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The Story of Seed, Part 1: An Introduction to Seed Saving

Janisse Ray, seed activist and author of The Seed Underground, writes: Runner Beans

“When seed varieties vanish from the marketplace, they evaporate not only from collective memory but also from the evolutionary story of the earth. Seeds are more like Bengal tigers than vinyl records, which can simply be remanufactured. Once gone, seeds cannot be resurrected.”

In my own experience I felt this most strongly with a small collection of ‘Big Mama’ Pole Beans I picked up at a seed swap in Alabama a few of years ago. The handwritten note that came with the beans said:

Big Mama – at least 100 yr. heirloom green bean from Sand Mtn. area. Prolific, long purple pods.”

Receiving these beautiful little purple beans wasn’t what got me hooked on seeds; it was my inability to find information about them anywhere online. I realized that I owned something that I couldn’t buy, and I panicked!

What if I’m the only one left growing these seeds? How terrible would it be if the line that links my imagined ‘Big Mama’ and her special purple beans, stretching back over 100 years, ends with me?

I took these worries and turned them into seeds, and I’m pleased to report the beans are doing well. Extinction is not on the horizon! But, it’s amazing how differently I treat the ‘Big Mamas’ compared to the common varieties I know I can replace so easily. I sometimes wonder why these beans are so special. Are they better than the Royal Burgundy or Royalty Purple Pod varieties to warrant this extra care? My honest answer is, No! although I’ll happily admit the pods do boast an iridescent purple-green sheen.

Seed Saving’s Role in Food Security

The issue is way bigger than which bean is better. The real concern is a largely unconscious ignorance of seeds and the seed system, this lazy assumption that there will always be more seeds. We hear about food security all the time, but addressing food security without discussing seed security is like the foolish man building his house upon the sand. It’s a pretty house, but it’s going to fall down in a storm.

Janisse Ray: “Goodbye, cool seeds. Goodbye, history of civilization. Goodbye food.”

In the last hundred years we have experienced a massive loss of varietal diversity, something that can easily be seen in supermarket grocery stores. In 1903 there were 288 varieties of beet available, by 1983 there were 17 [RAFI USA] and the average supermarket consumer is likely to be aware of only one or two. There are many reasons for this, but the take away for this article is that diversity is good and we are losing it.

Diversity is good for diet, it’s good for environmental change, it’s good for disease and pest resistance, it’s good for a continued evolution of healthy plant genetics. But, it’s bad for Big Ag, for mono cropping and for corporate ownership of our seeds. So, to repeat Janisse Ray, “Goodbye, cool seeds.”

The question I find myself asking, is where have all those varieties gone? Where are they hiding? The answer is complicated. There is sadness because some varieties have been lost forever. But seeds are tenacious and adaptable and so are the people who save them; seeds want to survive.

Many have survived in people’s gardens and on small farms, within seed saving communities and through the care of passionate seed companies committed to the continuance of the genetic heritage of loved varieties. At Sow True Seed old farmers and gardeners often ask us to steward their family heirlooms, with the only wish that we keep them alive and true. We never say no and many of those “lost” varieties are finding new popularity.

Janisse Ray: “A seed makes itself. A seed doesn’t need a geneticist or a hybridist or publicist or matchmaker. But it needs help. Sometimes it needs a moth or a wasp or a gust of wind. Sometimes it needs a farm and it needs a farmer. It needs a garden and a gardener. It needs you.”

The Story of SeedSeed Jars

All food deserves the respect of a story, and like all good stories there are twists and turns. Our favorite characters struggle and grow, the bad guys cause ruin and heroes save the day at the last minute. Lee Barnes is one of our local heroes in the Carolinas, championing seed saving for decades and leading a Plant & Seed Exchange. But, there aren't enough seed heroes and more often than not the story of food completely misses out the beginning and the end, the link in the cycle: the story of seed!

So, here’s another part of the Big Mama Pole Bean story, which was listed in the 1992 Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook: ’70-75, purple-green [pods], delicious raw or cooked even when larger, my staple bean each year, black seed, 70-80 year-old heirloom from 83-year-old “Big Mama” via her mother, So. Alabama, between Brewton and Andalusia, got seed thru Nat’l. Gardening Mag.

I'll leave you with a final thought: Seed, through the people who grow and save and replant it, is constantly evolving. The decisions you make as a seed saver are plot and character decisions; you become the story teller. And if you're a great story teller then maybe, like Big Mama, you'll become a part of the story.

The Story of Seed is a 12-part series that explores all the aspects of seed saving that you need to know to start saving and maintaining your own seed stock; to start the story of the varieties you hold dear.

Sow True Seed sells only open-pollinated varieties to supports seed saving and seed sovereignty.

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