Re-enchant the Seed!

Why Seed Saving and Exchange is Essential Permaculture & Community Practice — a How-To with Red Semillas Libres Chile.

By Crystal Allene Cook

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Poster for the Red Semillas Libres Chile Seed Exchange

Like many permaculturalists I work another job and this fall mine happened to take me to Valdivia in the Patagonian region of Chile. My first Saturday in town, in the local large supermarket, I spent an hour reading the ingredients of most everything I picked up to buy. I had been feeling a little down about the abundance of chemicals in so much of the food when walking back along a main thoroughfare two large hand-painted signs flapping against a long metal fence caught my attention: Intercambio de Semillas! Plantad y comed semillas libres! “Seed Exchange. Plant and Eat Seeds of Liberty!”

“Seed Exchange. Plant and Eat Seeds of Liberty!”

I was stopped in my tracks. Could this be? I hurried over into what seemed to be a school and into a cafeteria full of people hurrying this way and that, setting up for a seed exchange.

Before continuing, I want to say that the organization of this event and the subsequent day’s event (a training in the ethics and practice of seed exchange and seeds as a community bulwark) were so well considered that I have structured this article not only as reportage about the events but also as a How-To in terms of putting on a Seed Exchange, conducting seed exchanges, and using seeds as the basis of community and permaculture practice.

Provide a forum for testimony, education, exchange, and make it fun

At the front of the cafeteria, a mic had been set up and people were coming forward and highlighting the importance of this event, giving shout-outs to people in the room and their regions, and also giving personal and political testimony about the importance of saving and exchanging seeds.

Intermingled with people at tables readying their seeds was a lot of literature about the imperatives for saving seeds, guides on how to save seeds, and guides on kinds of seeds.

After folks had gotten set up an announcer officially started the seed exchange and a few key people were noted. Then, the announcer officially opened the exchange and the sound system switched to festive instrumental music, contributing a party mood.

Though maybe not obvious, but from a pedagogical and community-building perspective this kind of introduction was spot on. The open mic section allowed those already engaged to testify and also educate newcomers. Hearing where people were from opened up the opportunity for more community connection. The testimonies underscore an ethic of seed saving which several speakers noted as a cultural, historical, and human right.

Wanting to learn more about the organizers, I approached a moderator and learned about the next day’s event — a training on the ethics and swapping of seeds as community. He pointed me in the direction of a tall woman engaged in discussion at one table and a red-haired man carefully noting information on a packet of seeds for someone else at another table. A fact-finding mission with both of these folks put me on a road outside of Valdivia the next day to learn more.

The Red Semillas Libres Chile Seed Exchange September 2013, Valdivia, Chile

Lay the conceptual groundwork

In follow-up conversation, I later learned that the tall woman from the day prior, Valentina Vives Granella, settled upon the issue of seed saving, propagation, and exchange as convergent practice that brought together essential human rights as well as a range of issues and concerns (human rights, food, liberty, indigenous rights, economics, etc.). She then became instrumental in forwarding “the seed” through the group Red Semillas Libres Chile, the Chilean Free Seed Network which is, in their words:

… transdisciplinary, not-profit-based, inclusive, horizontally-governed and committed to facilitating the rescue of diverse agricultural practices and cultures, sustained by the convergence of people, intuition , energy and initiatives. We work across the country and base our work in collaboration, diversity, trust, respect and common consent…

For them the seed is not isolated from its larger context nor from its historical role in culture. Seeds contain memory and identity, as their cultivated biodiversity is key for food sovereignty (soberanía alimentaria) and sustainable agriculture practice. Its saving and exchange are the founding sources of agriculture.

In the first part of their seed saving and exchange workshop, Valentina and co-presenter Coloro Magaña laid the ethical groundwork for why this issue has taken center stage in their own regenerative agricultural practices and as a unifying cause.

By contrast, where as much discussion in North America (where I am from) focuses on soil as primary, and while Valentina also pointed out its importance, the seed has become a rallying and practical point of focus in Chile. Many of their points are well-taken, and serve to link agriculture to human culture in ways that people can understand, relate to, and practice.

Attendees and Presenters at the Red Semillas Libres Chile Seed Saving Workshop

Below is my attempt at summary of the many points Valentina and Coloro made that morning regarding the seed. I do my best to stick to the propositions and perspectives they presented. Valentina led the majority of the morning session.

