Seeds - always there when you need them? Why every farmer and grower should be producing seed...
3 December 2021
As farmers and growers, without seeds we have no crops. Yet for the vast majority of vegetable growers, including organic and agroecological producers, these seeds are purely an external input - "somebody else’s problem" to quote the late great Douglas Adams.
Contrast this with fertility; none of us in the organic world would consider outsourcing all of our soil health and fertility to an external provider. Of course people do bring in manure, green waste compost etc., but as a supplement to green manures, composting and farm-generated fertility.
So why do we take the ready availability of vegetable seeds so much for granted? There’s a basic expectation that the seeds that we need will be available; that they will be relatively cheap, that there will be a range of varieties, and that they will be good quality and have good germination.
At Real Seeds we’ve spent quite a lot of the last 20-odd years talking about the fragility of the seed system and trying to encourage people to think about seed sovereignty as a fundamental part of food sovereignty.
In March 2020, suddenly that fragility became very plain, with market gardeners (along with home growers) discovering that seeds weren’t just there to buy.
Like every other vegetable seed company, we were inundated with orders, getting as many in an hour as we’d normally get in a week, at the same time as trying to re-organise our offices to allow for social distancing, and deal with erratic postal collections as posties were off work isolating. The same pattern was repeated in spring 2021, again most of the mail order seed companies (including many of the bigger companies) had our websites shut off, and were just opening once a week for an hour or so.
A one off? Maybe, but Brexit is making importing seed increasingly challenging, and I think many growers will find that this season, even if they can buy seed more easily, it won’t necessarily be the varieties that they are looking for.
Not only this, but it’s important to understand how fragile the supply of many open pollinated varieties actually is, with many relying on production by just one farmer. If they have a crop failure (or in the case of some of our onion varieties, retire!) then that variety may just not be available to buy for any thing from a season onwards.
There has been a tendency to see loss of varieties as resulting from the EU variety listing system and imagine that if only the legislation could be fixed, everything would be fine. This may be partly the case, but the concentration in the seed industry, dominance of hybrid seeds and varieties suited to chemical agriculture, mean that regardless of legislation we can’t rely on ‘the system’ to provide us with the seeds we need.
So, as a farmer or grower, what can you do?
Remember, the professional seed industry has only been in existence for around 200 years. Before then, farmers and growers had to either save their own seeds, or trade seeds with friends and neighbours.
Obviously growers today haven’t been brought up with these skills in the way our forebears were. But we do have the tremendous advantage of ready access to information both in books and on the internet. There’s lots of great resources out there and I’ve listed a selection at the end of this post.
The UK Seed Sovereignty programme also offers growers a chance to access training, network with others and join local groups.
Even if as a commercial grower you save seed from just one or two of your crops each year, by linking up with other producers you can between you start to build a resilient local seed supply. Over the years with attention and selection you will also be adapting that seed supply to local conditions, giving you not only reliability of supply, but also a better and more robust crop.
Give your seed supply just a little of the time and attention that you apply to your compost heaps and your cover crops - the results will be well worth while.
For beginners - 'Back Garden Seed Saving' by Sue Stickland. Aimed at gardeners, but equally relevant to market growers, this is a really good starting place.
For more experienced seed savers - 'The Organic Seed Grower: A Farmer's Guide to Vegetable Seed Production' by John Navazio. This is a great book for the serious seed grower who wants to produce seed to commercial standards. Not the best book for a novice seed saver, it works best as a reference to look things up when you have queries on a crop.
Online training resources
Basic seed growing - series of 40 short films
Organic Seed Alliance / MESA Six webinar series in organic seed production
Kate McEvoy writes "I am a founder member of Real Seeds and have been growing and selling vegetable seed since 1998. I also spends time writing, campaigning and teaching seed saving, and hope to encourage all gardeners and growers to consider producing at least some of their own seed. Real Seeds produces and sells open pollinated vegetable seed suited to small scale and organic growing, and works for a resilient and diverse seed supply for our farmers and growers."
Kate took part in the Seed Gathering 2021 conference organised by the Gaia Foundation’s Seed Sovereignty UK & Ireland Programme. View the detailed and informative programme - which includes an article by Kate entitled 'Accessing Agrodiversity: Finding and using rare seeds' here
Interested in a virtual tour of Real Seeds with Kate? Watch this webinar:
All photos courtesy of Kate McEvoy