It’s been just about 10 years since the day Joe-Ann McCoy, then living in Iowa and working as the national medicinal plant curator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, got a life-changing call from her home region of Western North Carolina.
It was the N.C. Arboretum in Asheville, and they wanted to know if she’d be interested in trading her secure government job for a position funded by grants and contracts, moving to the Asheville area, and starting up a seed bank.
Survey your supermarket and you’ll see pretty much the same stuff anywhere in the country: oranges from Florida, onions from Georgia, potatoes from Idaho.
Some variety has crept in recently — with artful displays of mountain-grown produce paying homage to the local food movement — but generally the corn we eat in North Carolina is the same corn they’re eating in Iowa and Utah.
Borrow seeds in the spring, grow your garden in summer, give them back in the fall. That’s the premise of the Sylva Sprouts Seed Lending Library, the first seed-lending project in the region.
The concept of the seed-lending library is simple, but the possible ramifications of the project profound: Local growers will be able to check out open-pollinated or heirloom seeds in the spring and return some seed they’ve saved that next fall, in essence replacing the seed they used. Over time, project founder Jenny McPherson hopes a truly local bank of vegetable seed will be built, sustaining the community and protecting local plant diversity.
“Somebody told me that seed libraries do exist, and I got really excited about it,” said McPherson, who heads the Jackson County Farmers Market.
McPherson, who is getting her masters in library science at Western Carolina University, knew how to conduct the research necessary. She quickly discovered Richmond Grows, based in Richmond, Calif., and learned how this iconoclastic group established its seed-lending program. Richmond Grows is a nonprofit seed-lending library physically located in the public library in that city.
Jackson County ended up going another, slightly different route: Sylva Sprouts Seed is being physically located in a cabinet at the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, a home that seems to marry like interests and mutual focuses of the project and state agency.
“I really like the idea,” said Mary Ferrick, a faithful buyer at the Jackson County Farmers Market both during the winter indoors and, when the weather moderates, outdoors in downtown Sylva. “Because our seeds need to be preserved. We don’t want to be dependent on agribusiness.”
Jackie Hooper, who operates the diversified seven-acre Shared Blessings Farm in the Tuckasegee community and was selling meats, eggs, vegetables and more last Saturday morning, agreed. But Hooper also is excited about the project because she fears history could repeat itself: too few varieties of seed could spell trouble.
“I think my biggest interest is my concern that we are going to be tied in to just a few varieties of seed,” said Hooper, who recently retired from Jackson County Schools and is now devoting her attention to farming on a fulltime basis.
Take the Irish Potato Famine in Ireland between 1845 and 1849, also known as The Great Hunger. Potato blight struck, and because the Irish had only a limited variety of different potatoes, this staple crop was essentially wiped out.
In the 1970s, when the Southern corn leaf blight hit, it was this country’s turn to learn that lesson. Though three decades later many local growers fear it’s one we’ve forgotten. Fields that once produced many varieties of corn were planted with a single species because this hybrid variety had desirable, marketable qualities. The corn blight cut production by 15 percent and cost U.S. farmers and consumers hundreds of millions of dollars.
Genetic diversity, you see, is food insurance for us all.
McPherson knows and believes this to be true, providing added impetus to get Jackson County’s project up and running as quickly as possible. It will take time to build a proper seed bank for the lending library, plus there’s a strong education component involved. Classes on seed saving will be offered, too, so that community members can participate fully in the library.
Saving some seed is easy enough. You simply let the plant do what it does naturally in the course of a season. You plant it, the plant grows, the plant goes to seed, you let the seed ripen, collect the seed, harvest the seed and store it safely. But some plants are more complicated to collect seed from, and you can quickly find yourself lost at sea when considering proper isolation distances to avoid genetic mingling and various seed-saving techniques.
That, McPherson said, is where the classes will come in. Those wheels were invented long ago, about as long as man has been saving and planting seed, in fact, and likely before the wheel itself was invented.
McPherson said six or so growers already have offered varieties of locally grown seed. The idea is that gardeners can “borrow” four or five seeds per plant that they want to grow, “and then they should bring back — and keep — some of the seeds” at the end of the season, she said.
Start with these ‘easy’ seeds. These seeds are great for beginners to save because they produce plants just like the ones originally planted:
basil • beans • beets • carrots • chard • eggplant • leeks • lettuce • onions • parsley • peas • peppers • spinach • sunflowers • tomatoes
Humans have been saving seeds for over 12,000 years. However, in our culture much of that knowledge has been lost over the last hundred years, along with significant biodiversity. When you grow and save your own seeds, you:
• Develop seed stock that is well suited to our climate.
• Save money.
• Mitigate our dependence on agri-business.
When you participate … you create a culture of sharing and abundance.
• Visit www.RichmondGrows.org.
• Take seed-saving classes.
• Join the seedsavers.org forum.
• Read about seed saving at your local library.
• Talk to experienced seed-saving gardeners.
• Keep good garden records.
Source: Sylva Sprouts Seed Lending Library