By Erica Kempter
Let’s stop and envision an ideal food system. One that gives us the collective ability to feed ourselves sustainably for generations to come; one that provides healthy, safe food for all. A system where most of this food comes from local, organic farms that don’t work against nature, but with it; where farmers grow crops from a wide choice of seeds that are uniquely adapted to the climate, soil, and conditions on the farm, and these seeds produce an abundance of nutritious and delicious food.
Miracle in a Package
Seeds are like a miracle in a small package (unless we’re talking coconuts). Often I find myself looking down, holding a small collection of seeds in my hand, and I am reminded how each one is living and breathing, just as I am. I know if I take these seeds and tuck them into the soil under the right conditions, those tiny promises will take in the earth’s water, bringing about a magical series of internal metabolic changes: the beginning of new life.
I, along with my partner, Mike Levine, own Nature and Nurture, LLC, a local organic landscaping business. Recently, we launched Nature and Nurture Seeds and began selling sustainably grown, heirloom vegetable seeds. Our mission is to be a catalyst for the preservation and innovation of food seed biodiversity in the Great Lakes region.
Seeds are a plant’s way of reproducing itself. During the creation of a seed, through the magic of pollination, genetic mixing occurs, making each new seed completely unique. Each seed has the potential to contain new traits that make it survive better in nature or, in the case of agriculture, that make it more beneficial for people. The more our food crops are allowed to make seed (and those seeds are subsequently replanted), the more opportunities there will be for new genetic combinations resulting in increased biodiversity.
A Collective Heritage
So where did the seeds of our food crops come from? As human beings went from being hunter-gatherers to farmers, our ancestors began to grow plants intentionally, as opposed to hunting or foraging for wild food. At some point, our ancestors began collecting seeds from wild plants and sowing them upon the land. As they did this, they identified new traits and learned to save seeds from the best plants — plants that were easier to grow, produced more food, or were resistant to pests, drought, heat, cold, or flooding. Each selection changed the genetic make-up of the plants, making them better adapted to grow under the conditions in which they found themselves. Humans, dispersed all over the planet, carried out this process, and when we traveled and migrated, we carried seeds stitched under our clothing. These coveted seeds were traded and planted in new places, leading to genetic mixing and, ultimately, to increased biodiversity. (For a great read about the history of our food, see Where Our Food Comes From by Gary Nabhan.)
Over thousands of years, these ancient farmers domesticated wild plants — plants that were toxic, thorny, difficult to grow, and unpleasantly bitter — into the astonishing, abundant diversity of crops that we have today. Even though they knew nothing about the science of genetics, our indigenous farming ancestors were well attuned to something we seem to have forgotten: that genetic diversity means food security. They intentionally maintained genetic diversity within crops because they knew that particular plants would produce food during droughts or floods while others would provide nourishment during hot years, cold years, or during pest infestations. It is because of this diversity that we are able to be here today to tell this story; it is precisely because our ancestors had food in their bellies generation after generation; and it is our presence that is living proof that there was not one break in the chain.
The seeds of our ancestors are held in what is known as “the commons.” The commons refers to the collective cultural and natural resources accessible to all and include things like air and water. These resources are held in common by the public and are not (or should not be) privately owned. For most of our country’s history, our patent laws precluded the patenting of plants, which meant that all plants, seeds, and their genetics were held in the commons. However, the patenting of food plants, which has increased exponentially in the last ten years, has meant the removal of countless seeds from the pubic commons.
In reflecting back at the history of our food, I am reminded that our food crops are the collective heritage of us all. By what right does anyone have to own or control that which we have inherited from our ancestors?
My Seed Education
Growing up on the Old West Side of Ann Arbor, summer usually found me in our family’s vegetable garden. Standing barefoot in the garden as the delightful juice of a ripe tomato ran down my chin, I found myself fully embodied in the moment. Somehow the entire sensory experience felt primal in a way that spoke to a deep need for connection to food and nature.
These early experiences stayed with me, and when I entered college at the University of Michigan in 1991, I started my first vegetable garden and began my own organic landscape gardening business. Eventually my interest in organic gardening and food grew and I transferred to the University of California, Santa Cruz, which, at the time, was the only major university to have an organic farm on campus. As a student, I was particularly drawn to sustainable agriculture for its capacity to address social, health, and environmental issues in a tangible, solution oriented way. I returned to Ann Arbor in 1998 and, in 2001, founded Nature and Nurture, LLC, with Mike Levine.
