Upper Valley Seed Savers work to keep the food system strong

  • In the early evening, members of Upper Valley Seed Savers make their way to another one of Sylvia Smith's gardens at her home in Strafford, Vt., on Thursday, May 12, 2022. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Stuart Blood, of Thetford, Vt., right, describes the peppers he has brought for the taking to Harpreet Singh, of Baltimore, during an Upper Valley Seed Savers gathering at Singh's mother's home in Strafford, Vt., on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Blood had grown apple and Merrimack Wonder peppers. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Sylvia Smith, of Strafford, Vt., center, with her son Harpreet Singh, of Baltimore, describes the features of one of her gardens at a gathering of the Upper Valley Seed Savers on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Members  Ruth Fleishman, of Hartford, Vt., left, and Sylvia Davatz, of Hartland, Vt., listen in. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • Sylvia Smith distributes carlin peas to people at her home in Strafford, Vt., on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Members of the Upper Valley Seed Savers met at Smith's home to tour her gardens, eat and talk about their projects. Smith cooked some of the peas for the group. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/4/2022 9:46:58 PM
Modified: 6/4/2022 9:44:48 PM

Sylvia Smith’s house, small and blue, overlooks varying shades of green unfolding toward a valley. Daffodils and asparagus spears grow at random in her grass. She lives on just a few acres, but her land is abundant. She tends five gardens, each plotted into sections and rows, with vegetables carefully placed to take advantage of the micro-variations of her sandy soil.

She grows everything from potatoes, carrots and other New England staples, to medlar, a fruit popular in the Middle Ages that tastes like an apple infused with caramel. But she also saves seeds, sustaining a necessary skill of self-sufficiency and reintroducing flavors that have disappeared from supermarket palates.

She saved her first seeds when she was growing up in Connecticut. Her parents let her have run of a 10-by-12-foot garden for her experiments, and she planted dry beans bought at the grocery store. Now, her hair is gray, she walks with a cane and her experiments have reached new heights.

On a warm Thursday evening in May, she hosted the Upper Valley Seed Savers’ first in-person potluck dinner since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. She has been a member of the Upper Valley Seed Savers, a small group of independent-minded gardeners, for about eight years.

Seed saving is more than a hobby. It’s a critical part of any individual’s resilience in a food system dominated by global monopolies. And seed savers contribute to the resilience of the wider food system; they steward the diversity that dwindles as monoculture crops fill grocery stores. Just three crops — rice, wheat and corn — account for nearly 60% of the world population’s calories, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. And since the 1900s, about 75% of plant genetic diversity has been lost as farmers abandon local varieties for genetically uniform, high-yield crops.

Experiments in the garden

Sylvia Davatz, a seed saver for decades, and Ruth Fleishman, a former middle-school teacher who learned the skill from Davatz, both attended the potluck. They started the group around 13 years ago.

Seed saving opens a whole other dimension to gardening, Fleishman said. Seed savers see their plants develop long past when a gardener would typically harvest their vegetables. Whole life cycles unfold in their gardens.

It also complicates growing, she said. Seed savers have to nurture population sizes large enough to maintain genetic diversity. Distance between some varieties is necessary to guard against cross-pollination because a hybrid does not reproduce its parents’ traits. “It’s fascinating,” she said.

Smith explained her experiments complete with her failures and her successes.

In one of her gardens, rye grew in a thick bed that resembles a more appetizing version of crabgrass. Smith had planted the Finnish strain of rye from seeds that Fleishman had sourced from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s seed bank. The rye had flourished.

But the carrots she had planted for seed had suffered. Only a few survived. Fleishman’s carrots had fared no better. Carrots, a biennial, are a challenge. They will produce seeds only in their second season. But they have to come out of dormancy early; otherwise, they will flower at the same time as Queen Anne’s lace, a wild carrot, cross-pollinate with it and fail to produce viable seeds.

“We’ll get it at last,” Smith said. Carrots — along with onions, parsnips and cabbage — are among the seed savers’ collaborations. They often work together to maintain distance between varieties that would otherwise cross-pollinate.

