At first glance, the three women hunched over tomato starts in a garden behind St. Stephen’s Church in the Northern California town of Sebastopol don’t look like revolutionaries. They’re not bearded and stoic like Che Guevara. They’re not bespectacled with a dramatic flair for oration like Malcolm X. And they’re not rousing a crowd of thousands at the People’s Climate March like Bill McKibben or Naomi Klein.
But, take a closer look and you’ll see that these women are engaged in a quiet, often unrecognized, form of revolution: the act of propagating and preserving locally grown and adapted seeds with an eye towards food security for the surrounding community and future generations.
“We’re like the grandmothers, protecting the seed,” says Sara McCamant, who in her early 50s is the youngest of the three. McCamant is one of 10 core volunteers at the Community Seed Exchange, an all-volunteer organization dedicated to growing and giving away locally grown, open-pollinated seeds. Seeds, these grassroots activists say, are an overlooked link to building a resilient local food system.
For the last eight years, the seed exchange has steadily grown both as a repository of seed and a seed-saving network. They do this through work parties, workshops, and a library that offers—for free—about 200 varieties of 100 percent locally grown, open-pollinated seeds.
“All free. This is the real sharing economy,” says McCamant.
The only requirement is that you take only what you need and leave behind plenty for the next person. It doesn’t surprise McCamant—or, for that matter, any other seed savers who’ve been at this for a long time—that free seeds astonish amateur backyard gardeners who’ve become accustomed to buying pretty seed packets from the store.
“We believe that seed is part of the commons,” says McCamant, taking down a jar of quinoa. “This quinoa is not something that I grew and is mine. This quinoa goes back 7,000 years and was developed by people in Peru and Bolivia. It’s not something I have any right to own.”
Everything grown in the seed garden is open-pollinated: Cascadia Sugar Snap Peas, Red Venture Celery, Detroit Red Beets, Cascade Corn, Ruby Valentine lettuce, Sonora White Wheat. The plants are selected for a host of reasons. The celery is a good producer and comes from Frank Morton, a famous Pacific Northwest plant breeder and staunch advocate for open-pollinated seeds and open-source seeds; the wheat is the oldest in California and grown for its historical significance; the lettuce is a heirloom sold by one small seed company and it stands a good chance of being lost if not cultivated. Eventually, these seeds will be harvested, sorted, cleaned, and added to the library’s inventory.
The one thing you won’t find in the Community Seed Garden are hybrid seeds. These are the seeds favored by Monsanto and other big agri-businesses in which one plant is crossed with another to create a whole new organism. Hybrids may guarantee higher yields and hardy plants for one season, but good luck saving the seed and planting them again next year. The seed will revert back to the traits of its parents, meaning you have no idea what you’re going to get or how it’s going to taste. In this way, the big seed companies have become more like landlords of seeds, renting to farmers and other growers year after year, and making billions in profit.
“If we really care about our local food system, then we really need to look at where our seed is coming from,” says McCamant. “If it’s being controlled by large corporations that are growing seed all over the world, then it’s like the food link to the food system is really missing. The question becomes: How do we localize it?”
That question is finding some answers...