Sunday, July 17, 2011

Seed Savers Exchange

***I'll post pictures soon

I just returned from a wonderful week at the Seed Saver’s conference. For those of you who do not know, Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving heirloom seeds. Their heritage farm is in Decorah, Iowa, and this past weekend had their 31st annual conference and campout. I decided to go late Friday night for the day on Saturday, but after feeling so inspired after the first few workshops, I was bummed to only be staying for the day. It turns out the force of the cosmos was with me as I found a tent for the night and a ride home the next day and ended up staying an extra day.

The mission of Seed Savers is “to save North America's diverse, but endangered, garden heritage for future generations by building a network of people committed to collecting, conserving and sharing heirloom seeds and plants, while educating people about the value of genetic and cultural diversity.” They do this by collecting heirloom seeds that have been passed down generation after generation, just like heirloom furniture or jewelry, planting them, growing them out to increase the population size, and saving them. Depending on the popularity, they may include them in their catalog of over 300 varieties of vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers for commercial sale or post them in their catalogue of over 10,000 varieties where members can peruse through, select a variety that entices them, grow for their own use and also to collect seed. It is the wide network of members that makes SSE so effective.

I’d like to share with you some of the interesting information I learned at the workshops I attended. I took notes at some, unless I was too engrossed in the lecturer!

Chasing Chiles: Kurt Friese, a chef, was one of three authors of the book, Chasing Chilies: Hot spots along the pepper trail. The others were an ethno botanist and a biologist, and they spent months traveling through the world learning about Chile peppers. One thing that especially struck them along their travels was how each heirloom variety they encountered was connected to an amazing story. These varieties were passed down to them by their ancestors who were always carefully selecting the best of the crop and crossing them with other peppers for desirable traits. These varieties are not sold in seed catalogues, but are arguably the best available. Secondly, they were struck by how a single variety can manifest itself so differently according to different climates. I also learned of the way you can measure the ‘hotness’ of a pepper: on the scoville scale. A habanero for example, has a scoville value of 100,000-meaning it takes 100,000 g of water to wash 1 g of pepper away. Habanero peppers are the hottest native North American peppers and are hot hot hot. Jalapenos have a scoville value of 8,000 for comparison. The hottest pepper (of which I obtained three seeds of to plant this season!!!) is the Bhut Jolokia chili pepper, which has a scoville value of 1.5 million!

Dry Seed Cleaning: such a nice old gentleman led this workshop from Maine, Will Bonsal (more on him later). He discussed the technique of saving seeds from dry plants. I’m not sure why this concept seemed so new to me, though I guess it reiterates how my generation has always grown up buying seeds from catalogues, oblivious to the fact that seeds can be saved. I’ve grown up in a time where farmers are persecuted for saving their seed, where by opening a seed packet, you ‘hereby agree to save no plant material or seed for future use.’ I’m not sure I completely understood where this seed magically appeared from, or that if people way back when wanted any seed, they had to grow their own. Anyways, Will went through the process of growing the plant to it’s own specific point in time when the seed is mature (either when the fruit is ripe or dry) collecting the fruit and separating the seed from everything else. He showed us spinach which he had collected after it had bolted and dried on the stalk, thrashed it by stepping on it, removing the debris, then winnowing it-which consisted of putting it in a bucket and pouring it slowly in front of a fan which blew the light debris away leaving the heavy seed to fall on the floor. There is a lot more to it, but this is the basic story of saving seed. It then needs to be stored properly. Some seed needs to be dormant before it can be planted again, perhaps it needs to be fermented as in an animals stomach, maybe the endosperm needs to be scratched as if a bird chewed it, allowing the seed to emerge…etc. A hobby I can see myself getting into.

Biology and Ecology of seed saving: I cannot believe I didn’t know this information-especially being BIOLOGY major at St. Olaf. I guess when I learned this in high school; I didn’t care enough about plants then to remember the information. This lecture was amazing!

My typed up notes: An heirloom is a plant, which has a history of being passed down within a family just like pieces of heirloom jewelry or furniture. Open pollinated plants are varieties that breed true seed. The fruit from this plant has seeds that will bear the exact same plant as the one it was grown on. This is good! Hybrids are a specific cross that is usually done by humans picking a desired trait from one plant and that of another and crossing them. Their resulting offspring (the F1 generation) are probably pretty neat if it is done correctly-though if you breed a F1 with an F1, those offspring will not breed true. That is the problem with big seed companies making these amazing hybrid plants. If you save the seed, you will not get the same plant that you started with! They make it impossible for you to save the seed so you have to keep going back to the same company and spend more money on seed.

Anyways, you want to save heirloom varieties for their cultural value which is worth preserving, because it provides variety and interest, it is essential to preventing the loss of genetic diversity, and because you can select plants for specific growing conditions. You’d save it for the same reason you’d save a native language, or a panda bear.

