saving seed

As the sun set on another gloriously summery Thursday, the work party at Seattle Community Farm drew to a close. The air had stilled, the sky swept clear and ochre-hued. All of the major tasks had been attended to, but there was a little time left. “Who wants to learn about seed saving?” asked Farmer Scott, shaking a tub full of dried chive flowers. The ten or so in attendance gathered around a concrete worktable and listened close.

Saving crop seed has been practiced by humans since the beginnings of agriculture, Farmer Scott said, many thousands of years ago in what is now Western Asia—the so-called Fertile Crescent. If a particular crop appeared to be producing well, it made intuitive sense to farmers to save those seeds for planting the next season’s crop, instead of letting them go to waste or be eaten by animals. Long before Mendel and his peas and the advent of genetic engineering, farmers understood that seeds represented the next generation of each crop, and that collecting them would preserve at least some of the favorable qualities found in the mature plants. In a sense, the seeds were the most important part: Saving them ensured the success of future crops, which ensured the livelihoods of the farmers and their families. It’s a twist on that age-old proverb: Give a farmer a scythe, and she will reap the season’s harvest; teach her to save seeds, and she will reap those harvests for decades to come.

Farmer Scott showed the group how to rub chive flowers between one’s fingers, teasing out the dozens of minute black seeds. He then demonstrated various ways to separate the chaff—the wispy flower petals and stems and other dross—from the seed. “With small seeds like these,” he said, decanting the mixture from one tub held above another, “you can let the wind carry off the chaff as you pour.” Since the wind was slack, he blew gently on the rustling cascade, setting the chaff aloft in the honeyed twilight.

Next he set the group to collecting sugar snap peas. Their vines yellow and sere, the pods brittle and desiccated, the peas had seen better days, but the time was ripe to save seed. “Pick only the ones that crackle when you squeeze ’em,” Farmer Scott said. “The drier they are, the better.” The children of the group took to this task with glee, picking like mad and running over to Scott to obtain his approval. “Are these good?” they would ask, thrusting up their bins of peas. “How about these?” “Too bendy—remember, they have to crackle when you grab them,” Farmer Scott would say, or, “Yep, just right. Those are perfect.” The group split naturally into three teams and sat down on the concrete benches to shell the rock-hard, wrinkled peas. It was fun, rewarding work—the children even instigated a good-natured rivalry between the teams—and by the time Farmer Scott called the end of the work party, more than a few were reluctant to put down their bins of peas.

It was a scene hearkening back thousands of years—a glimpse into our distant agricultural past. Saving seed may be as old as farming itself, but in an age of monoculture crops and genetically-modified, patent-protected commodi-seeds, it just might prove essential to farming’s future.

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