All posts by Irena

20 enormous collections of varieties

Heirloom seed varieties are at greater risk of extinction now than ever before. While a few heirlooms have gained celebrity, thousands of others are disappearing along with the elderly seed-savers who have grown and maintained them through the years.  Grassroots Seed Network and Seed Savers Exchange are two organizations working to keep rare heirloom varieties alive.

Donald Todd Half-Runner Bean

Donald Todd began saving a variety of delicious, tender, half-runner snap beans over 50 years ago.  In the decades since then, commercially available varieties of half-runner beans have become tough.  Luckily, Donald’s son Steve still farms, and still saves seed of the bean his dad gave him.  Without Steve, this bean variety would be forgotten.

Shows okra

Texana McFarland was 98 years old when she sent a sample of the okra she’d gotten from the Shows family years before.  Many elderly gardeners like her don’t know of anyone who wants to maintain their varieties like we want to maintain Shows okra.

MacArthur Walter and his wife’s family have been growing and saving the same variety of purple-veined collards for over 100 years.  Their collard variety, now named Nancy Malone Wheat Purple Collards, is one of over 80 types of heirloom collard collected by geographers Edward H. Davis & John T. Morgan in the first decade of this century.  Among the dozens of collard seed-savers they met, the average age was 70.

Will Bonsall, founder and board member of Grassroots Seed Network. Photo credit: Broken Banjo


Most seed-savers are old.  Many, perhaps most, of them, don’t expect anyone to maintain their varieties when they can’t anymore.  Every month, several old seed-savers die or stop gardening.  If current trends continue, I estimate that in the next 20 years the U.S. will lose 20 enormous collections of varieties, on the scale of Will Bonsall’s collection, which included over 700 varieties of potatoes and now includes about 150.  We will also lose countless varieties that are not in collections, but are maintained by individuals like the Walters. Many varieties have been stewarded by individual families or communities for many decades, even centuries. Many such varieties have never made it into a seed catalog, nor been described by researchers like Davis and Morgan.

As we continue to lose varieties, we lose flavors, crop genetic diversity, and a link to our history. Often, the genes for resilience to various disease and climactic pressures are found in ancient and heirloom varieties.

The annual Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center seed swap is attended by several avid seed-savers.

Even as seed libraries and seed swaps proliferate, many young people interested in seed-saving don’t live near elderly seed-savers, and wouldn’t know where to look for the rare heirloom varieties that need new stewards.  Grassroots Seed Network has just launched a crowdfunding campaign on CrowdRise to fund our work providing that vital link. As President of Grassroots Seed Network, I’m encouraging you to share this campaign widely, to donate if you are able, and, if you’re a seed-saver, to list seeds on our site.

Seed banks conserve millions of varieties in hundreds of countries.  Many thousands of varieties are backed up in the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway.  Yet when a variety disappears from all but a few seed banks or three, you can’t just decide to grow it in your home garden.  Seeds in seed banks are generally unavailable except to researchers and sometimes seed companies.

The primary work of Grassroots Seed Network is to facilitate the trading of seeds between seed-savers and create seed stewardships. With over 100 unique listings on our site and many more to come, we aim to offer a level of diversity beyond that found in most seed catalogs — just as most seed catalogs offer a level of crop diversity far beyond that found in our supermarkets!

At Southern Exposure and in Grassroots Seed Network, we make rare and heirloom varieties available to ordinary home gardeners.  We want the choice of what varieties thrive and survive to be in the hands of all kinds of family farmers and gardeners, not only those of the Big Seed businesses.

With Grassroots Seed Network, we aim to facilitate the preservation of heirloom varieties in other ways as well.  One way we will use the funds from this campaign is to award small grants to people who are stewarding large collections, listing their varieties, and teaching seed-saving methods. We also connect aging seed stewards with enthusiastic young seed curators, botanists and farmers.

We are a democratic, lister-governed organization, and we value member feedback. Become a Member by listing seeds you’ve harvested. Seed listers vote to elect our Board and approve group Bylaws. Though founded on a model of Membership & Dues, the GSN board has decided to highly prioritize expanding our Membership. Thus we are Free, and at this time not charging membership dues, so do Join Us!

Why Open Pollination

This post is based on a short speech that Sapphyre Miria of Commonwealth Seeds and I gave at the Charlottesville Gaia Gathering in May of last year.

Cowpeas (a.k.a. southern peas or field peas) dry on a string in a home pantry, at a scale appropriate to home seed-saving or food preservation.

