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  • Bill Braun

Consider the Seed

By Bill Braun



We would do well in these trying times to heed the wisdom of seeds. Humans and plants have been engaged in a co-evolutionary dance for millennia.  A cyclical, not linear, evolution; a pact, really, to tend to one another. In seeds, linear time collapses and folds into itself - for a seed is at once embodied memory (past), latent possibility (present), and the promise of mutual care (future). In one season, a single seed can become several hundred, even several thousand - Nature’s law of abundance. Seeds teach us patience and attentiveness and give us perennial reason for hope. The act of saving seeds both names the brokenness of our food system and acts upon it in one and the same gesture. Seeds teach us all these things and so much more if we simply set aside our predispositions and enter our farms and gardens with an open heart.


There are a myriad of reasons to save seeds. Practical reasons like self-reliance. To give oneself over to something beyond ego. To link to the chain of countless hands who have cared for plants and brought us everything we eat today. To reconnect to one’s own ancestry. To nourish one’s soul, to heal, to reconcile. To rekindle our pact with our plant kin. 


There are much less poetic but urgent reasons to save seeds, too.


Diversity breeds resilience - this the seed also teaches us. And diversity is the best defense we have to weather the storms of a rapidly changing world. The current biodiversity within our food supply represents less than 10% of what existed just a century prior. By one count, 93% of seed diversity has disappeared, lost to the void of forgotten history. When seeds are lost, it’s not just genetics that disappear, but the stories of those seeds and the memories of those who told and lived them, too. Stories of We - where sapiens came from, where we’ve been, where we’ve gone, how and why we moved about the world, and how we’ve interacted with the Earth through the growing of food.


Over 20,000 seed companies have consolidated or gone out of business in the past few decades. Many of these seed companies were small regional seed companies focused on seed for (and by) growers in their region. Currently, four multinational chemical companies own and control most of the world’s seed supply through various intellectual property avenues (see Dr. Phil Howard’s excellent seed industry consolidation diagram for a stunning visual, philhoward.net/2023/01/04/seed-digital/).


The most concerning of the intellectual property restrictions on seeds is the utility patent (UP). If one creates something new - a new shoehorn, a new piece of software, the theory of Special Relativity - one is eligible to file for a utility patent. Within seeds, as of late, utility patents have been granted not only for “finished” varieties but also varietal traits, such as the particular sweetness of a melon, the redness of a lettuce, or the downy mildew resistance of a basil, to name a few. The breeding methodology used to arrive at said variety, the progeny for the duration of the patent, and, naturally, the use of and saving of seeds - an egregious departure from prior forms of intellectual property, which were created to ensure breeders were paid and protected for their work and which allowed some degree of seed sharing and saving. One of the criteria for a utility patent to be granted is a lack of “prior art,” meaning it must be something novel and unique, heretofore not having existed prior.  A case could be made for this, perhaps, in leaping across kingdoms at the sub-molecular level (flounder genes into a strawberry), but to claim that color, disease resistance, or other heritable traits somehow appeared in a vacuum is not only disingenuous, it is patently false. Such patents extract plant varieties and their traits out of the commons and deliver them into the hands of private ownership. Though there has been almost no legal recourse to date in challenging these patents, someone saving seeds or breeding plants is technically liable if they happen upon the same sweetness, the same electromagnetic hue, and the same growth pattern, mysteriously appearing elsewhere in their own work; to say nothing if they wanted to save or breed with patented seed, to begin with.


Each of the points above warrants an essay in and of themselves. Those essays exist, penned by others more informed and eloquent than I. Suffice it to say that if you grow food and if you eat food, you must care about these issues. They determine, and will continue to determine, how we feed ourselves, what food biodiversity exists, how food is grown and can be grown, and who can or cannot grow it.


