“Everybody gets lost the first time they come here,” laughs Brijette Peña, founder and owner of the San Diego Seed Company. A quick turn off the busy Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway, amidst apartment complexes and urban, you think you are in the wrong place for a thriving small farm. But head up a steep driveway and there sits Romstedt’s self-created farm oasis, producing over 160 varietals of seeds with over 98 percent sold locally in California. The ecologically diverse property overlooks metro San Diego.
“We’re the only certified organic urban seed farm in the United States, but I don’t want it to stay that way. We need as many people as possible doing this to achieve true resilience,” shares Peña as she walks through her quarter-acre operation. “There are a lot of conversations about local food, but not a lot about local seed. It’s the missing piece of the full circle of any sustainable community because we trial and breed varietals that specifically do well in our climate.”
Local seed production also allows adaptation to regional growing seasons. In San Diego’s case, that would be a very short winter and low water environment. Peña also develops specialized seeds to perennialize certain crops like tomatoes and chard, a growing feat that would be impossible in most other parts of the country. “Our trialing in particular helps new market growers to succeed from the start as we’ve gone through the dirty work for you to find out what varietals grow best here.”
Interestingly, urban centers like San Diego create ideal spots for seed production operations because seed can be produced on small, condensed acreage and you don’t need to worry about cross-pollination contaminating your seed. As we see in so many regional food initiatives across the country like Farmshed in Wisconsin, operations located in metro settings also provide an easy means to invite folks for various classes and educational opportunities to experience the full “seed to plate” sustainability circle.
“One tomato can give you thirty seeds, which is pretty incredible,” adds Peña. The heart of her seed saving process roots in old school traditional techniques, including a Clipper machine dating back to the late 1800s that she salvaged from a family friend’s barn in her home state of Kansas. The Clipper efficiently “winnows,” a process which separates the chaff from the seed. “Seeds vary in size, from super tiny herb seed to larger bean seed so we have various screens that let the good seed fall through and keep out sticks and rocks and things you don’t want.”
Fresh seed is more prolific, a reason why Peña aims to only produce what is needed in any given year and sell through inventory annually. “Seed is the most traveled commodity in the world and that really bothers me,” she admits. Seed often comes from somewhere like Peru, then shipped to India to get processed and to New Jersey to get packed and then dispersed all over the world. That model not only produces poor quality seed, it is unsustainable and growers have no input in the process.”
A hotbed for new food upstarts and innovative perspectives on sustainability, San Diego is home to a growing number of women like Peña collaboratively shaking up the food system. From baking entrepreneur Joanne Sherif to farmers market leader Catt White and food activist Trish Watlington, these women openly share their experiences to help others succeed.
“I realize it goes against traditional business models to say I want to help others do exactly what I’m doing, but local seed saving defies competition,” sums up Peña “With super localized businesses like seed saving, we each have our own individual markets and can really champion each other to succeed.”
Lisa Kivirist, with her husband, John D. Ivanko, a photographer and drone pilot, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chefcookbook along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by renewable energy. Kivirist also authored Soil Sisters. As a writer, Kivirist contributes to MOTHER EARTH NEWS, most recently, Living with Renewable Energy Systems: Wind and Solar and 9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son, Liam, and millions of ladybugs. Read all of Lisa’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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