This Week's Podcast: Old Seeds - Members Wanted - with Toby Cain
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My guest on Ken Druse -- Real Dirt Radio is Toby Cain, Education Coordinator of Seed Savers Exchange, a force in preserving the genetic material of old American varieties.
We’ve all heard of heirloom or heritage flowers, fruits and vegetables. Distinctive annual plants -- when grown in isolation from other varieties in the same species – may become strains that come true from seed. That is, unlike new hybrids, the seeds produce the special desired crop year after year.
Preserving the genes for heirlooms and making seeds available to grow or use in breeding could be a lifesaver. In the last century the world has lost 75% of its edible plant varieties. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, only five cereal grains make up 60% of our calories. A system that depends so heavily on so few crops is quite fragile. Industrial agriculture and the chemicals and machines that it employs have required farmers and, more often, scientists to breed for uniformity. In some cases, there are very few varieties grown. If something happens to the plant, for example a fatal disease, the variety could be lost and affect millions of people. Seed Savers Exchange is a nonprofit membership organization founded to conserve some 20,000 of America’s culturally diverse but often endangered garden and food crops. The plants grown by individual gardeners and farmers, from seeds collected, saved and sown year after year – have often been handed down from generation to generation and shared with neighbors and friends and with Seed Savers Exchange. (Above, Mother Mary’s Pie melon, as described on the show, is one example of the unique offerings.)
Toby Cain explained that seeds are kept in the seed bank – a sort of museum for varieties -- in underground storage freezers. Every spring in order to renew the stock, some of the heirlooms are sown and grown in gardens on the organizations 890-acre Iowa farm. Seed Savers also helps members connect with each other to trade seeds and offers a seed catalog to the gardening public with about 600 varieties of heritage flowers, fruits and vegetables. (Some colorful varieties are shown above, left to right: Rainbow Swiss chard, Lina Sisco’s Bird Egg beans and Chioggia beets.)
Anyone can become a member, and the farm is open to the public. To learn more about the organization, making arrangements to visit and possibly participate in courses offered by Toby, visit the Seed Savers Exchange website.