Farmers are saving heirloom varieties and breeding new ones, writes Cate Henderson.
“All the flowers of all the tomorrows are in the seeds of today.” This Indian proverb succinctly states why Kingston area farmers are ahead of the sustainability game in at least one respect; many of them save a portion of their own seed. Why is this a sustainable practice, and why should local eaters care whether farmers buy seeds anew each year or save their own?
Above: Stacey sorts lettuce seed at Vicki’s Veggies.
Saving seed year after year means that the farmer is less dependent on seeds sold as commodities by corporations. It also means that plant varieties have the chance to adapt to local conditions. They will grow more likely to produce well even in times of drought or too much rain, in heavy, limestone clay soils or thin, Canadian Shield soils, and in the presence of specific pests.
Most seed sold by corporations is shipped from California or other far-away lands; saving seed on-farm requires no fuel for shipping and therefore reduces harmful emissions. If Kingston were suddenly cut off from the rest of the world (it sounds improbable, but it has happened to communities throughout history), seed-saving farmers, unlike those who rely on purchased seed, would be able to continue producing food. In addition, when varieties are dropped from corporate seed catalogues, the seed-saving farmer may still have the variety and continue to offer it to local eaters.
At the Heirloom Seed Sanctuary of the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul where I work, we save seed from over 300 locally-adapted, ecologically-grown varieties of vegetables, flowers and herbs, from Arkansas Traveller tomato to Yokomo Giant pea. Due to space and labour constraints, we are only able to save small quantities of each – enough to keep the variety viable and to share with other seed-savers.
Our focus is educational; we encourage eaters to be aware of seed and how it is saved, and support farmers who wish to take on this important work alongside all their other tasks. There is a strong spiritual aspect to saving seed. To paraphrase Father Thomas Berry, the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects. The Heirloom Seed Sanctuary is thus not a collection of seeds, but a sanctuary for these living beings on whom we all rely for most of our food.
In the profiles that follow I spoke to some of the hard-working farmers in this area who are currently growing and saving the seeds of our favourite vegetables. There are many more stories to be told; be sure to ask your own local farmers about seeds. In my experience, you will find a love and a selflessness that will unquestionably manifest in “all the flowers of all the tomorrows.”
Titia Posthuma is a Biodynamic farmer on Ravensfield farm near Maberly. She sells her beautiful produce at the Kingston Farmers Market and to local chefs. She has recently started putting aside produce at her market stand from which she wants to save seeds. She sells that fruit on the condition that the buyer puts some of its seeds into a labeled bag provided by Titia and brings those seeds back to her at the earliest opportunity. The buyer is welcome to keep some of those seeds for her or his own use as well. Titia does this because some harvested fruits are so perfectly true-to-type (meaning true to the variety’s essential characteristics) that she feels she must both share them with the public and have them in her seed stock!
Titia has observed that when catalogues replace older varieties, the new ones are often inferior – the latest carrot strains contain “more water and sugar than carrot,” for instance.
More broadly, she shares the concern of many farmers that control over seeds will become concentrated in a handful of companies who breed varieties for appearance and suitability to industrial production instead of for taste or nutrition.
Titia saves seed from many plant varieties: tomatoes, beans and peas, lettuce, as well as any cucumbers, pumpkin and squash that have been properly isolated (that is, kept separate from other varieties to keep them from cross-pollinating). Beets, parsnips, swiss chard, onions, leeks and garlic are some of the biennials that survive the winter. “Any seed I can save, I save,” she declares.
