Why Save Seed?

By Cassidy Metcalf

When you think of “extinction,” you probably don’t picture lettuce, corn, or cucumber being at risk. Believe it or not, many crop varieties today are in danger of going the way of the dodo.

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If you were a gardener in the early 20th century, you would have been able to flip through a seed catalog and choose from hundreds of varieties of each fruit and vegetable. Now very few of those can be found commercially. In 1903 we had almost 500 types of lettuce; by 1983 there were only 36. In the same eighty year period, available corn varieties dropped from 307 to only 12, and cucumber went from 285 to 16. It’s a similar story for countless other food crops across the world.

What happened was we shifted from being seed savers to seed buyers. Over most of agricultural history seeds were the concern of small scale farmers and home gardeners, who would let some of their plants produce seed in the fall, save that seed over the winter, and plant it the following spring.  Seeds were considered a public resource and traded freely among people.

In the last century, however, we have become increasingly dependent on a small handful of corporations for acquiring seed. These companies focus on fruits and vegetables that will withstand transportation and look good in the grocery store; they are not concerned with preserving crops of the past. Due to the privatization of seeds, fewer old varieties are being grown and as a result our food system has been weakened. Without the genetic diversity there once was in seed, we are relying on a small number of crops to feed a lot of people. And as we all know, less biodiversity means greater potential for collapse.

Here’s how you can help – try seed saving in your own garden! The best way to keep heirloom fruit and vegetables alive is for more people to grow them. First off, you’ll need some open-pollinated seeds as these will produce plants identical to the parent. Do not use hybrids; they are a cross between two parents and the next generation will not produce true. The easiest crops to start with are tomatoes, lettuce, peas, and beans because they are self-pollinating and therefore will not cross within the species.

There are lots of helpful resources out there to get you going. The Seeds Savers Exchange has a great website with instruction for beginners. And did you know we have a local seed company? It’s called Solstice Seeds in Hartland, VT and can provide you with an assortment of open-pollinated seeds, all with intriguing names and histories. One of the perks of saving seed is you only have to buy seeds once!

Saving your own seed will allow you to separate yourself from the industrial agriculture model and take control of your food in a sustainable way. It will also enable your crops to adapt better to your specific garden site. Because you will be selecting seed from your best performing plants, the traits you find most appealing – like vigor, taste, or color – will be magnified. After years of seed saving, your crops will be adapted to your local growing conditions as well as your personal tastes. This is what growers before you have done for centuries. By saving and planting seed, you will be participating in an ancient tradition and doing your part to preserve history.

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