Organic farmer Adam Schick holds a single Rembrandt pea aloft in the light of his drying shed to contemplate the magic and generosity of nature.
“There we go. From that we’ll get 50 peas next year. Just from one little tiny seed," Schick said. “There’s no reason why there should be any insecurity when it comes to food.”
Simply put, access to seeds means access to food, says the market gardener for Linnaea Farm — a 314-acre organic co-operative land trust dedicated to sustainable agriculture, the environment and education on Cortes Island, B.C.
But the privatization and consolidation of seed production over time has driven down seed diversity — which in turn threatens food sovereignty and resilience to climate change, Schick said.
So, Linnaea Farm is setting up a seed library to keep more seeds in the public domain and to ensure they change along with the local climate.
Linnaea will gather, hold and catalog its own and other island growers’ seeds to safeguard genetic diversity like a typical seed bank, Schick said.
But more importantly, the farm will run a lending library for area growers to check out seeds, so they can continually grow, adapt and even flourish under changing local climate conditions.
“It’s kind of cool that we put these seeds in the vaults just in case there is Armageddon,” Schick said. “But as we've discovered with this pandemic, you have to live through Armageddon.”
But seeds locked up in a vault don’t evolve, he stressed.
“So, seed libraries combine preserving seeds and meeting the momentous changes that the climate is going through right now,” organic farmer Adam Schick on ways to keep seeds in the public domain and improve resiliency to global warming.
“So, seed libraries combine preserving seeds and meeting the momentous changes that the climate is going through right now,” Schick said. “Seeds that are grown out every single year by gardeners are adapting. And that's part of the process.”
The seed library also jibes nicely with Linnaea Farm’s mandate of public education around sustainable farming practices, Schick said.
Island or regional growers who want to borrow organic seeds commit to a short workshop on how to produce, pollinate, select and keep records of plants grown, and then return fresh, good quality seeds back to the library, he said.
The project will ensure continued community access to a diverse selection of locally adapted seeds, Schick said.
As well as preserving heritage seeds on the island, the library will end up with new varieties due to mutations, or as growers select plants and seeds based around personal preferences such as taste, or resistance to disease or pests, he added.
Local seeds cultivate national resilience
But small is mighty, Catzel said.
There’s big value in having lots of little communities saving and growing seeds, especially when paired with lots of regional or national information-sharing and cooperation, he said.
“Lots of little hubs that work together is better than one big hub somewhere,” Catzel said.
Kale seed grown on rainy Cortes Island will adapt over time to different conditions than the same kale grown in Kamloops’ dry climate, he said.
“If you get both of those seeds back 10 years from now, if you plant them side by side they're going to be quite different,” Catzel said.
So as the climate shifts, farmers facing new weather patterns, pests or disease can look to their cooperative peer network for seeds that might better suit their new environment.
“If my area starts losing water and I need seeds that are more drought resistant, maybe I can look to some seed produced in the Okanagan in growing out new plants,” Catzel said.
“The great thing about small seed banks and libraries is the types of seeds that are being saved are not your typical seeds developed by large companies for that monoculture market,” Catzel said.
This sharing and saving of seeds, once the fundamental right of farmers, has eroded over time with the monopolization and privatization of seeds by large biotechnology companies, he said.
Large companies often focus their seed research on few strains to increase efficiency, yield and profit, he added.
Conventional farmers buying seed from large companies often have to agree not to save, replant or sell the seed to others.
This concentrates the number and types of seeds into fewer hands, promotes monoculture, and decreases resilience to climate change and disease, Catzel said.
It also means if large companies, or even organic companies, decide to phase out a successful seed due to low profit margins, farmers who want it can no longer gain access to it, he added.
The majority of vegetable seed bought and grown by Canadian farmers is not even bred for Canadian landscapes and climates, Catzel said.
To combat this situation, Linnaea Farm and a host of other sustainable operators are cooperating though the Canadian Organic Vegetable Crop Improvement (CANOVI) Variety Trials Network to grow adapted and publicly available seeds, he said.
The project’s goal is to identify varieties which perform best in each region, as well as those that are better for bulk production to improve the availability of high quality vegetable seed for B.C. agriculture, Catzel said.
Seeds as wealth
Growing organic seeds also allows farms such as Linnaea to diversify their income, Schick said. Something important in a sector with such unpredictable and low margins as farming, he added.
But farming should never be solely based on maximizing income over notions of sustainability and community good, he added.
Monopolization has distorted the true value of seeds, which shouldn't solely be measured by profit, Schick said.
“When we start thinking about these things as commodities, if you just care only about your bottom line, that leaves us all so much poorer.”
A single seed is true wealth, intrinsically plentiful, and more so if shared, Schick stressed.
“If you let one parsnip go to seed, it makes hundreds. Nature is completely abundant and amazing,” he said. “So how did we blow it?”
Seed lending libraries are a practical remedy to the commodification of the means to grow life, Schick added.
“But I can share that seed,” he said. “And through nurturing and caring, making it better for you and me.”
Rochelle Baker/Local Journalism Initiative/Canada's National Observer