Preserving seed for the next season has been a fundamental rule of survival throughout human history. And yet in our time, dependence on commodified seed is a huge insecurity to our local food systems. Almost all seed prior to the 1930’s was organic, regionally adapted and open-pollinated (non-hybrid). American seed companies first arose in the latter half of the 19th century, but in 1940, most farmers and gardeners still knew how to save seeds of most or all of the vegetables, herbs, flowers, and other plants that they grew.  When they traded and shared these seeds with their neighbors, they passed the knowledge along, too.

A variety stewarded in this way has a genetic makeup suited to the local traditions and the local growing conditions. This adaptation of seed stocks allowed for a diverse, secure food supply in each region.

This began to change with the advent of hybrid corn varieties in the 1930’s. With outcrossing crops like corn, onions, and broccoli, hybrid vigor is a significant factor, and that’s why we carry two hybrid sweet corns, a hybrid broccoli, and a hybrid onion, in addition to about 800 open-pollinated varieties.  However, around 1940, farmers started trading in their ability to save next season’s seed, adapted to their growing conditions, for seeds purchased from a seed company and promises of better yields. In the years since, using hybrids (which don’t come true to type if you plant seed you’ve saved) has become standard practice even for plant types that don’t benefit from hybrid vigor — and most don’t.

Over the latter half of the twentieth century, farmers and gardeners continued to lose their seed-saving knowledge and their stewarded varieties.  Industrial food systems replaced local food systems just as industrial seed systems replaced local seed systems. Throughout this process, seed has moved away from being the held in common by humankind, and joined the long list of resources appropriated by the private sector.

The results have been devastating. Most farming in the United States today relies on proprietary seed stocks, whether simply hybrid (F1), or plant variety protected (PVP – a limited patent), or genetically modified (GMO), the most extreme form of seed privatization.

The seed industry is now dominated by a handful of transnational biotechnology/chemical firms with 60% of the world’s commercial seed owned by 5 companies. What’s worse is that these corporations have no interest in supporting sustainable organic agriculture or organic crop breeding.  In fact, their profits rest on breeding crops that rely on agricultural chemicals, which they also sell. They have much to gain by commandeering the seed supply through market consolidation, discontinuing more seed varieties with each corporate merger, and leaving fewer varieties available to organic farmers.

Chemical companies have been buying out seed companies for decades.


Hybrids and other newer varieties are generally bred for shippability, appearance, and the ability to perform well in high-input, chemical-intensive monocultures.  Even universities sometimes patent varieties and sell exclusive rights to monopolize those varieties.

This privatization has led to increased reliance on hybrid seed stocks, and also to a loss in the amount of open pollinated varieties available, and also a loss of their quality, suitability and traceability. Most commercial dry seed production takes place where the climate suits the seed production, like the Pacific Northwest and Israel. That’s great in some ways, but how will those varieties grow in an opposite climate like the southeastern United States? Colorado is a good place to produce squash seed without much of the disease pressure experienced in more humid climates. But over the long run those seed stocks are not likely to hold up as well to Downy Mildew and Bacterial Wilt.

Mainstream, conventional agriculture produces increased rates of various diseases in people, too.  In this country we have epidemics of obesity and diabetes, despite increased advice on what, and how much, to eat. Once in a while, conventional breeders select for higher nutrient content, but it seems that every decade there are significant changes in which nutrients we’re told to pay attention to.  Likewise, disease resistance and regional adaptation are sometimes, but rarely, prioritized by modern vegetable breeders.

The political landscape surrounding seed is dire and reveals the vulnerability in our local food systems. Yet, there exist many seeds of potential to turn the tide of corporate control over our food supply, and to return food sovereignty to the hands of the people.  Communities that prioritize local spending, farmer co-operatives, food hubs, farmers’ markets and CSAs are also becoming the breeding grounds for a new local, organic, open-pollinated seed movement.  In Central Virginia, Common Wealth Seed Growers and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange are working together to create a robust seed system that meets regional needs. We’re creating access to well stewarded, source-transparent, regionally adapted, GMO-free, organic, open-pollinated seed varieties. Common Wealth grows, saves, cleans and packs all of the seed they sell, and also maintains several in-progress breeding projects.  This year Southern Exposure is partnering with Common Wealth and adding three of their best-performing varieties to our collection.

Cucumbers from a trial conducted by Common Wealth Seed Growers

At Southern Exposure, we are working with over 60 small farmers who grow seeds.  For 2018, we’ve increased our source transparency: all the seeds grown on the small farms in our seed grower network now have an “S” symbol.  This replaces the “e” symbol that had a similar meaning, but that we only used for seed that’s not also certified organic.

