Going Back To Seed
By Paul Smart
Seeds are big. As locavore agriculture grows in both the rural and more urban stretches of the Hudson Valley, people want them. They grow seeds, trade them, and even build up new businesses around seeds. Seeds are a key political subject. They’re again key to local economies.
Hunger for seeds led to the great Age of Exploration as Europeans started craving pepper and exotic spices, sugar cane and potatoes. As new crops were brought home, many were planted in botanical gardens and arboretums. As exploration led to colonization, seeds moved across oceans, establishing societal patterns, a sense of definable heritage.
In North America, settlers realized that the seeds they’d brought from home were often unsuited for different growing conditions and a vibrant trade of seed and agricultural commodities was quickly established with Native Americans. By the time the United States was founded, our new nation’s Secretary of the Treasury formally asked all US ambassadors and military officers to gather seeds and seed data from wherever they ended up around the world. In 1839, the US Patent Office established an agricultural division, which began collecting seeds. When Abraham Lincoln established the US Department of Agriculture in 1862, it was decreed that at least one-third of the new department’s budget be dedicated to the distribution of seeds to farmers across the country. In exchange, farmers provided their state’s land grant universities, also started by Lincoln in 1862, with the seed of their most successful plants.
All this lasted as the key to American agriculture up until the free seed distribution program was dissolved in 1924 when private companies started organizing against the free distribution. It even led to the birth of that private seed industry as people started creating catalogues, and paper packets for the distribution of government-supplied seeds, to better reach home gardeners, as well as new farmers across the growing country (those first seed packets, by the way, getting produced by Shakers in a community outside of Albany).
The private seed growing companies came about as a means of developing hybridized crops such as corn, sorghum, and sunflower, which required annual seed purchases. Some enterprising folks realized one could then sell fertilizer and weed suppressants to accompany such seed sales.
Founded in 1883 and one of the United States’s oldest trade associations, the American Seed Trade Association “advocates science and policy issues related to the development, marketing and movement of seed, associated products and services throughout the world,” but has also become a battleground for the future of our seeds since the ASTA started heavily lobbying changes in the nation’s seed policies—such as the 1980 Supreme Court decision that granted the first patent on living organisms, which allowed the corporate leap into seeds.
“Over the past 40 years, the US has led a radical shift toward commercialization, consolidation, and control of seed. Prior to the advent of industrial agriculture, there were thousands of seed companies and public breeding institutions. At present, the top 10 seed and chemical companies, with the majority stake owned by US corporations, control 73 percent of the global market,” noted the 2012 study “History of Seed in the US. The Untold American Revolution,” from the nonprofit Center for Food Safety’s Save Our Seeds program. “Over the course of 110 years, the US lost 93 percent of its agricultural genetic diversity to the point where 75 percent of today’s food calories worldwide are derived from just nine plants…. In sum, a single century’s short-sighted industry consolidation and business practices have nearly eliminated thousands of years of selective and attentive seed saving for regional resilience.”
How, then, is the new economy, and local efforts here in the Hudson Valley, working to push back against these larger corporate trends?
Enter the idea of seed libraries and seed banks, local companies such as Ken Greene and Doug Muller’s Hudson Valley Seed Company, and the growing numbers of home gardeners who spend their winter months exchanging ideas and, as often as not, actual seeds. All focus on heirloom and open-pollinated garden seeds, on what works here. The push is to grow one’s own seeds, either as a direct crop, or from seeds brought back from heirloom sites around the nation, or world.
My wife has things Thomas Jefferson started cultivating at Monticello, as well as Leonardo Da Vinci’s final estate in the Loire Valley. One of her friends’ parents cultivated in the Connecticut Valley of New Hampshire, another in British Columbia. Care has built up the quality of what they trade, and their seed’s ability to grow well in slightly differing soils.
The older idea of seed libraries goes back to older ideas tied to monasteries and the world’s earliest universities, as well as royal collections. More recently, those such as Greene’s Hudson Valley Seed Company had their inspiration in experiments at Hampshire College in the early 1970s, California’s Bay Area Seed Interchange Library, or efforts started as botanical gardens opened up their collections to outside use.
All are different from the idea of the seed bank, which ensure seed storage beyond unforeseen disasters, looking to preserve botanical life like living museums, first through arboretums and large meticulously maintained gardens, and more recently in settings built to very specific guidelines, often in remote polar or subterranean locations with ongoing efforts to ensure what’s saved can propagate and not die before their usefulness can be activated.
Talk about establishing true value. As well as a nod to types of currency beyond the monetary.
How to tie into the local economics of seeds, oneself? First, pay attention to our nation’s agricultural policies, which by federal law have to be evaluated and reauthorized every five to seven years. Fortunately, after years of big agribusiness domination, small entities such as the Hudson Valley’s own Young Farmers Coalition are starting to have an impact here. Second, keep reiterating the trading aspects of seeds, and all things grown, on their own merits. As well as such things important to our quality of life. To life, itself.
“It may be time to go back to the future so there can be a future for farming in the US,” was how Jefferson wrote to our first president, George Washington, 230 years ago. “Agriculture is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals, and happiness.”