Community Seed Saving: How to Organize for a Resilient Future

Communities are talking a lot about local food security these days because of the increasingly uncertain times in which we live. Many people have even started using the term “food sovereignty” instead of “food security” because it conveys the idea of becoming self-reliant in food rather than simply having stockpiles of dubious food shipped from far away.

A fast growing movement that’s spreading across the globe involves people organizing together in “transition towns” to address the challenges of climate change, peak oil and economic instability. You can get more background at transitionnetwork.org or you could google transition Salt Spring, Victoria, Guelph or Peterborough, for examples. The aim of these transition towns is to create the ability to manage one’s own affairs in the midst of the huge transitions we are facing. Not surprisingly, every transition community lists locally grown food as a first priority.

A key point that I would like to make however, one which is perhaps not as obvious as the importance of food, is this: You need good seed to grow good food and to keep growing good food. Seed becomes food becomes seed becomes food. Just as it doesn’t make sense to rely on food being brought in from thousands of miles away, neither is it wise to depend on seeds from somewhere else. You need reliable seeds that are adapting to where you are and which can provide a sustainable diet.

Firstly, where are the seed savers going to come from to do it on a significant community scale?

My idea on this is to get interested people to grow out a single crop for seed. It shouldn’t be very hard to get someone to adopt just one variety because growing seeds is perhaps the simplest, easiest, most tangible way someone can contribute to future prosperity. If you are saving the seed of a good beet or corn, for example, that means your town or city will have that food choice in a possible future when no good beets or corn are available commercially.

A few dozen people each saving seed from one or two crop varieties adds up to a lot of future food possibilities!

Where to find people to help get the project going?

In every community there are already people successfully saving seeds who can instruct those just starting out.

Many garden clubs have veggie groups that save seeds.

Especially there are Seedy Saturdays! Seedy Saturdays are a series of independent local events, which have sprung up across Canada. They are public events, for the betterment of the local gardening community, usually organized and operated by volunteers. They bring together home gardeners, seed savers, native plant collectors and community gardeners as well as local seed companies that sell open-pollinated varieties of vegetables, fruits, flowers, grains and herbs. If you go to Seeds of Diversity’s website at seeds.ca/ev/events.php you’ll find the schedule for all the Seedy Saturdays in Canada.

Seedy Saturdays are living gene banks of local seeds and knowledge about them and represent a giant step already taken towards local seed and food sovereignty.

As well, some communities have already taken the first steps in starting their own official seed banks. Here on Salt Spring Island, our Seed and Plant Sanctuary has been successfully collecting and evaluating seeds since 2002. However there is no place yet that has actually planned through the variety and quantity of seeds required for their community to realistically feed itself.

Getting organized

 Getting organized would mean bringing a small group of people together for starters, having some preliminary meetings and then getting the word out through local media, meetings, pot lucks, Seedy Sundays (!), etc. That shouldn’t be too difficult for a group of enthusiastic people. Then comes the nitty gritty of organizing the growing, recording and storage of the seeds.

Having done similar work with Salt Spring Seeds for the past two decades, I have some ideas that seem simple and straightforward.

Instead of allowing anyone to grow anything as their contribution, there should be grouping of seeds into specific crops. Likely groupings would include greens, beans, grains, roots, squash, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, herbs, winter crops and perennials. Experienced growers could lead one or more of these groups and new seed savers would choose to join the bean group, the green group, etc. 

Breaking the crops up into groups facilitates a clear focus. A bean saver only has to learn about beans. The bean group can decide amongst themselves where to source the beans, how to diversify their selection, what kinds of records are most valuable, how much seed to grow etc.

The leader of each group makes sure everyone understands seed saving procedures, is available through the season for advice and is responsible for collecting everyone’s data.

Dividing the seeds into main groupings also helps prevent the predominance of certain crops and of varieties within crops. For example, there are hundreds of tomato varieties at some of the Seedy Saturdays that I attend but very few grains. As well, seed savers in the tomato group can make sure there are good paste tomatoes as well as fresh-eating ones. Bean savers can save cool weather beans and warm weather ones, fresh beans and dry beans.

An overall aim would be to foster diversity in all crops but each group would prioritize choices in terms of what could best feed the community.

Another important goal would be to grow enough seed in a few years to be more than simply maintaining crops but being able to feed the community by planting them out.

Choosing Seeds

The seeds to save are of course the simple saveable open-pollinated ones. Hybrid seeds don’t come true; patented ones are “owned” and GMO seeds threaten to wipe out all public domain seeds. You won’t find genetically modified (GMO) seeds in any common Canadian garden catalogues. Big corporations sell those to big farmers.

There are many great little seed companies across Canada that grow their own seeds and offer a diverse and wonderful collection of open-pollinated varieties. Seeds of Diversity Canada has an inventory of these companies on their website as well as an inventory of all the cultivars offered.

These days, open-pollinated/”heritage” seeds are extremely threatened because almost all seed breeding is done by corporations that are aiming for total control of seeds and our food supply. Recent bills in both the US and Canada under the guise of “food safety modernization” will undoubtedly strengthen the forces that have led to the consolidation of our food supply in the hands of a few corporations. They grant unprecedented power to regulate what’s grown and harvested, what seeds you can save and what paperwork you must file. They will make it more difficult for small producers to give consumers the choice to buy fresh local food.

Individuals saving seeds for community seed banks are hard to regulate and control because there’s no money involved. It’s high time to work together to get as many people as possible growing as many seeds as possible with the aim of keeping both the seeds and ourselves alive!

Keeping Records and Storing Seeds

The records collected by each group leader can be given to an adept computer person to amalgamate for easy access. The community seed bank can have a website, a blog, etc. depending on the group’s preferences but the most important thing would be to maintain an ongoing database with hard copy back up of all the seed keepers, all the seeds, all the experiential descriptions plus the quantity of seeds in stock.

Seeds should be stored in more than one place for safety reasons. The seed grower should keep some and some should be kept in optimum storage locations as decided by the community seed bank.

The beauty and power of a community seed bank is how little money and labour is needed. It’s mostly a matter turning people on to the rewarding practice of seed saving, having a few meetings a year, maintaining good records and storing the seeds well.

Then the seeds will be there to grow the food for a resilient community!