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  • LuAnna Nesbitt

The Story is the Seed: An Interview with Owen Taylor of Truelove Seeds

By LuAnna Nesbitt


Owen Taylor is the co-founder and co-owner of Truelove Seeds, a farm-based seed company that offers culturally important vegetable, herb, and flower seeds. The company stemmed out of the food justice movement and is committed to food sovereignty, sustainable agriculture, and the preservation of culture. Their seeds are grown by various small-scale urban and rural farmers. 


Truelove works to preserve and provide culturally important seeds to people. They also commit to sharing knowledge and offer mentorship programs, apprenticeships, and various seed workshops, all funded by seed sales. Truelove farms on land in Lenapehoking, the traditional territories of the Lenni-Lenape peoples and aims to honor and assist Indigenous rematriation by returning the stolen seeds they come across to their original tribal communities, farmers, growers, and individuals.


LuAnna Nesbitt, TNF: Can you please share your name, pronouns, and any title that you have?


Owen Taylor: Sure, Owen Taylor, co-founder of Truelove Seeds.


LuAnna: Briefly tell us about your seed work and current seed projects.


Owen: Truelove Seeds started in 2017. I had been working with Dr. William Moyes Weaver for four years before that at his private seed collection, which was started in 1932 by his grandfather. Since 2003, I've worked within the food sovereignty and environmental justice movements in San Francisco, New York, and now, here in Philly. Truelove wanted to start a project focusing on people stewarding their ancestral seeds. People in the food sovereignty movement talk about the importance of communities being able to access healthy food, affordable food and culturally appropriate food. I knew I could play a role within the food sovereignty movement by helping amazing community organizations and farmers level up their game around making culturally important foods available through seed keeping. Since I had managed a private seed collection, where we had seeds from all over the world, I saw an opportunity to look outward and work with people who are still finding their own cultural seeds. Truelove really started as a form of mentorship on how to keep seeds, especially people's ancestral seeds, and as an outlet for people to share those seeds amongst their diasporas and beyond. We also support them financially by paying the growers well. Things may shift, but we give half of our sales back to the growers, which is kind of a radical act in the seed industry, where it's assumed that to break even, you have to keep at least two-thirds of the sales for your overhead. We see our radical payment to the growers as an incentive to be involved and as compensation for the important cultural work that they're doing.


Truelove Seeds works with 75 growers, all of whom grow at least one ancestral seed for our catalog. Our unique relationship with the growers, and their relationship to the ancestral seed they’re growing, means our catalog tends to be different from other seed companies. We’re not trying to promote the rarity or the exoticness of our seeds, but instead, find homes within their diasporas and market them to people for whom these are familiar tastes of home, far from home. Our company focuses on reconnecting and keeping people connected to their traditions through seeds.


LuAnna: Could you share with me your rationale for this work?


Owen: Seeds hold the past and the future. It's profound to see something so simple as a seed hold so much of our sense of self, hope, and where we came from. This living touchstone embodies so much of who we are and can be. It situates us in this vast timeline of human history, keeps us tied to foods that have fed us for generations, and gives us a huge sense of agency and responsibility. What are we going to do with this seed? What is our responsibility to the seed and to our people through this seed? The seed is so powerful in symbolism and as a tangible reality. It is literally the reason we've been fed for 10,000 years and how we could feed ourselves for 10,000 more. 


Before seed work, I worked in popular education within the food justice and food sovereignty world. We would work with leaders to collectively think about how we tell our stories. We would ask, ‘How do we educate people to transform the way we move in the world, the way we take care of the world and care for each other?’ This approach really impacted the way we started Truelove Seeds. We're not seeking experienced seed producers. We don’t accept applications or requests from anyone. We're actually looking to build relationships with farmers through seed keeping that are based on a deep relationship to their foodways and those of their ancestors. The first question we ask our potential growers is, ‘What seed tells your story?’ as a way to initiate the relationship building with the farmer and the seed. This approach builds a network of growers doing transformative work that gives us a sense of self and keeps seed stories in circulation in a really meaningful way.


LuAnna: Tell me about a cultivar you work closely with that matches your own sense of self.


Owen: My personal journey with ancestral seeds has been interesting because my ancestors all came from different parts of Europe and quickly assimilated into a broader white American culture. Investigating my southern Italian or Irish seeds has been a journey of reconnection. Initially, part of my reconnection was in response to a call from some of my Black farmer friends, including my partner, who said, “You're doing food justice work; you're in all these spaces with People of Color. What are you bringing to the table?” Literally, what was I bringing to the table, culturally speaking, to offer in these multicultural spaces and honestly challenge the creation and maintenance of white supremacy and whiteness in general? We each come from somewhere. Those places had foodways and traditions and the more we hide behind the notion that we're “just white,” it maintains the existence of that notion - of power and supremacy. No, my Italian and Irish crops are not going to dismantle white supremacy, but the process of recognizing and understanding how I got here will help me start dismantling it. 


