A small seed in the palm of your hand may not look like much; however, within that seed there is incalculable potential. Not only do seeds carry the genetic makeup of their parent plants — traits carefully selected by farmers throughout human history — they are also powerfully symbolic, representing regional food security, self-sufficiency, cultural heritage and independence. But in order to pass down a seed to the next generation, it must be sown and it must be saved.
In Western North Carolina, the Cherokee Indians were the original agriculturists of the Appalachian Mountains. “A lot of what is considered [Appalachian] mountain agriculture actually comes from folks that came to the area learning from the Native Americans,” says Kevin Welch, who started the Center for Cherokee Plants in Cherokee, which is dedicated to saving plant varieties culturally significant to the tribe.
But Welch says saving and sharing seeds was not only a fundamental part of Cherokee culture, but of all farming cultures. “Seeds have always been shared,” he adds. “It’s actually atypical not to share seeds in our culture.”
Common as the practice may once have been, Welch does report a decline in the use of heirloom seeds — or open-pollinated seed that has been preserved and passed down — in favor of commercially available hybrid seeds. Welch says he left his previous job as an engineer to focus on seed-saving — in large part because he saw a threat to the practice.
“Open-pollinated varieties are disappearing,” he says. “The Southern Appalachians are one of the richest, [most] biodiverse areas in the world, and we’re losing them at an alarming rate. In general, I don’t think you can put a dollar amount on seed-saving, but you can put a humanitarian value on it because it affects everyone.”
With the industrialization of agriculture, heirloom varieties are being replaced by monoculture crops genetically engineered to produce higher yields in less time, Welch explains. Most open-pollinated seeds, though they fruit a little later and yield a little less, are acclimatized to their specific area — meaning they are generally more resilient and better-suited to resist disease or withstand extremes in weather, elevation, rainfall or drought.
“A lot of the species that are grown now are engineered for perfect shape, color and size, and people like that they grow faster,” Welch says. “A lot of it has to do with the quantity of food produced as opposed to quality. In the case of corn, it’s more feasible to grow engineered corn that produces more bushels per acre than open-pollinated varieties that produce less. That’s one of the reasons you’re seeing [open-pollinated varieties] disappear — it’s not because of the flavor of them, but the amount that they can produce.”
According to Janisse Ray, naturalist, activist and author of The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food, all home gardeners need to be empowered to save and preserve the biodiversity of open-pollinated seeds. “When we lose agrodiversity, the loss is many-fold,” Ray says. “We lose unique tastes. We lose having a full spectrum of genetic resources from which to mine genes for human needs of all kinds, but especially nutritionally. We lose our capacity to respond to disease and disaster, since we know that the less diverse any system, the greater the potential for its collapse.”
So what does it take to save your own seeds?
Tony Kleese, owner of Earthwise Organics and a member of the board of directors at the Organic Seed Alliance, urges aspiring seed savers to educate themselves. “I would instruct [anyone interested in seed saving] to go to the OSA website and read the guide on how to save seed,” Kleese says. “It’s a very complicated thing, more complicated than people realize. There are isolation distances, disease issues, insect issues, drying issues: it does not make any sense to tell somebody to just select seeds from the garden and save them randomly. It’s a very significant process.”
There are many factors to take into consideration when saving seeds, affirms Richard Boylan, an agriculture agent with the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service. “Seeds are the plant’s way of biding its time, waiting for the next opportunity to grow,” Boylan says. “While a plant needs plenty of water, air, heat and light, these environmental factors will degrade seed viability.
“The best seed storage conditions come when seeds are cleaned well, dried thoroughly, packaged in glass jars or plastic bags and then placed into a freezer,” Boylan continues. “It’s also good to know how long a seed is likely to remain viable even under ideal storage conditions.”
Seed harvesting practices are differentiated by the constitution of the plant itself, Boylan adds. Open-pollinated plants strongly resemble their parent plant, whereas hybrids produce offspring that vary greatly from the parent. Annual and biennial plants produce seeds in different cycles, and biennials need a second year to produce seed. Some plants produce wet seeds, while others are dried in place on the plant. These factors, among many others including pollination methods, disease management, soil cultivation and harvest timing, greatly influence the process of seed-saving.
That said, many agree that seed-saving is still an accessible practice. “It’s not rocket science,” Welch says. “In my own garden, I walk around in the summertime and I’ll look at the plants. The ones that have the prettiest colors and what I think is the best flavor, I’ll just tie a ribbon around that plant and, in the fall when I harvest, I’ll save the seed. And that’s my seed for next year.”
“It’s actually very low-tech,” he adds. “It comes from a groundswell up. It’s not something that someone invented; it comes from farmers and growers who have saved their seeds over eons.”
For those interested in further seed-saving instruction, Boylan, in conjunction with the Ashe County Farmers Market, leads an annual High Country Seed Swap in the spring. The Organic Growers School also offers seed-saving classes and swaps before its annual springtime conference. And though the Center for Cherokee Plants is currently more of a workspace than a place open to the public, Welch and the tribal extension office are available for more information at 554-6928.