The ones our grandparents and great grandparents grew and the ones their grandparents and great grandparents grew. Seeds that were brought to this country from all over the world, and some that got their start right here in America.
These old seed names are both evocative and unfamiliar, lyrical and memorable: Bulgarian Triumph Tomato. Arkansas Traveler tomato. Czech’s Excellent tomato. Listada de Gandia eggplant. Chocolate Sweet pepper. Granny’s Scarlet Runner bean. Georgia Rattlesnake watermelon. Black Becky bean.
According to a study conducted by two University of Georgia researchers, seed catalogs in 1903 offered 7,262 varieties of vegetable seeds; by 2004, that number had dropped to 430. What happened? Are they still out there? Are they lost forever?
Poet, writer and environmental activist Janisse Ray—author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, Wild Card Quilt and last year’s Drifting into Darien—has the answers in her latest book, The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food (Chelsea Green Publishing, $17.95, 240 pages).
A passionate gardener with a working farm in south Georgia, Ray addresses a critical problem in today’s society: the privatization of public property, of the commons. In this case, seeds—which, she reminds us, “can no more be owned than fire, or the ocean.”
A handful of multinational corporations that want to own and control them don’t agree. Chemical companies like Monsanto, Dow, and Syngenta, Ray warns, are on the brink of a hostile takeover of the global seed market, which in turn, determines what kinds of food we eat, how they’re grown, and whether they begin from a healthy seed or one genetically modified (GMO) and stacked with insecticides, herbicides and bacterium.
Offering her own experience as a template for grassroots resistance, Ray traces the roots of her love affair with farming, shares the passion for seeds she inherited from her grandmother, includes the story of her return to her farming roots in Georgia in the ’80s, and delivers a wealth of information along the way about the history of cultivation, hybridization and industrialization.
She is harshly critical of today’s biotech companies, whose predatory practices and disregard for farmers and the soil, abroad and in the U.S., threaten to take the “culture” out of agriculture. The sections in “What Is Broken,” itemizing the breakdown of the American food system through hybridization and monocropping, are devastating.
“All the lost varieties did more than liven up the table and keep farmers independent. Varietal decline threatens agrodiversity … the less biodiverse any system is, the greater the potential for collapse. In shriveling the gene pool both through loss of varieties and through the industrial takeover of an evolutionary process, we strip our crops of the ability to adapt to change and we put the entire food supply at risk.”
Hope returns in the form of interviews with farmers and gardeners from Maine to Alabama who are fighting back by saving, labeling, storing and reselling heirloom and open-pollinated seeds.
- Sylvia Davatz, “the Imelda Marcos of seeds!” quietly stewards a thousand different seeds and experiments in her Vermont garden with dehybridizing favorite varieties like the Sungold tomato, so that its seeds can be saved once again.
- Jeff Bickhart in Vermont, on his homestead at Wildbranch River, is giving away free seed: 18 varieties of potatoes and 11 different types of beans, giving Ray another chance to unreel the beautiful rich names that in her hands sound like poetry: “Calypso—a half-black and half-white bean, with tiny black dots in the white area—reminded me of the yin-yang symbol…King of the Early was kidney-maroon mottled with tan … Paint, Tiger Eye; and Mitla Black,” a prehistoric, drought-resistant bean from Oaxaca.
- Will Bonsall, in Maine, maintains 1300 varieties, including an ancient “flint” corn given to him in a shoebox by an old man who had one ear left that he had saved for 15 years.
- Dr. Charles Case, a professor of sociology at Augusta State College, offers 312 varieties of open-pollinated heirloom tomato seeds—and since 1985, he’s grown more than a thousand, collected from other seed savers, and winnowed down to the best. (Hint: Eva Purple Ball.)
- In south Georgia, Doug Tarver grows an old variety called the Preacher bean, given to his grandmother by a country preacher in 1912 on condition that she save and share the seeds whenever possible.
Saving seeds isn’t just good science: it’s a subtler war against the loss of our stories, our history, our connections with each other: “Where we live and what we live with is who we are.” Add to that, what we eat. And share.
For readers eager to get started, several how-to chapters offer basic seed-saving tips, lessons on hand-pollinating and controlling the purity of certain seeds. The Seed Underground not a seed-saving manual, though Ray recommends several reliable guides in the resource section at the end of the book.
But a poet knows full well the power of words, and if a rally could be contained in the pages of in a book, The Seed Underground is one. The language is by turns incantatory, pleading, rabble-rousing, a challenge to rise to the occasion, to “man up or lie there and bleed.”
From the stirring call to reclaim our seeds—“developed by our ancestors, grown by them and by us, and collected for use by our citizenry”—to their irresistible names—Little White Lady pea, Speckled Cut Short Cornfield bean, Purple Blossom Brown-Striped Half-runner bean, Blue Java pea—Ray boldly seduces us into joining this critical and much-needed revolution.
Here is a great place to order (or just look at!) heritage seeds.
A few of the books Ray recommends:
Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners, Suzanne Ashcroft, Seeds Savers Exchange, 2002.
Gardening with Heirloom Seeds: Tried-and-True Flowers, Fruits and Vegetables for a New Generation, Lynn Coulter, University of North Carolina Press, 2006
(An edited version of this review ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday, September 16, 2012.)