My obsession with seeds began with a “chance” event: my meeting the pre-eminent organic seed breeder, advocate, and mentor John Navazio on an airplane in 2002. While I was perusing seed catalogs, he took notice, leaned across the aisle, and we became engaged in a long conversation about seeds. I told him what my favorite tomato variety was and he began to explain that, since it was a commercial F1 hybrid, eventually the variety would be dropped from seed catalogs (for financial and/or biological reasons); and since you can’t save seeds from F1 hybrids, that would be the end. This was shocking news to me — how could my treasured tomato just disappear into thin air?
At this point in my life, I already knew that the last hundred years had seen a drastic change in the way people grow food with the widespread adoption of industrial farming systems, leading to consequences that we are still trying to understand. Consequences like diabetes and heart disease caused from the overconsumption of low nutrition, processed foods and negative health effects from chemical exposure. More and more we hear of e. coli and salmonellae contamination, which has sickened and even killed numerous individuals. Not only is industrial farming hurting us, it's also destroying our planet, where it erodes our soil, pollutes our air and water, and drives natural ecosystems into dramatic reductions of biodiversity or complete species extinction. The effects have sent a shockwave through cultures, tearing apart rural communities, destroying culinary heritage, and hurting us socially and psychologically by dismantling the great tradition of celebrating the food we grow around a communal dinner table.
Part of this change has been the switch from open-pollinated (OP) seeds (the kinds of seeds that our ancestors developed) to the widespread adoption of commercial F1 hybrids. As I began to research more about seeds, I learned that F1 hybrids are typically bred in conventional farming systems, meaning they are exposed to significant amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. This breeding process, in effect, creates (selects genes by default for) wimpy plants that require the protection of pesticides and dependency on chemical fertilizers in order to perform their best. Consequently, researchers have found in recent years that commercial F1 hybrid seeds often underperform in organic farming systems when compared to open-pollinated varieties that have been bred in organic farming systems.
Unlike commercial hybrids, “open-pollinated” varieties, sometimes called “heirlooms,” have the capacity to be constantly and infinitely selected, bred, and adapted to the food needs of human beings. Hybridization is not bad, in itself, but, since farmers do not save and replant F1 hybrid seeds, this is the end-of-the-line for that hybrid — no evolution, no ability to adapt to the unique and constantly changing conditions, climates, soils, and pests that occur on each farm, in each region. F1 hybrids are evolutionary dead-ends and thus perpetuate the loss of seed biodiversity
Another consequence of the large-scale adoption of F1 hybrids has meant that, in the U.S., we’ve essentially dismantled the age-old process of growing, selecting, breeding, and saving seeds; consequently, farmers have lost the knowledge and skills that went with it, organic farmers included.
It also has meant the transfer of enormous resources from OP’s into F1 hybrids and the consequential loss of open-pollinated varieties. In the past 100 years, 94 percent of open-pollinated vegetable varieties have been lost; they are literally extinct, and the potentially beneficial genes they contained are gone forever. Due to major changes in the structure of the seed industry in the last forty years, the open-pollinated seeds that remain have been seriously neglected. Up until the 1970s most seed companies were regionally based and independently owned, but starting in the ‘70s, pharmaceutical and chemical corporations began buying up these seed companies. During this process, many of the open-pollinated varieties carried by these smaller companies were dropped.
This buying trend increased with great gusto in the 1990s to the present, leading to extreme consolidation and monopoly in the seed industry, meaning that today the seed industry is ultimately controlled by a handful of these big corporations. Driven by greed, and not human need, open-pollinated varieties simply don’t have the financial support needed to be properly maintained and their quality has suffered on account of it.
Instigated by my conversation with John Navazio and my new knowledge of these historical shifts, my first in-depth seed project was working to “de-hybridize” a F1 hybrid tomato. To do it, I saved the seeds from the favorite F1 hybrid tomato fruit and, in the following year, planted 100 of those seeds. I was completely blown away to see that every single tomato plant was different. The plants themselves varied in vigor, disease resistance, and other traits, but where the differences really stood out was in the fruit. The tomatoes ranged in size from small to large, round to oval, juicy to dry, tasty to down-right spitters. I saved seeds from those plants and have been selecting them for the qualities that I love in the F1 hybrid. Eventually, my tomato will be an open-pollinated plant with characteristics more or less like the F1 hybrid. This project really opened a door for me, revealing a whole new world, and allowed me to feel empowered to be a plant breeder.
