Where We Get Our Seed
by CSE volunteer Electra de Peyster, January 2021
In a normal year, when January rolls around, a group of Community Seed Exchange volunteers gather at the round table in the seed library to make the important decisions about what varieties of vegetables, flowers and herbs we will grow in the seed garden the coming year. This year, because of Covid, we gather on Zoom instead. We look through seed catalogs that have arrived on our doorsteps in the prior winter weeks. And we consult lists of what’s in our inventory, what we have grown in the past, how old our current stashes are, and what did well or not so well.
The shelves are stocked with glass jars full of seeds waiting for their chance to be selected to grow again in our vibrant living soil.
It’s a lively conversation. Our biggest problem is that we want to grow everything. So many catalogs, so many varieties to choose from. That said, we know we only have a certain amount of growing space, so we make our decisions carefully.
We move through our alphabetical list of what seeds we always want to have on hand. Things like beans, broccoli, carrots, chard, corn, kale, lettuce, peppers, onions and squash. These are crops which sustain us in calories, as well as those that generally do well in west Sonoma County. Our goal is to make initial variety selections, buy those from seed companies and use the resulting seed we harvest to replant every two to four years. This is the best way to have the seeds continue to adapt to our local climate. This strategy will be even more important as we experience more climate change in the future and seeds will have to cope with more extreme conditions. It has taken time to accomplish this, but right now we are self-sustaining in about 60% of our seed.
To keep things interesting, we turn to the seed catalogs to try a couple of new varieties each year. We also repurchase seeds if we haven’t grown out a variety to replenish our stock or we distributed most of the seed to the community and we don’t have enough to plant a new crop. So how do we choose the seed companies we order seed from?
There is a difference between ordering seeds from a large company that sources its seeds from all over the world versus a smaller farm-based seed company that grows much of its own seeds and works with a group of selected smaller growers. . Supporting small independent, regional seed companies is critical for future independence from the multinational companies that control the vast majority of commercial seed. The seed industry is now largely dominated by 4 giant conglomerates: Bayer/Monsanto, Corteva (Dow/Dupont), Chem China/Syngenta, and BASF. They own at least 60% of all global proprietary seed and 95% of vegetable seed. They manage which varieties will be released and they control what crops are bred for — shelf life, uniform maturity. And of course, they control the price. They use more hybrid varieties and patent protections, which means the farmer has to go back and buy new seed each year.
This corporate system removes genetics from the public commons. Given the challenges we anticipate that climate change will thrust upon us, we need as much genetic diversity in our gardens and farms as possible. Many seed catalogs buy their seed from these companies or their distributors. Once in hand, they just repackage the seed into their own company seed packets. We think knowing who grew your seed and where and how it was grown are critical factors to be aware of if we want to support smaller, independent, regional seed companies and build more self-sufficient, resilient communities.
Here are some things we consider when we buy seed:
Who grew the seed? Many smaller seed companies now list their growers.
Where was the seed grown? Was it grown in a climate similar to ours? The closer to your region your seed is grown, the more quickly it will adapt to your local conditions. Luckily for us, the west coast of the United States is home to many seed producers. It is an ideal climate for seed production because it tends to have dry summers, which is critical when seed is maturing.
Is the seed grown organically or sustainably? We want to support companies that actively care for their soil and support natural systems.
Is the seed company transparent about identifying varieties that are hybrids versus open pollinated? Do they let the customer know if varieties carry PVPs (Plant Variety Protection) or are protected by utility patents – reducing your options as a seed saver? Intellectual property tools protect breeders’ investments, but they remove genetic material from the public commons.
Seed companies worth looking at:
Adaptive Seeds – Sweet Home, OR – grows 85% of its own seed – lists 21 growers
Bohemian Seeds – Occidental, CA – sells only at the Sebastopol Farmers Market
Fedco Seeds – Clinton, ME
High Mowing Organic Seeds – Wolcott, VT – grows 30% of its seeds
Living Seed Company - Point Reyes, CA – grows 25-30% of its seeds
Quail Seeds – Eel River, CA – trials varieties before offering them for sale
Open Circle Seeds – Potter Valley, CA – grows 100% of its own seeds
Redwood Seeds – Manton, CA – grows 90% of its own seed
Siskiyou Seeds – Williams, OR – 50% of its seed is from its home farm – lists 24 other growers
Sundial Seed Company – Willits, CA - lists 12 growers
Uprising Seeds – Bellingham, WA – 50% of its seed is from its home farm – lists 25 other growers
Wild Garden Seed – Philomath, OR – 100% of its seed is grown by 3 growers
This coming year we know we will plant Sweet Valentine lettuce, Cascadia peas, Dulce Rojo peppers and Stella Blue squash. Stay tuned for more additions to our 2021 list as we finish our selection process. And remember that the Community Seed Exchange is available for most of your seed needs, and all of our seed is locally grown, organic and free. Look to our website to find ways to get seed this spring. We are dedicated to caring for locally grown seed and keeping this important resource available to the community.