"Seed saving embodies some of the things I value most," Barbara Kingsolver
What if I started growing potatoes from true seed instead of starting with tubers? I wouldn't need so much space to keep them stored and coddled at 38 degrees F in comfortably humid environs. I could experiment with making my own crosses, selecting for plants at the seedling stage, that exhibit the colors, vigor, and potential traits desired in a fresh market potato. I pondered this as I sorted through potato varieties available for on-farm evaluations this season. Ruth and team will continue with evaluation of heirloom potato varieties from Seed Savers Exchange and other specialty potato varieties. As in previous years, the selection of reds, whites, golds, purples, fingerlings and russets are impressive. There are also new varieties in the mix as well as a few old familiars. If interested in evaluating potatoes this season, you can be in touch with Ruth. I also recommend a read through the 2015 Potato Variety Evaluation yield data from West Madison Ag Research Station. 2015 Yield data from participating farms is forthcoming.
Dreaming of Cherries Jubilee and Suncrisp sizing up in our CSA beds come mid-July, I tripped over the box of Landglade in our storage bin, which have started to sprout. So much for mashed potatoes for dinner. As potatoes and seed starting occupy my waking hours, come nightfall, I dream of Senegal and seeds.
I recently returned from Senegal in support of a farmer to farmer project through NCBA – CLUSA (National Cooperative Business Association – Co-op League USA) working with women grower groups in the villages of Kembu, Owayel, and Nguidor on seed saving techniques for their vegetable crops –unearthing stories and origins of seeds along the way. I couldn't help but notice how much we share in common in speaking the language of seed and soil. I also couldn't help but appreciate how much I've gleaned over the years when it comes to plant selection through my participation in the Organic Potato Project. The confidence I've gained in my ability to evaluate and size up plants in the field and how much more I am open to experimenting.
Potatoes, as with seed saving, unearths the inner plant breeder in us all. In Senegal, I was able to feed and seed my love for experiential learning and share sustainable agriculture techniques that I have found success with my on my farm and farmer groups I am a part of. Potatoes weren't part of their crop rotation. Rather in Senegal, potato refers to white flesh sweet potato and the potatoes we're familiar with are called 'pomme de terre' (apple of the Earth). Potatoes aside, there was plenty of produce to consider, size up and save seed from. During field visits we focused our seed saving efforts on tomatoes, lettuce, pepper, carrot, onion, and eggplant, which is grown during the dry season in Senegal.
When we save seeds we are participating in the time honored traditions of maintaining and enhancing our food supplies for future generations. When seeds are placed in the hands of farmers, gardeners, and plant lovers, we reclaim our history, our confidence in evaluating and selecting for varieties that work well for our local farm conditions and management. Our belief in what's possible is restored as we witness the transformation of seed to plant to flower to fruit to starting again.
I sought to keep instruction to a conversational pace, much like the roundtable discussions with Ruth during the MOSES conference, and find common ground to communicate tips for germination testing, planting seed gardens, and practicing seed processing. We walked the garden plots of tomatoes, turnips, onion, and salad greens, marking with a piece of cloth cut from my skirt, plants that showed vigor and promise for saving seed for future generations.We also set up variety trial plantings with hot peppers, tomatoes, carrots, and onions, built seed drying and storage racks and practiced fermenting tomato seeds. I discovered that the reasons for saving seed are (not surprisingly) similar to our own reasons for seed saving, trialing varieties. These include, maintaining and enhancing biological and genetic diversity, saving money, not having to rely on purchasing seed from local suppliers, limited selection, and in some cases quality, desire for improved nutritional content, and taste. Their observations were reinforced by my visits to the local markets at Sokone and Kaolack where I interviewed vegetable and seed vendors (with the help of Yaguemar's translation of English to Wolof), and tried to get at buyer preferences. I wanted to learn where farmers were sourcing their seed from and what buyer preferences were in terms of varieties. Most market vendors are motivated by price, 'cleanliness', and shelf life. Most vendors also did not know the production practices that the farmers were engaged in. There is no market reward for organic, taste, or varietal selection, rather seed saving and farm management practices are led by farmers and driven by concerns over human health, contamination of soil and water from pesticides, and costs of outside inputs.
I also discovered that the infrastructure for vegetable seed systems in Senegal is fragmented. There are a few organizations working to set up seed gardens for vegetables, for example, Kaydara, though most farmers in the Kaolack/Fatik region get their seeds at local markets, from vendors who distribute seeds from Tropicsem, a seed company I think is based in France which has a cleaning, processing facility in Dakar. For peppers, eggplant, and okra seeds there were a handful of varieties available and all were open pollinated. For tomatoes, there were mainly 1 – 2 varieties, all hybrid. I thought to myself, “How did we get to only having available 2 – 4 varieties of tomatoes to grow and enjoy when mother nature's historic palette consisted of thousands?” The same can be said for peppers, potatoes, and eggplant?” In Senegal, the responsibility is on the farmer for saving vegetable seed and developing new varieties.