  1. The seed is our patron of nature and of agriculture. It contains our depository of the history of a plant and its selection. Seeds are not only “seeds” but contain a context at the local and global levels. The seed is socioeconomic, sociological, and cultural. In fact, more than any other force in terms of providing life on land, it is the most densely powerful force on Earth, in that it goes from something so small into something so many times larger. It supports diversity and contains genetic memory, along with functioning as a living memory of the creativity of past societies. In this, it is more than a mere genetic carrier. In the case of cultivation, we could conceive of it as half genetic and half cultural. In the seed, history, ancestry, and technology converge.
  2. We have lost our understanding of the stages of the seed. Many of us today would not recognize the stage at which to save a seed. We no longer recognize edible plants at all their stages of the lifecycle and only recognize the product that comes to our table. If we retain the knowledge of seed gathering and saving, we begin the steps to alleviate fear of hunger, as we then possess something powerful to cultivate.
  3. Seeds are a key practice of liberty. If we don’t have access to the legal means or the knowledge to save seeds, if we lose this right and this knowledge, then we become slaves to those who control the food system. We will also suffer this loss in history and culture.
  4. Be responsible for starting your own seed banks, don’t rely upon the institutional ones. A seed bank should be a living thing in the hands of the people. You shouldn’t have to register your seed with any government or company. Conserving seeds is a human right, especially the right of peasants and farmers.
  5. Seeds should be used, not just stored. They are living things, not static. The same happens with culture that’s alive. People are living beings, part of dynamic systems — not museums parts, but memory and heredity that changes, adapts and evolves in time.
  6. Seed preservation and exchange is a human right, along with clean water and clean soil. Without these three, life fails. Without these three, we become beholden to whoever can provide access. Thus, we lose a right to economic and social self-determination and we lose our communities, and thus we lose autonomy.
  7. Seeds should not be patented. See number 6. Further, those who seek to do this are interested in food production, as in its production through factory-like processes of speed, mechanization, large-scale, etc., rather than agriculture — with the stress here being on the culture of food cultivation. Those who alter the basic DNA of plants in order to control access to plants are making it to where other people can no longer modify the traits of a seed through traditional means of local adaptation, etc. We cannot ignore the work of the farmer to diversify arable biodiversity and its maintenance and fortification over time. Patent laws seek to promote industrial agriculture at the expense of small scale or traditional agriculture.
  8. In our contemporary context, hunger is a political, not an agricultural problem. Thus, introducing genetically modified mono-crops will also not solve hunger. Giving people or local farmers access to seeds, clean water and clean soil are the first steps in a country for economic independence or food independence, rather than dependence.
  9. The consumer must ask questions regarding seed propagation and cultivation. Consumers should connect with local producers and know not only about the chemicals and organic history, but also the history of the seed cultivated. Ask questions such as, how many generations have you been planting this seed? Where did the seed for this come from? How long have you been growing it?
  10. Follow the model of a Food Constitution or Manifesto. We do not need to register seeds. We do not need governmental validation or regulation of our open-pollinated seeds. Seeds should be up for exchange freely rather than controlled by “free market” laws. We need to stop the introduction of GMOs and chemical substances (agrotoxins) because bees are dying, the soil is dying, biodiversity is suffering, and people are getting sick.
  11. If you cultivate and exchange seeds, you must pair this with education. It is not enough just to host an exchange, you must educate about why this is important to liberty, culture, history, society, etc.
  12. Seeds are on a different timetable from us. Just because our society has sped up does not mean seeds must also match our hectic pace. Focus on observation of their patterns and working with nature and the conditions of your climate.
  13. Every seed is important, not only those for eating or maintaining human health but also those of trees and flowers are vital to maintaining ecosystems.

Demonstrate, Educate, Propagate, Disseminate, Re-congregate!

After a long potluck lunch, we reconvened for the practicum session of the workshop. Coloro, who lives at a permaculture site near Valparaiso (you can see the great work of that community here in this worthwhile documentary), led us through the majority of this session.

He began first with a focus on the soil — that often we mistakenly speak of feeding the plant, when in fact we are feeding the soil. He took us through the basics of soil composition, with the analogy many of us know to desire and cultivate a soil that looks somewhat like chocolate cake.

He implored us to plant with “heart,” care, and awareness, and, to illustrate our connection to the greater universe, he read a short story by Rudolf Steiner in which a young boy is shown how we are all made of stars. In short, the boy’s father cuts open an apple horizontally and inside the seeds make the pattern of a star.

Along with encouraging care with planting times so as to not cross-pollinate plants that you do not want crossing, he encouraged us to change our perspective on seeds by shifting from a fast turnaround mentality to understanding that the “road when working with seeds is long.”