We offer some varieties recently bred for organic production, but we focus on heirloom varieties, which have stood the test of time. They have been passed down from generation to generation.  The heirlooms we carry (marked with the hourglass symbol in our catalog and on our website) have also stood the test of our trial gardens.  Some of the heirlooms we offer might disappear if we didn’t offer them. Heirlooms are often less uniform than newer varieties, in part because the uniformity that industrial farmers seek can be a disadvantage to home gardeners. For example, when you’re growing for your own kitchen, you don’t want all your broccoli to mature in the same week.

Alabama Blue collards, a variety with lots of genetic variation

Together, Common Wealth and Southern Exposure grow and test new and old varieties in our trials and collaborate to expand the number of trials we can do during a growing season. We are building local and regional networks of skilled organic seed producers, and teaching seed-saving techniques to farmers and gardeners. We practice ongoing selection under organic conditions.  This work is an essential piece of the larger mission of creating an agricultural system that produces foods that nourish us deeply.

Julia’s Georgia farm has over 100 species

On our way back from the Georgia Organics conference in mid-February, Ken and I stopped to visit Julia Asherman’s impressively diverse farm in Jeffersonville, Georgia.  (Then we had to catch up on office work before finding the time to write this post!) At this time of year, much of the farm is in cover crops, and most of the action is in her high tunnels. While talking to her she told us how important her farm was to her and that she had a home insurance for it. She gave us a tip to find the perfect home insurance for us and it was really easy. We could decide which company to go with just by going to that website. I guess that’s what we’ll do once we get home.

IH iphone (491) on Rag and Frass Farm prcsd

Rag & Frass Farm” was named in deliberate contrast with farm names that sound overly romantic or “like gated communities.” But one of Julia’s main sources of income about as romantic as it comes: selling flowers for weddings.

IH iphone (468) on Rag and Frass Farm prcsd

She and her seasonal apprentices also sell common types of vegetables, and various crops that are hard to find fresh or local.  They sell through her local farmers’ market, and through a farmers’ cooperative, and some years through a CSA.  She has a visions of a farm stand and a pick-your-own section of the farm with blueberries and tea.

IH iphone (495) on Rag and Frass Farm prcsdJulia brought out a bottle of dark brown syrup from sugar cane she’d planted the year before, and a tan bottle of vinegar made from the syrup, and we each tasted both.  Last year she’d planted the canes in a 200-foot row and took the harvest to a neighbor who had an old cane press, and gotten 54 bottles of syrup and a few bottles of vinegar.  I would have liked to buy a bottle of syrup, but she only had one left; the rest had sold at her farmers’ market for $15 each.

IH iphone (498) on Rag and Frass Farm croppedBetween turmeric, ginger, (both shown at right), sugar cane, and strawberry “daughters,” Julia has been doing a lot of vegetative plant propagation.

She’s also been experimenting with seed-saving for years, IH iphone (481) looking at Alabama Blue collards on Rag and Frass Farm prcsdand she and Ira had talked some about seed growing at previous farm conferences.  Our visit marked her first transfer of seed to a seed company.  We hadn’t been expecting it, and rarely do we buy seed from farmers we haven’t already contracted with.  But we saw that she had a blue landrace collard growing in her high tunnel, confirmed that it was Alabama Blue, and mentioned that having a collard seed crop in a greenhouse would increase the germination rate of the harvested seeds by keeping rain off the seeds as they dry on the plants. With seed crops in the collard family in the moist Southeast, the main challenge is to get the seed to mature without getting too wet.  Julia had previously harvested 2 pounds of Alabama Blue collard seed that she didn’t have a plan for.  We brought the jar back to our farm for germination testing.

We looked together at the Southern Exposure list of seed crops for 2017, and chose several that Julia will grow for us, including Red Foliated White cotton (with permission from her local extension agent),  Statice, Old Fashioned Mix Nicotiana, Heavenly Blue morning glory, and a yet-to-be-determined cosmos.

Julia has been growing a Jungle Striped Peanut for the past couple of years.  We ate a few, found them tasty, and brought home some seeds to try out in our garden.  She sells bundles of freshly dug peanut plants with the pods still on them, and this fall she’ll probably also sell some to us as a seed crop.

The day before we visited, Julia’s heritage breed Pineywoods Longhorn cow had given birth to a calf.

Julia is about to close, in the, next few weeks, on her 54-acre parcel, including a former motel and the 3 acres she’s and her apprentices have been cultivating for the past 4 years. You can read more about her farm on her website,

IH iphone (493) on Rag and Frass Farm prcsd