growers in the Northeast, the Northwest, and from large wholesale organic seed companies such as Vitalis Seeds, Bego Seeds, and Genesis Seeds. You could be buying organic seeds that weren’t even grown in this country, let alone in your region! It does make you think. Companies that do not limit themselves to organic seeds could also be sourcing seeds from Seminis, now a subsidiary of Monsanto. When Monsanto bought out Seminis, Fedco Seeds decided to cut ties with Seminis—a big step for any seed company at the time. You can read here about the current state of our seed supply in the words of CR Lawn of Fedco in a talk he gave in February 2013.
Don Tipping of Siskiyou Seeds in Williams, Oregon was one of the presenters at Seed School. The home farm of Siskiyou Seeds is Seven Seeds Farm where about 60% of the seed for the company is grown. To offer more diversity in the catalog, Siskiyou looks to other growers, many in southwest Oregon. A description of each of those growers is in the catalog and each variety of seed offered shows the source of the seed in the description. Siskiyou turns to High Mowing for some of their varieties, but you know which ones were bought from that wholesaler from the catalog descriptions.
Seven Seeds Farm is part of the Family Farmers Seed Cooperative, a “new approach in seed security through supporting the development of bioregional seed producing hubs linked with a national marketing, breeding, and quality assurance program.” Closer to my home is a similar cooperative– Common Wealth Seed Growers—made up of my friends at Twin Oaks Seed Farm, Living Energy Farm, and All Farm Organics. At Seed School I met Luke Callahan of SeedWise, which is an online marketplace that provides a way for home gardeners to connect with very small seed companies. Common Wealth Seed Growers is listed with SeedWise.
In 2003 and 2004 I attended a series of workshops organized to educate seed growers in the Southeast region of the US. It was part of the Saving Our Seed initiative. One of the results of that project was the seed production manuals for the Mid-Atlantic and South and for the Pacific Northwest that you can freely access online now. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is the main market for seed growers in my region, but the growers here sell to other companies, also. At the time I wondered what would result from those workshops. I knew many people present and didn’t imagine them rushing out to grow seeds for Southern Exposure anytime soon. Well, a decade has passed and a network of growers has developed. My daughter even grew seeds for Southern Exposure this year!
If you are concerned about the source of your seeds (as you very well should be), learn to grow your own or buy from small growers in your region. We can’t change the world overnight, which would result in chaos anyway. But, with each action we take we send out ripples that can result in a lasting, positive change. Seed School at Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance produced some ripples that I know are going to make a difference in keeping the seeds in the hands of the people for years to come.