Get over the Western obsession with abundance, choice, and variety!

Coloro then brought to discussion a point that was perspective-shifting for me. He said that seed saving and exchange should not buy into the consumer culture obsession with choice. He said a seed exchange should not devolve into people wildly running around to get the most they could and the most different kinds they could — that that behaviour remains focused first on consumption and anxiety.

He said that though biodiversity should be encouraged in planting, that in terms of your own food needs, you just don’t need as much variety as you think. Being a seed steward requires responsibility, passion, conviction, commitment, and most importantly, to be able to look forward and see “in plant time” or “plant rhythm.”

The point to seed saving is seed exchange and maintaining a vibrant living utilized seed bank!

Be your own seed bank! And share with the community

In addition to saving seeds for your own use, Coloro emphasized that for useful seed saving it was better to choose one or two crops that you would focus on entirely for seed saving and swapping. Doing this would allow you to develop a seed over time that suits a particular soil and climate, and, allow you to accurately observe its characteristics and needs. For that seed or those seeds, you would then keep detailed accounts of as much information you could about everything you can observe or that you know:

  • color
  • odor
  • size
  • soil
  • water
  • sun
  • cultivation and harvesting time
  • variations in the seed
  • where you planted it
  • scientific name (as the colloquial name of it may vary)
  • popular names
  • uses
  • origin (where it came from)
  • date of seed preparation, etc.

As you prepare the seed for saving, you would then make detailed notes about these seeds.

Seeds without accurate information become nearly useless

Coloro emphasized that to receive seeds without knowing anything about them other than their variety renders the seed almost useless for planting. Although it may be fun, in terms of productivity it is akin to starting from zero. He then demonstrated a few methods for knowing in two or three weeks times if a seed will germinate, thus, saving you from planting much of something that may be past being able to germinate.

To test seed viability, put the seed in a damp paper towel and into a plastic bag
punctured with small holes. Keep the towel damp but not soaking. If the seed
has not germinated in 2 – 3 weeks, you know that that seed store is not viable.

How to save seeds

Coloro also gave us a range of tips for saving the seeds.

  • Select and keep the best plant for collecting seeds, don´t eat it.
  • Clean the seed as dirt will encourage bacteria or fungus to grow and this will rot the seed.
  • Keep them clean and dry.
  • Paper bags are better than plastic bags.
  • Put the paper bags then in clean, dry jars with lids.
  • Maintain in a cool and dark place, if you can.
  • Create a place for saving and organizing your seeds.

He emphasized again that it is better to have a small quantity of seeds to save and exchange for which you have an abundance of information than to take on too much to manage information for.

Okay, so now you have seeds, what’s next?

Exchange seeds!

Extra amounts of the seeds that are cultivated for saving can be planted for yourself, but the goal of seed saving and maintaining a few seeds as a living bank is not to sell the seeds but to exchange them.

In order to function as an active seed bank, seeds must be cultivated by a range of people willing to meet for exchange.

Thus, form groups and communities to work together to save and exchange seeds!

A seed exchange should contain seeds with as much information as possible about the seeds. It should be a practice of people convening year after year to share seeds.

To this last end, Coloro presented each workshop participant (I abstained as I would not be here when folks reconvened) with seeds he had saved. Each person receiving seeds committed to cultivating these seeds as part of a living seed bank and also committed to reconvening the following year to exchange the seeds they had cultivated.

Coloro gives saved seeds to seed steward Dulce, anointing her a living seed
bank and responsible for continued exchange and stewardship of these seeds

Re-enchantment of the seed

I left this workshop moved to action by how well-considered seed saving and exchange as promoted by Red Semillas Libres Chile is as an agricultural, political, liberating, responsible, and community-building and regenerating practice, and how it unifies many of the principles and practices of permaculture: economics, food, community, soil, etc.

I wondered if now, in our contemporary world of seed patents and intellectual property rights, if “the seed” should not also be added to the fundamentals of permaculture instruction and a chapter be devoted just to it.

Moreover, I became reflective upon my own reliance on the diversity of good open-pollinated seed sources in the United States. I became committed to re-enchanting the seed in the American context on par with our focuses on soil, water, climate, etc. and to activating a practice as developed as that I found in Chile.

For our own permaculture institute and the benefit of our local community, I have invited Valentina and Coloro to give an abbreviated workshop via Skype and I invite you also to consider many of their points and practices above in your own work and practice.

Website for Red Semillas Libres Chile

For the larger network, visit Red de Semillas Libres de América