The Importance of Biodiversity & the Precarious Foundation of Seeds
The trends toward planting commercial hybrids and patenting food plants are stifling innovation, and thus have the potential to severely limit the diversity of our food crops into the future. Seemingly we still haven't learned from examples like the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s. We all know a little about the story, where extreme starvation resulted in Ireland because one third of the population was dependent on one variety of potato. What we should have learned is that when you bank on genetic uniformity, you're in trouble when a disease like Late Blight comes in and spreads to every available host, wiping out every potato. From 1846 to 1851, at least 20 percent of Ireland's population died as a result.
We need to be reminded that our crops are still susceptible to a constant and ever-changing barrage of pests and diseases. As climate change becomes increasingly problematic, our crops are becoming even more vulnerable to the extremes of nature. More and more we require genetic diversity to provide our crops with resiliency to these current and future threats.
As human beings, we are at a critical juncture. We have come to depend on an industrialized, unsustainable, chemical-based, agricultural system built on a precarious foundation of seeds. I think it's time we start seriously asking ourselves if this type of agriculture can provide healthy, sustainable food for generations to come.
The Movement to Save Seeds
For many years, there has been a significant seed preservation movement in the U.S. Consisting mostly of home gardeners growing and saving threatened OP vegetable varieties, this work has been a very important stopgap measure to minimize the further loss of seeds. At the forefront of this work has been the nonprofit organization Seed Savers Exchange, located in Decorah, Iowa. Beginning around 2000, leading thinkers in the seed movement began questioning whether seed preservation alone was enough to make the fundamental changes needed in our seed system and the nonprofit organization Organic Seed Alliance in Port Townsend, Washington, was born. With a focus on promoting seed stewardship and innovation among farmers, as well as working on research, education, and advocacy, the Organic Seed Alliance seeks to make lasting change in the seed system.
Inspired by the work of the Organic Seed Alliance, I began to research the seed history in the Great Lakes region and came across a copy of Renewing America’s Food Tradition’s Place-Based Foods at Risk in the Great Lakes. Compiled by Gary Nabhan, this small book kindled a vital passion in me to explore the food heritage of the place I call home. The first thing that I discovered in my quest was that, other than this little booklet, scant information exists about Great Lakes regional seeds. The idea for Nature and Nurture Seeds was born.
One of the early Great Lakes varieties that we trialed was Grand Rapids Lettuce. Grand Rapids Lettuce was developed around the turn of the 20th century in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where it was grown in hundreds of greenhouses that fed people lettuce during the winter. At Nature and Nurture Seeds, we have been growing this lettuce in our unheated hoophouse over the winter where cold temperatures and disease kill many other lettuce varieties. Grand Rapids Lettuce has outperformed many of the lettuces that we have trialed. For three years we have been growing it for seed, letting disease and cold kill the weak plants and selecting and saving seeds from the most cold hardy and disease resistant plants. This past winter was a great year for selecting for cold hardiness! Over time, our strain of Grand Rapids Lettuce is becoming more and more adapted to a southeast Michigan hoophouse growing environment. We offer packets of Grand Rapids seeds through our seed catalog, but it is my hope that eventually our strain will be beneficial for the many market growers in our region who do winter hoophouse production.
We have many projects like Grand Rapids Lettuce, all with these goals: increasing the biodiversity in our food crops; having regionally adapted varieties; increasing the seed choices of farmers; and ultimately contributing to the ability of our region to feed ourselves. We trial, grow, and offer varieties that are vigorous, high yielding, and have good taste. Thirty percent of our seeds this year are locally grown — either by us or by partnerships with other local growers. We hope to increase that percent every year.
Here in Southeast Michigan there are several organizations working on seeds. Annie Elder and Paul Bantle of Community Farm of Ann Arbor have been seed savers for many years, using saved seeds to grow many of their crops. Support Paul and Annie’s seed saving work by joining their C.S.A.!
Project Grow Community Gardens is an Ann Arbor-based community garden organization that provides garden plots to the public. They have long been involved in heirloom seed saving projects and are always looking for new people to get involved.
Greg Vaclavek of the Native Plant Nursery collects over 200 species of native plant seeds (with required permits and permissions) following ethical seed collecting guidelines. He uses the collected seed to grow native plants that he sells at the Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market.