Eric Williams, Ian Stutt, and Megan Joslin farm at Patchwork Gardens and sell produce at the Kingston Farmers Market and Tara Natural Foods. Eric includes among his reasons for seed saving the idea of “terroir”, which refers to farmers selecting seed based on certain unique differences in the quality of the vegetable as it grows in our region. Farmers can then create their own “line” of performance seeds, full of a local taste, health, and vigour, suited to our own environment. “A cucumber may look like another cucumber, but the one that is from farm grown seed will have more depth of regional flavour,” he says. Patchwork Gardens sold a limited amount of their seed at market last year, but as Ian says, their priority is to ensure a variety’s quality. “We’ve got all kinds of seed we could just pack up and sell, but we really have to have our own confidence there first.” They sell bedding plants started from their own seed at their market stall in spring. Ian says eaters should be aware that conventional seed production is one of the most chemically intensive processes in agriculture, because the plants are in the ground longer and can be sprayed more often than conventional veggies harvested for eating. In organic seed production this is not permitted. This means the farmer spends more labour and organic inputs on the process, but there is considerably less cost to the environment. Ian and Eric agree that saving seed from a vegetable variety means they develop a relationship with that variety year after year, so that they come to love it even more.
Karen ten Cate co-owns Bumblerock Farm, near Roblin, with her husband. Seed-saving is integral to Karen’s relationship with their garden: “I can’t imagine the plants producing the seeds and me not saving them; that’s what I would naturally do,” she says. The ten Cates keep bees and sell their honey from the farm, through their CSA and at the Napanee Farmers Market. Bees are key pollinators and help ensure that saved seed is naturally healthy and viable, so keeping bees and saving seed works very well together. Karen saves seed from a large number of vegetables.
She believes that most people don’t think of seeds at all when they think of food. Why would we give away control of our seeds and expect others to take care of things for us? Karen argues that we would never do that in other important areas of our lives.
Carol and Robert Mouck came to the Sisters of Providence as organic farmers and seed savers. They assisted the Sisters in setting up the Heirloom Seed Sanctuary on the Providence Motherhouse property. When Kathy Rothermel of Windkeeper Community Farm on Wolfe Island attended a workshop by the Moucks on seed saving, she felt like she “had stepped through a doorway into a world that I didn’t know was there.” Seed is “a critical component that is left out in too many discussions of sustainability” argues Kathy. As a new farmer, “adding seed to the equation has rounded out the whole experience in a way that’s not quantifiable.” Kathy does not sell seed, but produce from her saved seed is available through Vegetables Unplugged CSA, the Old Farm Fine Foods store and other local retailers. Kathy has since taught seed saving through St. Lawrence College and on her farm through a Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT) internship.
Vicki Emlaw, of Vicki’s Veggies in Prince Edward County, teaches young people about saving seed on her farm. When I arrived to interview her, former CRAFT intern and now employee Stacey was the one sorting lettuce seed with tweezers. For Vicki, as for Kathy Rothermel, it was meeting Carol and Robert Mouck that convinced her to grow out plants for seed. Vicki is a member of Seeds of Diversity Canada and trades lettuce and tomato seeds through their network. The main reason she continues to save seed is that if she didn’t save these varieties then they might cease to exist on the planet. She points out that heirloom vegetables have come down from families and friends, through generations of care, and it would be very sad if they were lost.
Nathan Putnam operates Living Cities Company (LCC), a diverse service company that grows vegetables for a 100-share CSA. They also build urban gardens, composting and rain-catchment systems, and much more. Nathan saves seed for his production of lettuce, beans, peas and other plants. He sells seeds only under the LCC programs. Nathan saves seed in order to select and hone varieties: “This means in the short run, better crops. In the long run, continued selection will help us to develop even more heirloom varieties. We can develop a subset of a more common heirloom variety which truly is a local favourite.” Nathan would like eaters to realize “that there is a huge diversity of seed out there and that by eating a greater variety, they also support the continued growth of those rare plants and contribute to our agricultural diversity.”
Frank Misek of Greystones Farm near Wilton sells his produce at the Frontenac Farmers Market in Verona. He initially started saving seeds in order to be frugal and save money on seed orders, but he continues because he likes being able to have viable seed to share and give away. Frank participates in Kingston’s Seedy Saturday in March and is pleased to see the increased interest in seeds and attendance there every year.
Cate Henderson coordinates the Heirloom Seed Sanctuary at the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul.