Last week Littleton Community Farm and the Reuben Hoar Library were pleased to host Tevis Robertson-Goldberg from Crabapple Organic Farm in Chesterfield, MA. Tevis spoke at the Library on the importance of seed preservation.
The lecture marked the official launch of the Seed Lending Library that the Reuben Hoar Library and the Littleton Community Farm are jointly implementing for the 2014 growing season. The mission of “Seed Library Littleton” is to build community through the collecting and sharing of bio-diverse, locally-adapted seeds, provide education on seed saving techniques, and create a forum for discourse on the relevancy of local food systems to our community.
Tevis presented a 12,000 year history of the human impact on the evolution on our seed (food) supply and how it has changed our food, economy, environment, health and biodiversity. Below are some interesting tidbits we gleaned from Tevis’ talk…
100 years ago the United States had a rich polyculture that has been replaced by a monoculture. Today there are more acres of corn then there are acres of the world’s population, making corn the most successful species. Corn is now all genetically closely related. The current risk to our food supply is that agricultural catastrophes like the Irish Potato Famine are possible.
Since 1924 the US Department of Agriculture has had a seed bank in Geneva, NY. It is similar to the Svalbard Global Seed Cave, which is a “doomsday” seed vault in Norway that is essentially the world’s insurance policy for food. International and national seed banks are for commercial growers; these seed banks don’t really serve small farmers. Commercial growers get the access without doing the work. Tevis considers these seed bank varieties to be “functionally extinct” because no one is growing them. Whether the USDA bank will be there in the future depends on the politics surrounding it.
In the last 100 years seeds have become commercialized; hybrids give seed companies control over seed. “X” variety always comes from a specific company. Varieties are a market commodity with built-in obsolescence. “Seed varieties are now a throw-away commodity,” said Trevis. Large scale commercial breeders are growing seed commodities for industrialized farms. Most heirloom varieties are now in danger of going extinct because there are only one or two producers. Varieties are lost when companies choose one variety over another simply to make more money. What matters to the seed producer is whether propagation will be profitable.
Before 1900, there were 1,000s of named varieties of apples and 100s of cider apple mills in New England. With the Prohibition movement (which had an axe as its symbol), many local varieties of apples, such as “Westfield Seek No Farther” disappeared. (The USDA seed bank has 1,795 varieties of apple.)
Most open-pollinated heirloom varieties are now in danger of going extinct because there are only one or two producers. Unlike hybrids, varieties of open-pollinated seeds do not stay the same; they change according to weather and other growing conditions, and they usually produce very similar plants from their own seed.
Hybrids such as delicata squash have become contaminated at times; as a result there were almost no delicate squash on the market for some years. Waltham Butternut has been very popular; the seed now comes from Texas, so is not growing as well here as it once did. As an aside, it is worth noting that most crops are grown in states such as Florida and California and sold to and eaten by those who have no real connection with the crop.
Home seed savers can more effectively select and improve plant varieties than large-scale producers. Why? Because on a small scale one can look at every plant and select for local conditions, tastes and regional culture. Tevis encouraged people to save seeds for their historical, educational and biological value, for their taste and nutrition, and of course for the sheer fun and adventure of it all.
Stay tuned to this blog site for further updates on the launch of the Seed Lending Library!