State of the Seed

By Lia Babitch, Turtle Tree Seed

This is a very interesting time to be a small seed company that grows, maintains, improves and cares for a number of vegetable, herb and flower varieties on our own farm. On the one hand, we see an increasing awareness among people who farm and garden that the source of their seeds is important, that not all seed sources are equal, and that choosing where to buy seeds is as important as where to buy or how to raise food.

Industrial seed production, because it is not considered food, is less regulated in terms of what chemicals can go on the crops and into the environment. And industrial seed production is concentrated in a few specific areas across the globe, causing concern that should one of these areas become vulnerable or have a bad season, seed supplies of a given crop could dramatically drop.

We also see a building awareness around food diversity, preserving heirloom varieties and the importance of qualities more than basic uniformity and shelf-life. These two qualities are the main goals of industrial agriculture since they enable widespread marketability. But these goals often diminish flavor and nutritional value, and ignore culturally-specific or locally-adapted varieties.

On the other hand, all this new awareness has brought out a bunch of folks who are capitalizing on this recent spike in public interest. The internet is flooded with seed company start-ups that simply buy heirloom varieties from large distributors and repackage them for sale. We love that people are trying to get more varieties out into the world, but we also need to make sure the varieties themselves are being properly stewarded. Unfortunately, the seed breeders for large seed distributors often focus most of their attention on creating new hybrids and not on properly maintaining older varieties.

All seed and plant varieties, old or new, need constant care and maintenance to stay true to type, productive and not decline or lose the qualities that originally made them wonderful. This takes a lot of time, work and dedication, and is neither as easy nor as cheap as simply buying large amounts of seed from a distributor and repackaging them.

A wise seedsman once said "growing vegetables is like babysitting, growing seeds is like having children" and those of you who are parents (and many of you who are not) can appreciate the huge amount of love, work, care and dedication that goes into such an enterprise!

Some small seed companies, including Turtle Tree, are committed to giving our seed proper care, maintaining and improving the varieties we offer to you because we find that they are important and dignity-deserving varieties. This has been our goal since before it became fashionable to talk about heirlooms.

Know your seed company. Are they caring for, maintaining and improving the varieties they offer? What are the agricultural practices of the seed growers? Are they organic and/or biodynamic? What are the community context and social values of the company?

Turtle Tree works with small farmers across the country who are just as committed as we are to social responsibility and sustainability, and care for the environment through biodynamic agriculture. Biodynamic standards include setting land aside for wildlife, caring for water and limiting off-farm inputs by looking at the farm as a living organism that should be able to sustain itself. Biodynamic farms aspire to keep a balance between producing top quality produce and making sure that the amazing diversity of life in and above the soil is encouraged and can flourish.

There are some really wonderful folks out there doing great work, but it can be difficult to know who is who unless you look deeper than the buzz words. This can be a challenge, but we think it is worth it!

Lia Babitch grew up on a biodynamic farm in Camphill Village Kimberton Hills, PA, graduated from Kimberton Waldorf School and then Macalester College, where she participated in and then co-led the organic gardening club. After several years working various jobs, she completed a two and a half year Biodynamic Farming and Gardening apprenticeship with the Severn Valley Biodynamic Land Training in Gloucestershire, UK and Herefordshire, UK, where she first started formal learning about saving seeds. Upon returning to the US, she became the Seed Garden Manager and Co-General Manager at Turtle Tree Seed in Camphill Village in Copake, NY, after training with Beth and Nathan Corymb, the founders of Turtle Tree Seed, who have since moved on to another endeavor.

4 Responses to “State of the Seed”

  1. Luke

    Great article Lia,

    Along with folks reselling heirloom varieties, have you found as many new seed farmers getting into the field?

    It’d be neat to see more organic seed farmers starting up, especially because it doesn’t take a large amount of space.

  2. Stephen

    Such a great article, well written and descriptive of the work that goes into maintaining heirloom varieties. “Babysitting vs having children” is so apropos – right on the mark! Thanks for helping to further our customer’s education!

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