We are not immune in the U.S. from limited seed availability, though buyer preferences and farmer/researcher led partnerships, such as the Organic Potato Project, the Farmer - Chef Collaborative, and the Open Source Seed Initiative in Madison are making in roads into reclaiming our seed diversity and food traditions. We should all take notice when local seed companies are bought up by larger companies and corporations. When we privatize our seeds we lose that part of life that connects to our heritage, placing them in the hands of the few where profits may take priority. Senegal's seed system for rice, offers insight into just how fragile seed systems can be. Their seed system was privatized in the 1990's and local markets, knowledge/quality control checks were displaced. Since then the country is rebuilding efforts with grains – taking an integrated approach where farmers and scientists as well as private companies and government sponsored researchers are working together.
(See Cultivating knowledge on seed systems and seed strategies: Case of the rice crop, by Amadou Moustapha Bèye1, and Marco C. S. Wopereis, Africa Rice Center 01 P.O Box 4029 Abidjan 01, Côte d‘Ivoire. Africa Rice Center (AfricaRice) 01 B.P. 2031, Cotonou, Benin.)
On our farm, we save seed for similar reasons as our Senegalese farm neighbors. It's important that we select seeds from plants that exhibit characteristics and traits that our customers want, as well as satisfy the needs of our land and type of management system. We look for varieties that not only fare well with our valton silt loams, but also are vigorous, store well, and are unique. Rob has developed a custom Hilltop soft neck garlic that he's developed over the 22 years growing for our CSA. We've also built our stock of paprika peppers, and dry beans. We tried our luck at crossing potatoes, but time just got away from us last season. We hope to continue to work with the Organic Potato Project on sourcing, trialing potatoes grown from true seed.
Being thrust into teaching about seed saving techniques opened my eyes, and expanded my resolve that we need to do more seed saving on our farm. This is especially true for tomatoes, the 'low hanging' fruit for vegetable seed saving efforts. They don't cross, are easy to guage ripeness, the fruits readily ferment and cleaning/storing takes up little space. For biennial crops such as onions and carrots a little refinement in technique will go a long way. Carrots were a challenge. Many of the farmers had never seen a carrot flower or set seed. Saving seed from carrots presents the additional challenge of vernilization in a climate that rarely sees the mercury drop below 10 degrees celcius, not to mention quality seed was hard to come by. Without cold storage we brainstormed ways to bury roots and improvised using wet sand in a bucket, layering seckled roots in the sand and lowering the bucket down the well just above the water line to mimic cool, humid conditions. Onions, were a little easier as they could be buried in sand in a dry dark space.
Onions in particular are a crop Rob and I are excited to experiment with to save seed from. We used to grow South Port Red Globe, a red storage variety that is open pollinated. One year, we combed the catalogs and couldn't find the seed and for 5 years running we had a dry spell with South Port. Last year, we (re) discovered our favorite onion in Pinetree Gardens Seed Catalog and pledged to plant for the purpose of seed production, save bulbs, overwinter, and plant to seed this season. Other farmer friends are following suit. Particularly Regenerative Roots, a diversified farm in Whitewater, WI put out a call to farmers interested in starting a seed collective locally. Overall, in spite of challenges on both sides of the pond, we are all well on their way to realizing success with seed saving.
While seed saving takes time, the benefits far outweigh the costs and represent entrepreneurial opportunities for farmers to create their own businesses in the long run. I am already imagining a Senegal Seed Savers Exchange business, similar to Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, IA. In both cases it got started by a handful of determined and dedicated farmers getting together to share and swap seeds.
I credit my time in Senegal as not only opening doors professionally, but also opening my heart. The more I farm, the more I discover that science and technique while important to production and business, only gets you so far in growing food sustainably. You need to balance this with love and celebration. It was uplifting to walk through the garden gate at Owayel, my first day in the field, and be welcomed in song and dance by women who have taken the time out of their day to listen, learn, and share with me what's working, what's needed for their farms to thrive. As I start my own vegetables for our CSA program this season, I find myself humming a tune to the pepper seeds as I tuck them into their flats. I imagine the moment when it dances into fruit and I can share with my neighbors and compare notes, swap seeds and stories with my soil sisters in Senegal and in Wisconsin.
I put my notes for this year's potato preferences away. I am overwhelmed with the tasks and demands of the season, but hopeful of seeds to come. I think of how much farming starts with a single seed - dormant in the cool dark corner of Alimatou's kitchen drawer. Unearthed just after the rains. Planted just before the holiday—the tiny egg shaped speck of a tomato seed tucked next to it's basil companions in a newly planted seed bed at Kembu village, Senegal. Placed with the utmost care by hands weathered from the mysteries and the mundane—a life spent working with the land. Humming a tune, seed and soil meet, just under the surface of loam and settled compost, blanketed under layers of leaves. A daily drink of water from the well over the week and one day, seed coat cracks, transforms to cotyledon, young leaves unfurl, tensil strength struggling toward sunlight, sheer joy of swelling into fruit. The love of being food for someone. The scattering of your seeds. The decay of the seasons. The turning over, tuning in, and starting again that marks another growing season, whether tending your gardens in the Sahale or the Driftless.
And so I tuck the seed back into it's sleeve in that cool dark corner of my kitchen in Madison, humming a tune that blends Sere and English, to the drumbeat of giant gourds and laughter – dreaming of new pepper varieties created, potato crosses made, and onion bulbs stored, dancing onward from that time honored life giving tradition of saving seeds.