Saving seeds for a sustainable future

Article by UBC Forestry Co-op Student, Madeline Woodley Summer 2021

Alive. Diverse. Sustainable. Harmonious. These are a few of the words that come to mind when trying to describe Salt Spring Seeds and my experience working there this summer. Located on one of the southern gulf islands of British Columbia, in a beautiful valley tucked between two mountain peaks, lies 26 acres of land which has been filled with hundreds of different varieties of plants, all to be grown for seed and sold to customers across and outside of Canada. Salt Spring Seeds was founded by avid gardener and seed saver, Dan Jason, who is also an author and educator on sustainable agriculture and seed saving practices. Dan’s vision of how agriculture can be done in harmony with the earth’s natural systems processes is reflected in the way the business is run, from the planting to harvesting of each seed.

As a third-year student in the Natural Resources Conservation program of the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Forestry, my undergraduate course work takes an interdisciplinary look at conservation-related topics. We explore areas such as conservation policy, forest ecology and plant biology, perspectives of different stakeholders, the relationship between diversity and resilience and the potential for industries to become more sustainable through incorporating nature and natural processes into their design and function. As I spent my days working in the gardens, the complex, multi-layered, interwoven and often interdependent systems that my professors, all experts in their respective fields, have taught me about over the past three years came to life before my eyes. This gave me the chance to observe interactions between countless different kinds of species; for example, the Canadian geese raising their goslings in the irrigation pond created by the resident beaver, supporting insect populations which in turn are kept down by the swallows and songbirds. Over the course of several months, I began to deepen my understanding of how these relationships weave together, like strands of the most intricately connected web. By applying my educational background, I was able to start placing my experience of working on the farm into the larger context of conservation and the environmental impact of agriculture. All of this to say that the values and principles reflected in the way agriculture is practiced by Salt Spring Seeds, are highly aligned with current thinking and teaching of conservation science, making this experience a valuable part of my learning as a conservation student.

Working on a relatively small-scale seed saving farm, where each individual plant is cared for by the hands of a human as opposed to large-scale, machine-dependent, industrial operations, provided me with the opportunity to experience and gain insight into what it takes to grow plants for food and seed in a sustainable, traditional and non-conventional manner. In my position as head gardener for Salt Spring Seeds, I had the chance to start much of the 2021 harvest from seed, aside from the perennials and biennials that were already established. To interact with and follow the trajectory of such an array of plant species and varieties through their lifecycle, from the emergence of the first shoots to the individuals themselves producing seed, was a unique and extraordinary educational opportunity.

As the sole full-time employee for Salt Spring Seeds, my responsibilities varied widely throughout the course of the summer, further contributing to the well-roundedness of my experience. In the late spring, I planted most of the year’s seed crops; varieties were either sown directly or started in flats in the greenhouses and later transplanted out in the gardens. Throughout the season, I was responsible for watering, weeding, mulching and pruning, as well as troubleshooting when plants were stressed during the late-spring frosts and mid-summer droughts and heat waves. Once the season for seed saving was upon us, I was responsible for harvesting the seeds of more than one hundred different plant varieties, followed by the drying, cleaning and packaging of the seeds. Additionally, I managed volunteers who came to offer their time on the farm, planning work for them to do, showing them where and how to carry out tasks, as well as answering their questions. Dan put a lot of trust in me, giving me a great deal of independence and responsibility with the gardens. I was able to consult and brainstorm with Dan about how to address different issues, such as where to plant certain varieties based on their needs and the microclimates on the farm. All the work on the farm is done manually by hand, save for the tilling of a few of the larger garden areas, and is carried out using organic practices, free from the use of any pesticides or herbicides.

So, how could the simple, labour intensive, seemingly inefficient, “traditional” farming of the past be part of the solution for an environmentally conscious, more sustainable future?

In the face of a rapidly changing climate and exponential population growth, it is imperative that we look at how we can continue growing enough food to feed the planet. Despite often being posed politically as separate issues, food insecurity and the climate crisis are inextricably linked, and the agricultural industry has an enormous role to play in determining the direction of our shared future. (1) (2) (3) Shifting the industry towards small-scale, low-impact, sustainable agriculture that works with and incorporates natural ecosystems and processes offers a path towards the goals of resilience and sustainability. In broad strokes, this means integrating natural ecosystems and processes with agricultural methods rather than treating them as having conflicting objectives. (4) It means moving from monoculture to polyculture systems, rotating crops each year and planting a diverse selection of crops to improve nutrient cycling. (5), (6) It means promoting soil organic matter, through practices such as mulching or planting cover crops. (7), (8) Changes such as these induce a suite of positive impacts, such as improving soil moisture content and retention, enhancing water infiltration (which contributes to water being used more efficiently), stabilizing soil temperature, promoting and enhancing the diversity of soil biota, as well as decreasing soil erosion which decreases surface runoff of pollutants, such as excess nutrients, into waterways. (9)