In addition to giving myself over to seedkeeping, I farm with my partner for our livelihood, for profit, in the stream of commerce. Much is asked of farmers these days, too much, as those of us who farm as our vocation reckon with grafting the inherent value of food onto the ruthless machinations of late-stage, free-market capitalism. At the end of the day, we are all aspiring to do good work within the brackets of a broken system, ideally, to subvert the brokenness in favor of a better way of being. Yet, by and large, the perception of seeds among many of my farming peers and the farming community at large is woefully specific - seeds are relegated to an input among inputs. At the start of the season, one purchases supplies, amendments, potting soil, maybe some new tools… and seeds. Rarely do we know where or how these seeds were grown. I say this with no judgment. We in the Northeast are fortunate to have a number of excellent regional seed companies who, whether or not they’re growing and/or sourcing seeds regionally, are trialing and vetting seeds for our region. Growers would do well to trust them, and we do, in addition to some seed companies not in our region, large or small, who have a track record for quality.


Nevertheless, I emphasize seeds are not merely an input among inputs. They are the heart and soul of how we grow food. And we have, by and large, outsourced this most precious of agrarian responsibilities in the name of convenience, oftentimes without the opportunity to even consider alternatives. Seed companies are not responsible for this; they are filling a void left (or created) by the erosion of once-ubiquitous community seed care and the undermining of collective seed wisdom. But they are but one possibility: one single permutation of seed distribution and exchange. They are not a monolith.


What might it look like for all of us, together, to envision alternative, community-based seedways in our current moment? How do we, heeding the call of seeds, collapse linear Time into our own present moment? How do we return, renew, revisit, reimagine, rework, revive?  Imbue the Old with the New?


I am immensely grateful to live and farm in a community that celebrates two heirloom vegetables - the Macomber/Westport turnip and Narragansett/Rhode Island White Cap flint corn. What makes these heirlooms so special and so relevant to this discussion is not simply that they are heirlooms per se, nor is it their wonderful flavors in and of themselves (and they are both wonderful). These two heirlooms have weathered the vicissitudes of the commercial seed trade because both have been hinged to people and place - to community and food traditions. Rarely have either been offered through a seed company. The hands of the community, the growers and eaters, have sustained these two marvelous vegetables, even as their existence continues to hinge on a comparably few farmers and gardeners. Before seed companies, before industrial farming, before settler colonialism - this was how humans grew food. And the times demand it now more than ever.


When you save a seed in situ, in the place where its nourishment will provide sustenance, the seed learns. This is not anthropomorphizing; plants check every human metric for what constitutes intelligence and then some. The seed learns the soil, weather, insects, bacteria and fungi, and even one’s own harvesting style - variable as they may be over time. With a little knowledge, a little more attention, and still a bit more care, saving seeds in one’s bioregion leads to more resilience and more abundance. This is a demonstrable fact. “Plant breeder” and “farmer” were synonymous with one another until the last century - a quick twist in the co-evolutionary dance. New technologies purport to solve the “world’s food crisis” faster, more precisely, and even more efficiently. I stand with others in a resolute, resounding “No” to techno-utopian fantasies and assert that nothing is more effective and efficient than saving a seed in place. Technology may well have its role in an all-hands-on-deck epoch, but a seed is not a thing - it is a living, respirating, dynamic, intelligent being, and we would do well to stick with what already works.


This is likely the point where many commercial growers reading this will be compelled to assert a stigma we’ve all been taught as farmers and, by and large, have experienced directly: hybrids are inherently “better” than heirlooms or open-pollinated (OP) varieties. True enough, hybrids can be and often are higher-yielding, more uniform, and more disease-resistant. Just so that we are all on the same page, “hybrid” here specifically connotes an F1 hybrid: a process in which two parent lines are inbred, maintained, and crossed, year after year (or every time fresh seed is needed) to produce progeny with desirable characteristics. By contrast, an OP is created and maintained by saving the best seed from a population, year after year (or every time fresh seed is needed; and for clarification, all heirlooms are also OPs). Put another way, if seed work is a poem to which each generation contributes their stanzas, hybrids are periods and OPs are commas.


