On a recent Sunday evening, the West Tisbury Library Community Room was crowded with people leaning over tables covered with white paper bowls. Each bowl was filled with a different kind of seed — some tiny, some huge, some fuzzy, some smooth, and in every shade of red, gray, white, black and brown.
The teachers, farmers, gardeners, conservationists and students in the room held pens and notebooks and scribbled down their best guesses about which plants each of the seeds might represent. They touched, sniffed and tasted the seeds, laughing at the amazing diversity of shapes and textures and colors spread before them and how little they knew about where each had come from.
This group had gathered for the opening event of the Martha’s Vineyard Seed Summit, a training organized by Island Grown Schools and facilitated by three national leaders in the community seed systems movement.
Over the next four days, Ken Greene, founder of the Hudson Valley Seed Library (the first community seed library in the country), Rowen White, a seed keeper from the Mohawk Tribe and leader of the Sierra Seed Cooperative in California, and Joy Hought, Director of Native Seeds/SEARCH Seed Schools from Tucson, Ariz., shared their knowledge and skills about seed breeding, seed saving and community seed sharing with more than 50 Islanders.
These were incredible teachers for those of us lucky enough to attend the summit, and they brought a new level of awareness to us about why local seed saving and sharing is so important.
Joy’s Native Seeds website sums up the issue: “Over the past century, we’ve lost an alarming amount of biodiversity among our food crops and become dependent on an industrialized agricultural system that puts profits above all else. By taking ownership over our seeds once again and rejoining the ritual of seed saving, we are replenishing our dwindling seed diversity, building up beneficial crop adaptations, and strengthening food security where we live.”
We were fortunate to be joined by Linda Coombs, director of the Aquinnah Cultural Center and longtime coordinator of the Wampanoag garden at Plimoth Plantation, and Kristina Hook-Leslie of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), who facilitated one afternoon of the summit together. Linda and Kristina helped us remember who the first farmers were in this land, and that seed saving is an ancient practice that has been done on the Island for thousands of years.
Seed Summit participants also got to visit Polly Hill Arboretum and meet with horticulturist Ian Jochems, an enthusiastic and deeply knowledgeable local seed saver. Farmer, miller and seed and crop preservationist Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, who helped sponsor the seed summit and is now a part-time Chilmark resident, also attended sessions throughout the training.
By the end of the summit, participants identified three areas to focus on to strengthen our local seed system.
The first is increased education for children and adults about seeds, seed systems and seed saving. At Island Grown Schools, seeds are one of our spiraling curricula which we return to again and again throughout the grade levels. In preschool and the younger grades, our seed education is very hands-on and focused on getting to know seeds using our senses. As students get older, we focus more on seed science, and in high school begin teaching about seed systems, the consolidation of the seed supply, genetic engineering, and community efforts to bring back crop diversity for their flavors, strength in local climate conditions and cultural history. We are partnering with Polly Hill Arboretum as we continue to refine and develop this unit, and leading a collaborative training for Island teachers in July with a focus on seed curriculum.
The second track is beginning to think with farmers about the possibility of growing locally adapted seeds on a commercial scale that could ultimately be used on local farms and sold to local gardeners. This conversation is only just beginning, but a handful of Island farmers at the Seed Summit talked about starting with a few different bean and lettuce varieties to see what works best and then trying to grow them out specifically for seed in future seasons.
Finally, we prioritized the creation of a community seed library. Ken Greene advised us to start by experimenting with saving seed from just a few varieties of food plants, slowly building a locally-adapted collection on the varieties that really work here, and engaging the broader community in growing and thinking about a few key crops at a time. Eight of us from the Seed Summit will begin by planting a handful of varieties in our home gardens this summer, and hope to bring those that perform best to a seed saving workshop at the Living Local Harvest Festival in October, to create the foundation for the seed library.
The West Tisbury Library has offered to be a physical space for the community seed library and to host seed saving workshops in their beautiful new building. Amy Hoff, assistant librarian and community programs director, came to the seed summit and will be coordinating the seed library on-site.
At IGS, we are very excited to work with Island students to help bring seed saving back to our community and to the local agricultural system. We’re looking forward to connecting with local growers who are already seed savers to help lead the education effort for the community, and for those of us who participated in the seed summit to keep developing our knowledge and skills so we can ultimately also serve as mentors in this vibrant community movement.
Noli Taylor is director of Island Grown Schools, a program of the Island Grown Initiative.