I started growing Italian crops because they were easier to find than Irish crops. England colonized Ireland to grow foods for export, so a lot of the crops I found in Ireland are actually English crops. In southern Italy, people were subsistence farmers living in somewhat isolated villages. When they came to the US, they came with seeds that were distinct and important to them. At first, I ordered what I could find from seed catalogs, but the ones most meaningful to me now are those that Italians and Italian Americans have shared with me. Today, these relationships have grown into pen/seed pals - sharing stories, seeds, and how to grow and cook them. 


LuAnna: Is there an event or situation where the community was heavily involved that you can recall being a very important moment for the trajectory of a specific seed?


Owen: The one that's popping to mind is our northern adapted pigeon peas. I worked with East New York Farms (ENYF) in Brooklyn many years ago. They were one of the first groups that actually inspired the creation of Truelove Seeds because they had been talking about creating a community seed bank for Afro-Caribbean crops because it’s often really hard to find seeds from Jamaica, Trinidad, and other Arab countries without smuggling them. One of the seed varieties they saved was the northern adapted pigeon peas. I was interested because I had tried growing these for seed before - they grew beautiful, tall and bushy but never flowered, so never made seeds. I learned they were day-length sensitive. When ENYF said that they found a variety from Cornell Cooperative Extension, who had gotten them from an Indian plant breeder in Georgia who had bred them to be day length insensitive, this was one of the first things ENYF wanted to offer through our catalog. They are incredibly popular because we have many customers from South Asia, all parts of Africa, and the Caribbean who love the pigeon pea. We would sell out instantly and had to create a packet limit. We eventually worked with ENYF to increase their production and now have five different growers growing that so we don’t sell out.



Harvested pigeon pea. Image from TrueLove Seeds
Harvested pigeon pea. Image from TrueLove Seeds

LuAnna: What do you think organizations like NOFA should do to impact the trajectory of seeds?


Owen: That's a good question. I really want to say something more seed-related, but I feel like our biggest challenge is land. We rent all our spaces, from offices to production and storage spaces. For us to continue what we're doing, we need land security, which is the same issue with so many growers we work with. Seeds need somewhere to grow consistently. We've moved our farm three times in seven years and will probably have to move again. We've moved our office four or five times and had three different greenhouses. There's the added complication with seed producers because our fields must be somewhat isolated to prevent cross-pollinating. I like the models where community farm projects collaborate with seed growers in the same location. Still, it only works for a seed producer if the other farms are not growing vegetables but rather animals or fiber or something. There's just no bigger issue right now than land security. Luckily, in this country, there are no prohibitive rules around seed production, like in certain places in Europe or Africa where you’re not allowed to save seeds or sell seeds. Of course, there's the GMO issue. We need protections against cross-contamination and NOFA policy work could perhaps support this issue. It's a huge challenge all over the world, including here in this country, to preserve culturally important seeds in areas where GMO crops are being grown. It's great that NOFA is focusing this issue on seeds - raising awareness is a big support. In the last 50 or 100 years, we've become accustomed to having access to affordable seeds through seed companies. Yet,  it's been 10,000 years of seed saving that we've had to do just to survive. Now the practice of seed keeping is being lost, which also means we’re losing culturally distinct varieties of seeds. A seed keeper can shape the future of food through selection, through growing the most favorite varieties in the same place. Over generations, you're selecting for a plant's ability to survive and thrive in your exact place. You're selecting for flavor and health. Many of us have become complacent about allowing other people to be seed keepers, but there’s so much value in doing it ourselves. It's joyful to have a successful crop, which helps us survive, and it's a beautiful, delicious experience. 


LuAnna: What books, podcasts, blogs, etc., do you recommend people connect with to learn more on these topics?


Owen: We have a podcast called Seeds and Their People where people can really tell their own stories. Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth and the Seed Savers Exchange Seed Garden book is good for production farmers. In terms of popular education, the conversation transcribed between Paulo Freire, II and Myles Horton I recommend. It’s a little far out from farming and seed keeping, but it's undoubtedly about how members of the community have true agency and power and bring their whole selves to the experience. I would also add Farming While Black by Leah Penniman because Leah provides a table with a broad cultural focus on African diasporic foods and the considerations around seed keeping in relation to those species.


Resources & Links:

Truelove Seeds, trueloveseeds.com

East New York Farms, facebook.com/eastnewyorkfarms/

Italian Garden Project, theitaliangardenproject.com


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