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Seed Banking

by Adrienne Shelton, Buckland, Massachusetts

Published in the March/April 2008 issue of Orion magazine



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“Old-timey” is what my grandpa used to call the juicy tomatoes that he grew in his garden in western Pennsylvania. As a child romping through and snacking on his vegetables, I was unaware of the value of the genetics that my grandpa was preserving in the seeds he saved and planted. Nor did I know that, after my grandpa’s death in 1987, my uncle continued to grow and save seeds from those same tomatoes. But then, a few months ago, a small packet arrived in the mail: my grandpa’s “old-timey” tomato seeds that my uncle had been growing and saving all these years. What a gift, and a perfect seed to add to the growing collection in my community’s local seed bank.

I began the seed bank as a project at Red Gate Farm (http://www.redgatefarm.org), an educational farm in western Massachusetts. I was concerned that the art of seed saving was being lost in a time when it is needed most. As the world’s seed supply is increasingly owned by multinational companies, farmers and gardeners are losing control of the seeds available to them. Vegetable varieties that were valued for their superior flavor are being replaced by varieties that can withstand traveling across the country, or across the world, in today’s global food market.

The seed bank reverses this trend by teaching people to save the seeds from their favorite vegetable and flower varieties that grow in their own backyards. Just like those from my grandpa’s “old-timey” tomatoes, seeds are saved from fruits and vegetables because they taste delicious, or perhaps grow particularly well in our unique New England soils and climate. The seeds are then collected and stored in the seed bank and made available to the community. Some seeds are sold to the public, while others are distributed free to seed bank members on the condition that they will grow, save, and return to the bank double the amount of seed taken. 

In the seed-bank model, no one farm or garden is responsible for growing all of the seeds for the community. Instead, with many different growers saving just one or two varieties, the risk of seed contamination by cross-pollination can be minimized, and a crop failure in one garden does not jeopardize the whole seed supply.

By providing our community with quality, locally grown seeds, the Red Gate Farm Seed Bank takes “eating local” to an entirely new level. It preserves heirloom vegetable and flower varieties, and hardy New England favorites, that may otherwise disappear. It teaches farmers and gardeners how to save seeds, a knowledge that is quickly being forgotten. And it provides a valuable opportunity for our community to work together to create a local, sustainable food system. 

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