The bottom line of what these improvements would mean, in the context of the climate crisis and feeding a growing global population, is that farming in harmony with nature can help the cultivated land continue to be arable and productive in the long term. On the current trajectory of large-scale, conventional farming, we are using up and degrading natural resources at an alarming rate and leaving behind huge pieces of barren land, devoid of nutrients. (10), (11), (12) Devastatingly, this means that in the search for new land, we are cutting down healthy, productive forests and destroying the remaining grassland ecosystems to meet the needs of this unsustainable agricultural system.(13) Growing food in a way that keeps the land healthy and fertile is and will be especially important in the face of climate change and population growth, since the demand for arable land will continue to increase while, simultaneously, the amount of land capable of supporting agriculture will decrease due to environmental degradation.
Small-scale, sustainable agriculture has the potential to go beyond simply mitigating the negative impacts of conventional farming practices. For example, biodiversity has been found to increase with decreasing farm size, with small farms (typically defined as being 2 hectares or less) supporting a higher level of diversity both in their crops as well as non-crop biota relative to their larger counterparts.(14) As biodiversity increases, ecosystem resilience, for both agricultural and natural ecosystems, increases as a direct result.(15) This means that an ecosystem that has experienced a disturbance (which is becoming increasingly frequent thanks to anthropocentric climate change) can recover from that disturbance faster than if the level of biodiversity was lower. Biodiversity therefore directly contributes to our ability to grow food amid the climate crisis by increasing the resilience of agricultural “ecosystems” to disturbances such as extreme temperatures, fires, and floods.

By promoting biodiversity within agriculture systems through a shift towards small-scale farms employing sustainable, ecologically conscious land use practices, there is the potential for agriculture to directly contribute to conservation efforts which, in part, seek to mitigate the loss of biodiversity. This goes against the mainstream narrative, within which conservationists and farmers appear to be pitted against one another and where one’s objective directly takes away from the other’s.(16) Moving towards ecologically conscious agricultural practices means that conservation efforts can be realized within the working landscape, as opposed to the focus being concentrated on protected areas. This is an example of how pressures and conflicts on land between stakeholders could be diminished as we start to see how multiple values and objectives can be achieved. In this way, a sustainable agricultural system has the potential to feed the planet while promoting healthy relationships between humans and nature.

Okay. Then where does seed saving fit into all of this?
One of the most exciting things I learned this summer was making the connection between seed saving and conservation - understanding how my work experience with Salt Spring Seeds relates to conservation and my undergraduate education. I knew from my coursework that in forestry, the seeds of different tree species are saved for things like research, reforestation and storing in case of things like large-scale species loss, however it was not until this summer that I really understood why this practice, and the way it is done, contributes to conservation and furthering resilience.

Seed savers are largely responsible for determining what varieties of plants continue to be grown, and therefore have a direct effect on agricultural diversity. Sadly, though not surprisingly, within industrial agriculture certain varieties are deemed to be more cost-efficient than others (for instance one variety may be easier to overwinter or may be more productive than another) and as a result, diversity is being lost, traded for homogenous, large-scale monocrops. (17) This loss of diversity is an issue of lowered resilience, wherein entire crops can be wiped out by pests and disease and so the fewer the varieties of a species being grown, the less resilient and the more at risk the entire species is.

This is really where seed saving and conservation converge. Growing and saving the seed of a diverse selection of species and varieties, especially those that are at risk of extinction or extirpation, or that would have otherwise been lost to industrial efficiency, is an important way in which conservation can be carried out within working landscapes. The beauty of seed saving is that often you can harvest a plant for food and still save the seed, making it an easy option for people who already grow food to start saving seed as well. Even for species where you must choose to harvest either the food or seed, take peas or beans for example, a single plant produces such an abundance of seed that very little food needs to be sacrificed to save seeds.

To create a robust and resilient agriculture system, saving seed and growing food needs to be done by many people in many places. Not only does this contribute to conservation efforts in mitigating the loss of varieties and therefore a reduction in biodiversity, but to food security as well by making sure we don’t lose entire types of food. If one farm were to have a monopoly on saving the seed of a patented variety, for example, and the entire crop were to fail, there would be nowhere else to get that seed from and the variety would effectively cease to exist. However, had other farmers been saving that variety for seed and their crop thrived, that terrible outcome could have been avoided. In the face of climate change and monocultural agriculture, this becomes especially important as pests, diseases, fires, floods and extreme temperature fluctuations continue to become more prevalent and climatic suitability for different varieties starts to shift. Seed savers and farmers on the whole need each other more than ever, and the world needs more people growing food and seed as insurance against crop failures to minimize loss of diversity and to ensure we can feed a growing global population.

During my time working for Salt Spring Seeds, I experienced first-hand how ecologically conscious management practices, such as those discussed in this article, have the potential to revolutionize what agriculture could look like. On the farm, forested areas were left to provide habitat for animals such as barred owls, pileated woodpeckers and white-tailed deer. The margins between planted fields were filled with grasses and native pollinator species, providing habitat, food and movement corridors for a diversity of biota. A very active beaver residing at the periphery of the forest created ponds and wetlands which helped to keep the soil moist in the heat of the summer as well as provided habitat for Canadian geese who in turn contributed by nibbling down the cover crops and dropping fertilizer in the gardens.

By farming in harmony with natural ecosystems and processes, much of the work is automatically taken care of simply by working with nature rather than fighting against it. By promoting biodiversity, the entire system becomes increasingly resilient to disturbances, and it becomes possible for conservation to be practiced beyond the constraints of protected areas and, more to the point, within landscapes being worked for agricultural purposes. What Dan has created with Salt Spring Seeds is the proof that the small- scale, sustainable model can be done and presents a truly exciting and hopeful future for both humans and the planet.

I hope this article has served its purpose by sparking your interest in seed saving and how agriculture can mitigate as well as prepare us for climate change. This is something I am deeply passionate about and partly what inspired me to pursue studying environmental science at a post- secondary level. My goal in writing this article was to share my experience and what I have learned this summer with my peers and anyone else reading this, in the hopes that others will be inspired to grow their own food and save their own seeds.