Seed Swap: Promoting variety and restoring tradition one harvest at a time

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Photo by Aaron Davidson

I have this friend who has a half-baked dream of quitting her job to live on a farm and make her living working with her hands instead of shooting off e-mails from a standing desk. She’d keep chickens, plant squash and a blueberry bush, make jams and pies and other handmade things. I never joined in on this fantasy because I have, time and time again, proven my inability to keep even a succulent alive. But still, I have to admit her dream is a tantalizing alternative to battling daily traffic jams on I-35.

Say she did quit her job, and she moved to a plot of land off a county road in central Minnesota. Where would she start? She could do as the majority of commercial farmers in this country have done since the 1950s and order seeds from a company, whether GMO, conventional, or organic, to have them arrive right on time for planting. She’d plant, deal with pests as she saw fit, and harvest the goods as they ripened. Then she’d till everything up and return the land to zero, a clean slate for the following year’s order.

But just as some diners are reconsidering where their food comes from, some farmers and home gardeners are thinking more about where their seeds come from. The most dedicated among them are turning to a practice called seed saving, producing their own seeds from extra crops grown expressly for that purpose.

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Photo by Aaron Davidson

Seeds come from matured plants; think dandelions that have turned into white puffs of cottony seedpods. In the matter of fruits and vegetables, those seeds are slightly more difficult to turn over for a next planting. Squash must be scooped hollow, seeds separated from the pulp, cleaned, dried, and then stored. Bean pods must be left to dry on the vine, then, when finally ready, the beans shaken loose, cleaned, and stored. Our ancestors practiced this seed saving (or “breeding”) method for centuries, but it fell out of favor after World War II, when it was replaced by more efficient dump-and-grow packets.

I set out to meet some of the people opting to return to this seed-saving method and find out more about the how and why of the process. And where better than at a decades-old tradition known as the seed swap. Here’s how it works: People in a community grow different varieties of plants, harvest the seeds, and then get together before the next growing season to trade the little guys, everyone looking for something new to try out next season. The practice has gained momentum in the Pacific Northwest, and has just recently begun to see a resurgence here in Minnesota.

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Photo by Aaron Davidson

The seed swaps I attended took place in public meeting places, like schools and community centers. One even began with a prayer: “Thanks be to the seeds,” I heard chanted as we all held hands in a circle. Organizer Koby Jeschkeit-Hagen, of the nonprofit organization Seed Sages, explained that the pre-swap reverence was meant to dissuade the Black Friday-like atmosphere that pervaded a previous year’s gathering. (Apparently, when the doors opened, seedless newbies cruised the spreads of more generous seed sharers to hoard as many packets as they could.) Rest assured—there are more than enough seeds for everyone.

Next page: Inside the swap

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