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Adaptive Seeds Works to Reclaim Our Seed Heritage, Part 1

Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement spotlights 18 Oregon farms and farm supporters who are committed to a return to ecologically sound agricultural practices. This group reflects the diversity of people, both young and old, who are reshaping our state’s food system and reclaiming our right to eat well. In their stories you will hear how they came to be where they are, learn something about the challenges they face, and share their happiness at the successes they’ve enjoyed thus far. The following profile has been excerpted from Planting A Future.

Sarah Kleeger and Andrew Still of Adaptive Seeds

When first meeting Andrew Still and Sarah Kleeger, it’s hard to imagine that these two young farmers spent their early years in Southern California… one in Ventura’s suburbs, the other in apartments near Anaheim. Because these days they’re pretty well countrified.

That’s not so much a reflection of how they look, although Andrew’s beard, Sarah’s braided hair, and the pair’s simple, well-worn clothing fit the image one might have of young organic farmers. It’s more an acknowledgment of their comfort; their ease as they walk through rows of last year’s vegetables in late winter… stopping to share cucumber-flavored sprigs of salad burnet, a plant they readily admit saved their ass a few times when they were running a winter CSA.

The burnet is the lone green perennial in a small plot just south of their aging farm house, which doubles as their seed warehouse. These slumbering rows of last year’s garden sit beside the seedling house and adjacent to the equipment shed – home to a small tractor and bargain-priced combine which Sarah claims that Andrew loves to wrench on.

Walking east through the larger fields, they both laugh in a roll-your-eyes sort of way as they point out two completely different types of winter cabbage that were supposed to be the same variety. One of them is producing pale green savoy heads, but the other is a disintegrated mess. The seeds were purchased from different vendors, and one of them didn’t get it right. All seed people make mistakes, they say, and this was clearly one of them. There’s no sense that they hold any kind of grudge or feel short-changed. They simply find the mix-up interesting.

Field of Buckwheat at Adaptive Seeds

When we reach the end of the cabbage patch, Sarah heads north with an intention she doesn’t share, while Andrew turns south to check out some other thing… but after about ten steps, he turns back, sees my indecision, laughs, and tells me to come with him. A quick visual tour of the farm’s 30 acres ensues as Andrew points out fields of legumes and grain that run to the end of their property, where the land rises quickly into what’s left of the forest.

Earlier Sarah had said, “I just now looked up the hill, and the only big trees in sight are all laying down, so it’s kind of bumming me out. It’s the clear cut… they’re widening it. Whatever. I’ll get over it.” And that statement kind of exemplifies the attitude at Adaptive Seeds. This couple just sort of rolls with it, whatever comes. Their entire agricultural existence has followed that path. The Seed Ambassadors project is a perfect example.

After spending several years working for a variety of organic farms, first in northern California and then in Oregon, Andrew and Sarah were looking for a way to combine their nascent but growing interest in seed saving with a trip to Europe… a sort of working vacation.

So they added to their personal seed collection by gathering seeds well adapted to the Pacific Northwest and took off for Europe under the banner of a program they and their friends had named The Seed Ambassadors. Meetings were set with other seed savers and organic seed organizations, and they did a lot of seed swaps. Switzerland, Germany, Russia, Great Britain, Italy… they made the rounds and along the way managed to forge some lasting relationships within the seed community. It was a grand adventure, and importantly, as Seed Ambassadors, Andrew and Sarah seemed to have found their calling. But in keeping with their natures, it was mostly just adapting to an opportunity that presented itself.

“It had never occurred to us that we would start a seed company until we were maybe three quarters of our way through the first seed ambassadors trip,” explains Sarah. “People just kept telling us that we were going to have to start a seed company.”

Seed plot at Adaptive Seeds

“They would say, ‘you have hundreds of seed varieties,” added Andrew. “You need to start a seed company.’”

Sarah laughs and continues, “And we were like, oh no… we’re not capitalists. We don’t want to start a business. We’re not trying to make money. We’re doing this for love.”

Andrew admits, “We felt like the whole ambassador thing sounded like a pretty good idea… we could be travelers and go collect seeds, and then it snowballed into something way more than we ever thought it would be.”

They returned from their first European journey in early 2007 and immediately began growing out some of the seed varieties they had collected, mostly thanks to the owner of the farm at which they were working who gave them a couple 200-foot beds where they could do their own thing. They also were active in organizing a seed swap in Eugene, Oregon, as well as listing a number of varieties on the Seed Savers Exchange, but they couldn’t help feeling a need to reach a wider audience. Plus, they weren’t quite finished with Europe yet.

Andrew explains, “We went back to Europe, to Romania initially because a Peace Corps volunteer we had met organized some seed saving workshops for us. But in all, we ended up going to about ten different countries and collecting more than 800 varieties of seeds… most of which were not available in the United States. And really, it had become an almost overwhelming burden by that point. Then we met a guy named Ben Gable, who owns Real Seeds in Wales, and he was like, ‘you’re going to start a seed company and it’s going to be awesome. What you’re going to do is take all those varieties you have, trial them and see which ones grow well, choose the best, and start selling them.’”

Sarah adds, “And he said we would double in size every year. What’s amazing is that he’s actually been spot on. But I remember when he first told us that, and we so unsure of ourselves. It definitely helped when we heard the same thing from others.”

“Oh yeah,” Andrew added, “after a couple of years of working at this, Tom Stearns of High Mowing Seeds came over and told us we were growing at the same rate he grew when he was a small seed company. It was the second round of someone saying it was going to work out. He let us know that it’s going to be hard, but he helped us believe we had the momentum and the grit to do this. Of course, you’re always questioning yourself when you’re an entrepreneur, so it helped a lot to hear someone who knows the business tell you it’s going to work out.”

Continuing reading this farm profile in Part 2 here.

Order your copy of Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement.

(Top) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: Sarah Kleeger and Andrew Still, owners of Adaptive Seeds.

(Middle) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: Adaptive Seeds’ location in the central Willamette Valley place it in the heart of one of the country’s most prolific and important organic seed production regions, where maintaining seed integrity is critical for all crops, including this field of Japanese Buckwheat.

(Bottom) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: One of the many seed production plots at Open Oak Farm, which is Sarah and Andrew's farm... home of Adaptive Seeds.

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