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Gone to Seed
talking about the importance of producing local seeds with the Hudson Valley Seed Libraryby Jamaine Bell

What would we do if the only seeds available to grow our food came from one or two sources nationally, or if the only seeds available to buy were produced with pesticides, or were genetically-modified? What if it were illegal to save your own seeds for next year’s garden or harvest and that you could go to jail or face stiff fines for saving those seeds? Think these questions verge on the extreme? Not in Iraq or India, where seed saving of any sort is illegal, or even in the US if you are buying patented seeds from a multinational agribusiness corporation.

These questions are not just for farmers or gardeners. The answers to these questions affect anyone who eats: in other words, every one of us. Under the radar, giant agribusiness interests are working to become the only sources of the seeds for all our food. With their influence, governments around the world are taking away the basic rights of people to feed themselves independently, by passing laws that grant these corporate giants unlimited access to their markets while simultaneously taking away the rights of the farmers to do what they have done for thousands of years, which is saving their own seeds to ensure next year’s food supply. Farmers who buy patented seeds from agribusiness giants must agree to the contract terms, which include an agreement to not save and use any seeds for the next harvest. All well and good for the agribusiness corporations, who are seeing multi-billion dollars sales from these patented seeds.

However, those same businesses are lobbying to get laws passed that take away the rights of those who would save seeds that are not patented, in other countries and in the US as well. Here in the U.S., while saving non-patented seeds is not (yet) illegal, Monsanto is pressuring the FDA to put restrictions on seed cleaning equipment, making seed cleaning, whether of patented or non-patented seeds, virtually impossible for any but the best funded—meaning largest—companies. Some states have already passed these laws, and many other egregious laws and regulations are being considered or written into existence every year, thus increasing the market share and power of these giant corporations by eliminating the local competition.

Those of us who have seen the documentaries Food Inc. and King Corn are familiar with these issues, leaving many of us to wonder: what can be done? Fortunately, Ken Greene and Doug Muller of the Hudson Valley Seed Library are already ahead of that question and are working to bring seed saving, bio-diversity, and food security to the Hudson Valley, and not a moment too soon.

Ken and Doug are homesteaders and transplants to the Hudson Valley. Both with backgrounds in education and from diverse places such as Boston and Florida, they found their way here and fell in love with the natural beauty and culture. Ken started working at the Gardiner Library, handling the grant writing, doing some programming, and even shelving books. With a keen interest in plants, as well as in sustainability and self-sufficiency, he came up with the idea for the Gardiner Library’s seed exchange. As he explains, “I thought a lot about books and the things that libraries do for communities in terms of preserving information and ideas. So, I figure why not add seeds to the library catalog? People could check them out, take them home, grow a garden, save the seeds and then return them to the library. It was sort of extending the concept of what a library can do.” The seed exchange program was a big hit, with over 60 members. Ken and Doug were both members of the Seed-Savers Exchange, and with their interest in living sustainably, they eventually decided to start a farm themselves. As Ken tells it, “I was completely obsessed with seeds at that point, so we thought, why not grow for seed and create a catalog. Before that, neither of us had farming backgrounds.”

But why seeds? Ken explains, “There are many amazing vegetable growers around here. We are so lucky that we have so many farms. The idea of trying, on our tiny farm, to be one more farm growing great vegetables—I felt that there are people here who are good at that already, but there wasn’t anyone who was focused on growing seeds.” Seeds are a vital link in the food production cycle: without them, obviously there would be no food. As part of a growing concern for local food independence, local sustainability, and bio-diversity, Ken and Doug feel that they are providing a crucial element in reaching those goals here in the valley. They have established working relationships with local organic farms and farmers to provide seeds for the catalog as well as growing them themselves on their farm.

All the locally produced seeds are hand-crafted, literally meaning that they are cleaned and packaged by hand, often by the farmer’s themselves. At this point, however, not all of the seeds in the catalog are locally produced. Ken and Doug fill in the catalog with organic seeds from reputable national companies when the local supply runs out or with products that they have yet to add to the local production. The goal is to have 100% locally grown seeds in their catalog. Not only would this fulfill the local community focused nature of the business, but it would also ensure that the seeds in the catalog are acclimated best to our particular climate and growing conditions. Ken explains that they are looking for local farms to grow seed for them, even if it is for one vegetable. Often, he finds that he must help educate folks in the art of seed saving, which was once common and naturally integrated into the farming cycle, but has recently become a lost practice.

Interest in the seed library has grown tremendously since it started two years ago. The first year the seed catalog went online, they had over 500 members. This year Doug and Ken plan to go all-out and put their homesteading aside for the year to focus on growing (literally) the catalog and increasing local production. They also sell at various farmers’ markets and offer workshops on seed saving, growing organic vegetables, and the importance of local self-reliance. Ken is also keen to organize a Northeast seed conference and bring all of the seed saving organizations in the region together to share and network.

Having a community oriented and based business was an important aspect of starting the seed library. The Hudson Valley Seed Library farm is based on the property that Doug and Ken share in an intentional community. Ken explains that sharing the land with others helps to pool resources in such a way that allows for some of the land to be preserved and to allow for the space and resources needed for the farm. Ken and Doug’s community orientation extends to their friendships and collaboration with area farmers as well as such diverse groups as artists, food enthusiasts, and gardeners. The gallery opening last year at Roos Art in Rosendale, which featured the Art Pack artwork created by area artists for each individul seed packet, drew over 200 attendees. Ken describes it as an amazing cross-section of people. As he explains, “I felt really grateful that we were able to pull together all these people, even if they weren’t farming conscious or food conscious.”

The Hudson Valley Seed Library is finding a niche in the local community and is creating connections between various groups with their seeds, but also with their message, which basically comes down to the idea that sustainability starts at the local level. By increasing our self-sufficiency and building strong community ties, we are increasing our resilience and establishing our independence away from the overwhelmingly monolithic culture of corporate dominance. As Ken often explains in his lectures, we must “transition from being consumers to being producers. We are a consumer society. Everything we see is geared towards getting us to buy things with money that we earn at jobs where we’re not actually producing goods. So, what we’re doing here is just as much about saying that we want to change the way that our local economy works. It makes a stronger economy and a stronger network if we have producers and consumers.”

Ken and Doug feel that one of their greatest successes is getting people to notice and think about seeds. And while the average person may not spend a lot of time thinking about them, you can be sure that the agribusiness conglomerates are—thinking of ways to make you buy only their seeds, or of buying food produced from their seeds and theirs alone. It could happen here if we don’t pay attention. It already has in other parts of the world.


Visit seedlibrary.org for more information about the Hudson Valley Seed Library



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