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

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Photo by Aaron Davidson

Tables at the swaps were piled with seeds: tiny grains in little glassine envelopes, mottled beans in mason jars, huge flower pods in brown grocery bags, even seeds in soda bottles. Seeing each swapper’s collection is like seeing inside his or her fridge, a glimpse at their personality. The woman who gave me some shiso seeds had even gone so far as to hand-label her varieties, neatly writing the names and harvest dates on pastel chevron paper attached to each little plastic bag. Another swapper had a predilection for tomato seeds and told me how to grow each type so it would taste its best. And although they’d love it if you did, don’t worry about bringing seeds of your own to trade. This is a generous bunch.

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Photo by Aaron Davidson

The first type of people I met were members of the old guard—namely, Patrick and Connie Lahr, a retired couple from Maple Lake, Minnesota, who dream up new ways to use compost and keep weeds at bay with simple engineered systems of plywood and wire. Patrick had a brag book repurposed as documentation of successful experiments with him, and, within the course of our conversation, confessed his favorite things to grow are onions. To the Lahrs, saving seeds is common sense; thrift in action.

Patrick insisted I take a packet of lettuce seeds with me. On its label were simple growing instructions and the name “Queensland Leaf Lettuce,” dubbed after the city in New Zealand where the couple had discovered the seeds. (“That was before customs got their act together,” they said—although I’m not sure that would stop them now.) When I insisted he not leave a living thing in my care, Patrick flipped to a photo in his book of the lettuce in a pot in his front yard, which appeared to be so prodigious that it had hopped down to a sidewalk crack and begun flourishing there as well.

Patrick went on to explain that he’d planted this lettuce variety for years and saved its seeds after each harvest—but only from the healthiest plants. By taking the best of the crop, Patrick was doing his own kind of plant Eugenics—making a naturally superior seed that would be easier for someone like me to grow. I accepted the packet.

For every Patrick Lahr at the swaps there was an Elizabeth Makarewicz, someone on the younger side and eager to get her hands dirty. Makarewicz professed her particular love of saving tomato seeds, a process occurring at the height of harvest wherein seeds are scooped out of tomatoes, marinated in water for five days with twice-daily stirrings, and left out to dry in preparation for next year’s planting season.

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Photo by Aaron Davidson

“It’s a process. It’s like a ritual,” she says. “I find it really grounding and pleasant in the same way I like using sourdough starter to make bread.” Threshing seed pods, carefully examining a row of plants to save seeds from only the healthiest varieties—these are labor-intense activities, often done by hand, or with simple machines. That may be appealing to the hands-on, seed-saving crowd, but to professional farmers, it serves as a barrier.

Unless, of course, said farmer is invested in seed production for larger reasons. Enter Winston Pennington-Flax (yes, like the seed), a career organic farmer who was also at one of the swaps. As we talked, he fished out a sealed mini-manila envelope of Tarbais seed to show me while he explained his commitment to the practice. “I see it as a solution to some of these issues that we’re facing,” he says.

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Photo by Aaron Davidson

Chief among those issues is global warming. In short, growing seasons have gone haywire these past few years, and seed saving can help.

Here’s the gist. Let’s say I successfully grow the Lehrs’ Queensland lettuce and harvest seeds from the plants best attuned to my patio’s growing conditions. I attend a seed swap and give some of my lettuce seeds to a couple to plant in northeastern Wisconsin. They then cultivate the lettuce to thrive in their specific growing conditions. Over time, those seeds, which were similar at the start, will begin to express slightly different genes. Fast-forward 50 years and suddenly we have two different lettuce breeds to tap into, one more attuned to a wet growing season, perhaps, the other a dry one. Biodiversification, all from an old-fashioned seed swap.

Now multiply that over centuries and across countries. Agricultural pioneers testing out different traits of plants over the years is how grain varieties were developed—and also how I ended up with 15 kinds of beans to choose from at a single swap. But seeds don’t last forever; they need to be planted, re-harvested, and then planted again. That’s why seed swapping is essential. The more seeds that are grown, the more variety that’s available.

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Photo by Aaron Davidson

Farmers and home gardeners have choices when it comes to choosing seeds and production practices. While seed saving is the more demanding option, to some, like Seed Savers organizer Jeschkeit-Hagen, it’s worth the investment. “When you get 10 years into it, you are known for your high-quality seed, especially as all these other seed companies kind of have the same thing,” she says. “I think it will become more and more lucrative.”

That remains to be seen, but if true, perhaps our farm-to-table restaurant scene could someday be seed-to-farm-to-table. As for those of us just embarking on the seed-growing-and-harvesting wagon, well—fingers crossed.

Want to start swapping?

Minnesota is ripe with resources for curious gardeners. Newbies can look to Eggplant Urban Farm Supply for introductory classes, helpful staff, and supplies to start a plot. Seed Sages posts information about the organization’s annual seed swap, plus tasting events that showcase the dozens (hundreds?) of tomato varieties available. And when in doubt, Ask a Master Gardener; the University of Minnesota Extension is a wealth of accumulated knowledge.

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