A local business’ quest for resilience through saving and sharing seeds.
By Linda Jaquette. Photograph by Mandy Mohler of Field Guide Designs.
Whitefish, Montana’s Good Seed Company is on a mission: re-establish the community practice of selecting, saving, and sharing seeds for common use. “It’s how our ancestors survived disruptive change for 10,000 years,” says Robin Kelson, the company’s owner. “And it’s central to our resiliency as a species today.”
“It’s pretty simple math,” she continues. “Humans eat food to live, and all food starts with plants, which grow from seed. Even if you’re a hunter, the animal you hunt relies directly or indirectly on plants for survival.”
But there’s another step to the process that’s just as important, Kelson says. It’s sharing seeds. “Exchanging seeds is the best hedge against unexpected change, be it a prolonged drought or a new pest. It mixes up the genetics a little in the next batch of seeds you save.” That mix creates variety, explains Kelson, making it more likely some plants survive an event that wipes others out. “Our ancestors knew this and regularly shared seeds. Today it’s called biodiversity.”
In the last 100 years, we’ve lost over 96% of our agricultural seed biodiversity. Fewer open-pollinated and heirloom seeds, which are the seed types necessary for seed-saving, are available. Most are hybrids, or protected by patents that prohibit seed saving.
“It’s staggering. The good news is we can rebuild that biodiversity by saving and sharing seeds. That’s why the Good Seed Company only sells open-pollinated and heirloom vegetable, flower, and herb seeds.”
With undergraduate degrees in biology and chemistry from the University of Oregon and a graduate degree in biology from MIT, Kelson knows her science. She also knows her patents, working as a patent attorney for the biotechnology industry in the 1990s. The work, however, didn’t hold her focus. “I got curious about the escalating chronic illnesses in my community. That led me to seeds.”
“People are appreciating that organically grown, nutritious food is key to health. That’s why Free the Seeds! is so successful,” Kelson says, referring to the popular seed and skill sharing fair held annually at Flathead Valley Community College. “A group of us got together to create a free event for sharing seeds, ideas, resources, and skills. It was a seed swap, with booths and workshops. Our goal was to invite everyone from Polson to Eureka.”
It worked. Over 1,600 people showed up. “Yeah, that took us by surprise,” laughs Kelson. “We re-grouped and were ready for the 1,900 that showed up the next year!”
“Building a community of seed savers means creating a space for the community to grow,” says Kelson. “Free the Seeds! was organized by 10 community members – gardeners, educators, and local growers from your Farmers Markets. That group created space for 1,600 people to connect. One idea exchange at that first event produced a community seed library.”
Kelson is referring to Flathead Grows! Community Seed Library. Housed inside the Columbia Falls Imagine If Library branch, the seed library is a partnership between the Good Seed Company and Imagine If Libraries. Growers donate seeds, volunteers distribute them into packets, and anyone can take seeds home to plant and, hopefully, save more seeds to donate back. “It’s formalized seed sharing,” says Kelson. “Globally, there are thousands of community seed libraries.”
The seed library, which opened in March, caught on fast, and the free workshops are getting enthusiastic feedback. “It’s great fun,” says Kelson. “Flathead Grows! and Columbia Falls Junior High have an informal partnership, thanks to Shari Johnson, the school’s counselor, and their Food Corps program. In April we planted seeds in their Wildcat Peace Garden, in August we made compost, and in September we harvested seeds from the plants we’d started in the spring.”
Kelson’s definition of success? “The Good Seed Company is obsolete, replaced by a vibrant seed saving, sharing, and teaching community. That’s fabulous! And, resilient!”
Until then, you can find the Good Seed Company at www.goodseedco.net. For information about Free the Seeds! Annual Seed Fair go to freetheseedsmontana.com. For Flathead Grows! Community Seed Library, including workshops, seed packing parties, and opportunities to volunteer: imagineiflibraries.org/flatheadgrows. Or, follow them all on Facebook.
About the Author: Linda Jaquette serves as the Development Assistant at Citizens for a Better Flathead. While she wears many hats, Go Local is her favorite.