Toward a resilient food system

A resilient food system requires diversity, said Dan Tobin, a rural sociologist at the University of Vermont. As of 2018, only four companies — Bayer (which bought Monsanto in 2018), Cortes, Chem-China and Corteva — control over 60% of the global seed market, according to Philip Howard, a professor at Michigan State University. And they sell the seeds that yield the highest profits; often, commodity grain crops engineered or bred to grow in a monoculture system, he explained.

Farmers have become highly dependent on seed companies. Farmers cannot save hybrid seeds to grow another season. They have to buy them again because hybrids do not reproduce consistent offspring. And since the 1980s, intellectual property laws have extended to living organisms. And so farmers cannot save seeds from some self-pollinating varieties whose seeds would be viable because of intellectual property rights.

Monopolization has gone hand in hand with declining diversity in agricultural fields worldwide. But when the human diet disproportionately relies on a handful of crops, it is vulnerable to any disease or pest that may find a foothold in the narrow foundation of our food system.

Seed banks and seed vaults are our insurance against catastrophes both human and environmental, Tobin said. The Syrian Civil War destroyed the Middle Eastern country’s land, leaving its farmers without the means to feed their country. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened to resow Syria’s fields. In an Arctic mountainside, Norway stores thousands upon thousands of seeds that account for nearly every known crop in the world.

But seed banks have a weakness, Tobin said.

“When seeds are locked away in a freezer for 30 years, there is no benefit of adapting to environmental change.” Left to reproduce, plants evolve to the local climate. Imported every year, they never have the chance.

The Upper Valley Seed Savers are doing “ongoing evolutionary work with their seed saving,” Tobin said. “They’re absolutely unbelievable about adapting new crops into the region, adapting and adopting rye and different kinds of grains.”

Growing and saving seeds over generations gives plants an opportunity to adapt to the local climate. When Davatz first planted jaune du Pointou, a mild, yellow-green leek, in her garden, it struggled in Vermont’s cold winters. Over generations, it became more winter-hardy. It seems to have adapted to the climate, although warming winters may have contributed to this evolution, Davatz said.

“It’s a very, very informal form of breeding,” she said. “It allows plants to express their personalities and preferences. You select among those in the population.”

Davatz first saw her favorite varieties disappear from seed catalogs in the 1980s. Meanwhile, prices kept climbing higher. That’s when she decided to start saving seeds. With time, she realized that the stakes were far higher than losing favorite flavors from her kitchen garden.

“If we would like to continue to be able to eat, we had better learn about saving seeds,” she said. She responded to the urgency she felt: She preserved over 250 varieties of seeds at her peak and grows about 80% of her food.

For an individual or a family, seed saving can spell resilience. But saving seeds is a demanding endeavor for a commercial farmer, Tobin said. To keep their seeds pure, seed savers need distance to prevent cross-pollination, and that distance costs land. While an increasing number of farmers in New England are saving seeds, warmer and drier climates in the Pacific Northwest remain the stronghold of seed producers who stock smaller seed companies.

The Upper Valley Seed Savers are also scaling up, although the core group remains less than 10, Fleishman said. During the pandemic, they launched a free seed library, giving people access to local seeds in a time when seeds were hard to come by. This year, about 40 families requested seeds through the catalog, Fleishman said.

Seed saving is itself a skill at risk of dying out if knowledge is not passed from one generation to the next. Fleishman and Davatz hope to organize workshops in the near future to teach the practice to more people.

Fleishman sees the fragility in the systems around her. In Vermont, organic, local food is a point of pride. “But where are most seeds coming from? Most, really far away,” Fleishman said. She describes herself as a self-reliant person, and seed saving is a way of practicing her ethos.

“The world is such a weird place right now,” she said. “You never know what could happen. It’s very good to be able to take care of yourself.”

At Smith’s house, the seed savers shared a meal after the garden tour. They sat in a half-moon cradled in the L of Smith’s house. She had prepared carlin peas she had grown. They have a warm, nutty flavor somewhere between a lentil and a chickpea. They taste at once new and familiar. The seed savers ate together, exchanging seedlings and anecdotes as the evening light lingered.

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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