I don’t dispute these claims of hybrid “superiority” in context. Anyone who has grown an OP summer squash side by side with the best of the hybrids knows there is no contest when it comes to yield. Rather, I am stating that the so-called superiority of hybrids is a self-fulfilling prophecy - it is not a matter of course. Hybrid vigor is indeed a real phenomenon, though it’s far from universal across plant families. The F1-hybrid methodology is a useful tool to achieve certain outcomes faster and, in a number of cases, arguably more effectively. But overall, creating and maintaining a hybrid takes much more work than an OP. The breakdown in hybrids’ utility, be it yield, uniformity, or resistance to a particular pathogen, is not the exception to the rule but the rule itself (as Frank Morton has stated in his Wild Garden catalogs). Hybrids, in this sense, are a dead-end: they’re useful until they’re not, often with nowhere to go on their own once their usefulness ceases.


It is also worth noting that breeders and breeding institutions are far from ignorant of the de facto (and more inexpensive) intellectual property control that knowledge of hybrid parent lines brings. If you are the only one who knows and maintains the parents to bear the F1 child, they (we) have to come back to you for seed every year. Herein lies a perverse incentive: to sometimes create hybrids that don’t necessarily demonstrate hybrid vigor or perform various functions better than a well-maintained OP might (we might call this latter category HINOs if you’ll pardon the political pun). In most cases, if you save seed from an F1 hybrid (that is not a HINO), you’ll likely find a kaleidoscope of traits in the F2 generation as a result of genetic recombination. Though this can be an exciting new breeding endeavor for the curious seed-saver with time on their hands, it generally discourages seed-saving among the majority.


To the point: over the decades following WWII, when hybrids appeared in the marketplace in earnest, increasingly greater attention has been given to creating and re-creating hybrids for market farming purposes than to creating and maintaining OPs with “a good constitution,” as my mentor John Navazio likes to put it. Hence the self-fulfilling prophecy. 


Dear reader, I implore you: don’t be duped that hybrids are inherently better. With enough TLC, a good OP can be as good or better than its hybrid counterpart by every performance metric (to say nothing of everything else that comes with seed-saving in the hands of those who grow food) and with a broader array of inherent diversity to boot, to keep the co-evolutionary tango dipping and twisting. “Farmer” and “plant breeder” were synonymous with one another until only the last century or so, a quick twist-turn in the co-evolutionary dance. There is precedent, you might say, to work seeds back into the farm. As another seed mentor, Rowen White has so eloquently stated: “150 years ago, seed companies didn’t exist. If we do our work well, they won’t need to exist in another 150 years.”


So, how do we envision alternative community seedways, seed care and distribution that are as effective or better than our current landscape of seed companies? Good news: they’re already happening. Some rising from the ashes of attempts at cultural genocide; others continuing largely uninterrupted, miraculously; others still, born of heeding the seed songs anew. Some also utilize the structure of a seed company; some tweak it; others carve different furrows. All efforts are important, all hands on deck in this crucial moment.  


And for you reading, how do you find - or make - time for seeds amidst the demands life imposes upon us, farming or otherwise? For those of us with the privilege of land to grow upon, here’s my humble offering: start with something you love. Something you have a hard time imagining being without. Something you know you’ll pay attention to and care for. Be the turnip guy, the tomato maven, the corn apprentice. Let your arugula self-seed. Any way is a way in. Learn and share - seeds and stories, knowledge and ideas. You may find yourself commiserating with folks you never imagined, rejoicing in solidarity and sowing common ground. Imagine if everyone you knew who grew food carved out a small space for one plant type; now imagine they all showed up to a seed swap. What would our care for seeds, growing of food, Earth, and each other look like? This is not a dream. It has been, it is now, and it will continue to be because seeds find a way. Such is their wisdom. And the seed keepers, those in lifetime apprenticeships and caregiver relations with seeds, are among the most extraordinary humans one can know - compassionate, resolute, attuned, perennial students of the wisdom of seeds.  I am grateful beyond words to count some of them as seed kin. Save a seed, start a conversation, and perhaps you might too.



Bill Braun farms with his partner Dee Levanti at Ivory Silo Farm in Westport, MA. In 2017, they co-founded Freed Seed Federation, a nonprofit dedicated to place-based seed for the people.  Learn more at: www.freedseedfederation.org

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