How are plants pollinated? By itself (if it has all the reproductive parts on one plant) or via an insect or wind (if the male and female reproductive parts are separated either within the plant or on different plants). Peas, beans, sollenacias are all examples of plants that have flowers with both male and female parts. They can pollinate themselves-they are called selfers. The pollen from the anther shakes when the plant rattles in the wind and lands on the stigma, right within the same flower. It goes down into the ovary and starts producing a fruit. Zucchini on the other hand, is an example of a fruit that is an outcrosser. One zucchini plant will have a couple male flowers and a couple female flowers. It takes an insect, such as a bee, to transfer pollen from the male flower to the female flower. (By the way, this provides an opportunity for cross breeding to happen naturally what if one bee gets pollen from one male flower on a plant and deposits on the female flower of another plant? They may or may not be the same variety-their resulting offspring would be hybrids!)

If you are growing for seed and want to maintain true seed, you have to be careful with cross-pollination. To prevent cp, plants are growing in isolation tents which keep insects out, are geographically separated to prevent wind cross pollination, or are hand pollinated (when a flower emerges, it is immediately covered with a bag. Pollen is hand smeared on the stigmas to ensure proper pollination). Corn and beets are both hand pollinated.

There are also biannual plants, such as rutabagas turnips and beets. They grow in a season, die off, and then grow again in the same season…wait, that doesn’t sound right! We only get one beet plant in our Minnesota summers….well that is because they originated in Afghanistan where the season was much longer. If we want to save seed from a beet in MN, we must grow the beet (not eat the bulb), dig up the beet before winter, store it in a root cellar so it doesn’t die from cold, replant it, then let it go to seed and collect that. Phew! A lot of work.

Ask for more details, I’d be happy to tell you more about monoecious, dioecious, self-incompatibility, etc.

Keynote speaker: Woody Tasch, Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms and Fertility Mattered. I was a bit wiped by this time, but the main gist I got from this was the idea that money has to be invested locally in local farms. Woody has a nonprofit, the Slow Money group, and their principles say:
  1. We must bring money back down to earth.
  2. There is such a thing as money that is too fast, companies that are too big, finance that is too complex. Therefore, we must sow our money down. Not all of it, of course, but enough to matter.
  3. The 20th century was the era of buy low/sell high and wealth now/philanthropy later—what one venture capitalist called ‘the largest legal accumulation of wealth in history.” The 21st century will be the era of nurture capital, built around principles of carrying capacity, care of the commons, sense of place and non-violence.
  4. We must learn to invest as if food, farms and fertility mattered. We must connect investors to the places where they live, creating vital relationships and new sources of capital for small food enterprises.
  5. Let us celebrate the new generation of entrepreneurs, consumers, and investors who are showing the way from making a killing to making a living.
  6. Paul Newman said, “I just happen to think that in life we need to be a little like the farmer who puts back into the soil what he takes out.” Recognizing the wisdom of these words, let us begin rebuilding our economy from the ground up, asking; what would it be like if we invested 50% of our assets within 50 miles have where we live? What if there was a new generation of companies that gave away 50% of their profits? What if there was 50% more organic matter in our soil 50 years from now?

Dinner: Amazing. Let’s just say slow roasted beef in adobo sauce, garlic roasted potatoes, Brazilian black bean salad, greens salad (with lambs corridor!) with vinaigrette, baguettes with lemon butter, and carrot cake.

Keynote speaker:  Jeff McCormack on Oral histories: Connecting people plants and biodiversity: With each seed is a story. It’s not just about the fruit that is grown, it’s about how it got there, who used to grow it, in which conditions. He was influenced by the Ted Talk by Brene Brown on the power of vulnerability (  He talked of how stories are data with a soul, which they are responsible for the evolution of our culture, that saving seeds is about stories, about soulful relationships. He then told a few stories he had gathered from around the world, which accompanied the seeds he had found. He talked of how we have stopped telling stories, stopped talking to each other and listening to each other. The information we would have learned from these stories, we have resorted to reading how-to books and teaching ourselves. There is less sharing wisdom and more how to books. We are solitary readers and waters rather than sharing participants. What most struck me of his talk was that facts=knowledge, stories=wisdom. Jeff has also done research at the same research station on San Salvador Island in the Bahamas as I have-researching bush medicine. I remember going out with Mr. Forbes, the last ancestor of the last medicine woman on the island and seeing local remedies for each ailment.

Barn Dance: I’m not sure if this could have been any more picturesque. They provided beer from a local brewery and wine from a local vineyard and we danced the night away in the hayloft of the refurbished barn. Old couples that still knew the real way to dance showed us the ropes as the fiddle band strung away. The mist set in over the valley we were in. I think I was the youngest one there; I enjoyed watching and participating in some of the contra like dances. I went to bed when I was tired, as I had no watch, no phone, and no concept of time. I felt like I had stepped back into the good days.

That’s enough for now; I’ll inundate you with the rest at another date.

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