Recently, I learned that the Lyon Township Public Library (near South Lyon) has a Seed Library. Seed libraries provide a community service by lending free seeds and then encouraging borrowers to return a portion of their seeds from their harvests to the library to make the seed library self-sustaining. They also provide many seed saving resources and hold related events. Mike and I were happy this year to be able donate seeds to support the work of the Lyon Seed Library.
Slow Food Huron Valley, the local chapter of the international Slow Food organization, has been working on several Great Lakes Heirloom Seed projects. Along with my company, Nature and Nurture Seeds, which sells seeds online, by mail, or by phone order, there is another local seed business called Ann Arbor Seed Company. Owned by Eric Kampe and Meredith Kahn, Ann Arbor Seed Company sells 100 percent locally grown seeds via local retailers and at the Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market.
If you are wondering what you can do in your daily life, I would start by saying that the act of growing food is transformative; that our souls yearn for deeper connection that can be satisfied through the growing of one’s own food. Seeds embody an intimate connection to nature’s biodiversity and working directly with them gives us a connection to those who have come before us. Start a garden. Save seeds. If that sounds difficult, start simple. Beans, peas, and tomatoes are super easy plants for seed saving, not to mention they are yummy to eat. And once you start gardening, you can share the bounty with family, friends, and neighbors.
One thing that we've learned from the organic food movement is that it really does matter how we decide to spend our money. So if you are a gardener, vote with your dollars! Buy open-pollinated seeds (all commercial hybrid seeds are labeled “hybrid” or “F1 hybrid”). I know some folks prefer the sugary sweetness of hybrid sweet corn, so don’t feel bad if you don’t want to grow 100 percent OP’s. But stay tuned, there are OP sweet corn breeding projects in the works, so you may be able to have your sweet OP cake and eat it too! Also, vote with your dollars by avoiding buying patented seeds. Some patented seeds will say “Utility Patent Granted” in the variety description. If you want to avoid buying patented seeds and are unsure if certain seeds are patented, ask your seed company.
Instead of blaming farmers for growing commercial F1 hybrids, we need to encourage them to be seed stewards. We need to work to give them access to a wide choice of genetically diverse, productive OP varieties. As farmers begin to save seeds, the seeds of each subsequent generation will become more and more regionally and farm adapted. Encourage gardeners and farmers to become farmer/breeders. Plant breeding does not have to occur in ivory towers or laboratories; it can be done with simple methods in fields and gardens by farmers, gardeners, by you and me!
It is my hope one day to bring the folks from the Organic Seed Alliance to Michigan to hold workshops on “Seeds Saving for Farmers and Gardeners,” “On-Farm Variety Trials,” and “On-Farm Plant Breeding” in order to engage more local growers in the practices of seed growing and breeding. In addition, permaculture has gained recognition in the last few years. One of the primary tenets of permaculture is using perennial food plants. Unfortunately, there has been very little work done on breeding perennial edible plants and there is a huge need for them, especially in northern climates.
A Vision of Seeds for the Future
We have created a vision for the kind of food system that we want. So let us dream. Vision gives us direction, and guides us down a path with more clarity, intention, and purpose. Taking the seeds that have been handed down to us, we cradle, protect, nurture, and free them. As a member of homo sapiens who eats, each one of us has a role to play toward the vision, no matter how big or how small. Should we become weary or discouraged, we take refuge in the knowledge that collectively we can accomplish more than any one of us can create alone. We remember that we are standing on the shoulders of our ancestors and we give thanks for all that we have. We celebrate together over abundant, wholesome, delicious food, rejoicing in the knowledge that, because of us, future generations will be celebrating and feasting together.
Erica Kempter, along with her partner, Mike Levine, owns Ann Arbor’s Nature and Nurture, LLC, which provides organic gardening services, has a fruit and nut tree nursery, grows Shiitake mushrooms, and, in January, began offering sustainably grown, heirloom vegetable seeds through Nature and Nurture Seeds. Erica has been involved in organic gardening and food for twenty years, including leadership in multiple urban gardening projects in California and Detroit, founding the HomeGrown Festival, and involvement in the Local Food Summit. She developed the Organic Gardener Certificate Program at Washtenaw Community College and is a board member of Slow Food Huron Valley. Erica and Mike live on the Westside of Ann Arbor but are getting ready to move to their new farm in Scio Township where they will have a lot more room to grow seeds! Contact Erica via www.natureandnurtureseeds.com or (734) 929-0802.