When the world was a bit younger, before the host of consuming and monetizing technologies we take for granted was available, people saved seeds. People did a lot of things differently, but this morning as I admire the tray of Ace 55 tomato seedlings growing in the window, seed saving is on my mind.
The Ace 55 is an “ancient” tomato variety dating back to the mystical dreamtime of prehistory. It was introduced in 1964. It’s a good keeper, excellent for canning, with a rich flavor undimmed by it’s low acidity. I’ve never seen it sold in a nursery or big box store, all of which seem to get their seedlings from the same source these days and offer the same varieties.
Most of what my grandparents grew in their vegetable garden sprouted from seeds they saved. We have an heirloom bean in my family that we can trace back to the 1840’s, and an “Indian corn” at least that old. I remember the fruit jars of bean, pea, corn and other seeds my grandfather kept in the attic, each with a dash of copper sulfate added to keep the weevils at bay.
My grandfather selectively modified the family bean to his own liking. He preferred the more mature seed pods with actual beans in them, and therefore some protein, as opposed to the limp slivers of bean hull popular in restaurants. He said “A man can work on a mess of those beans but a plate full of skinny ones will leave you hungry.” He saved the seed of the most robust plants which produced mature beans the fastest.
Humans have been genetically modifying plants and animals via selective breeding for as long as there has been agriculture and animal husbandry. We remain suspicious, however, of genetic modification which occurs at the cellular level, or the introduction of DNA fragments of unrelated species to achieve certain traits. Industrial agriculture has become heavily dependent on these technologies. Corn, soy, wheat, canola, sugar beets, cotton, alfalfa and other staple crops are usually genetically modified to be “Roundup-ready,” allowing crops to be sown in soil which has been treated with the weedkiller, saving time, cutting costs and increasing yields.
Industrial agriculture feeds a lot of people, and without it a lot of people would simply starve. But there are problems with the “Roundup-ready” system. Weeds develop resistance and become super-weeds. Soil loses fertility, particularly when chemical farming is combined with monoculture. Food crops lose some of their ability to absorb nutrients. We could talk for days about the health risk factors still argued in the scientific community.
Additionally, with a changing climate, some farmers are beginning to understand that resiliency is just as important as productivity, and resiliency is found in a diversity of crop varieties. This is why there will always be seed savers.
For a brief moment in time, when the pandemic and supply chain problems left shelves bare at the grocery, people began to rediscover the pleasures and the practicality of the home garden. The explosion of interest was reminiscent of the World War II era Victory Gardens. Seed companies ran out of stock quickly. Gardening supplies became scarce and expensive, and gold was worth its weight in fertilizer. Seed savers were little troubled by the “out of stock” notices in online seed catalogs, however.
Interest in gardening has waned again, now that supply chain problems are less acute. Unfortunately, prices have not gone back down, and there are fewer seeds in the higher priced packets. Grocery prices continue to rise, along with everything else, and there are still gremlins of uncertainty in the supply chain. Some fruits and vegetables are even being rationed at grocery stores in the UK.
“What do you think of the state of the world?” Someone asked me recently. “Save your seeds,” I replied.