The CMU Farmers Collective collaborates with Métis seed saver Caroline Chartrand of the Métis Horticulture & Heritage Society to save local heritage varieties from becoming extinct (remember our Gete Okosomin squash from last year?). Recently Caroline has received some support to expand her seed saving efforts, and has partnered with the Canadian Mennonite University, and others to develop an indigenous-led local seed library at the University – these are exciting times! As part of this work, Caroline is looking for volunteers to help her grow out seed, and stock the library. Read on to find out about this exciting initiative and how you can get involved!
Foundations for a Regional Seed Library
Sharing Land and Seeds
by Caroline Chartrand
Status of the Security of our Local and Regional Agricultural Heritage
As many of you may know, the security of our seed supply, and ultimately our food, is in a state of crisis. In the past hundred years, it is estimated that between 75 to 95% of vegetable varieties once a part of the human commons both on a local and global scale, have gone extinct. The vast majority of those left are threatened. Currently, we are experiencing a 6% yearly extinction rate. Furthermore, in 2010, 3,795 varieties were available from only one commercial source in Canada.
There are several factors at play that have brought us to this state.
From the beginnings of agriculture, the seeds were in the hands of those who ate the harvest. Seeds were always saved to ensure the food security for next year and future generations; it was a necessity.
We may never know how many thousands of varieties of traditional crops like corn, beans and squash were lost to the Americas as millions of Indigenous peoples’ traditions and knowledge systems were wiped out or eroded in the past 500 years of colonialism due to the ensuing chaos as huge populations were decimated due to the spread of disease, loss of land, displacement, war, extinction of traditional wildlife which maintained local environments and legislation that damaged local cultures, traditions and identities.
Just over one hundred years ago, seeds became available commercially on a large scale. Not only was it easier to simply purchase seed but the government also promoted the larger scale agricultural dream in their pursuit of the development of the ‘great west’ and thus many seed saving knowledge and skills were lost along with locally and regionally adapted seeds, as the practice of seed saving was abandoned.
Then, in the early 1900s, hybrids were sold on a massive scale and farmers abandoned their open-pollinated regional varieties for the ‘new and improved’ hybrids. Huge mono-crops were planted (vast areas of a single crop). Our diverse, locally adapted agricultural heritage died in jars on shelves, displaced by hybrid seeds produced outside of local regions. At the same time, small seed companies were bought out by multinationals interested only in marketing the few bestsellers as opposed to a diverse range.
Today, we can hear the seeds speak if we look back at history. For example, in the mid 1800s potatoes became a staple in Ireland; however, all the potatoes grown were descendents from only two parents. A blight struck, devastating the crops and left over 1 million people dead from starvation. In Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity, Cary Fowler and Pat Mooney report that in the U.S. in 1971, a corn blight struck half the corn of the southern states. In The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Seed, Janisse Ray says traditionally, there were 100,000 distinct varieties of wheat…Now, half the wheat grown in the United States is nine varieties…think of the consequences if a wheat blight were to descend.
A change in thinking about the value of our lost seeds emerged from the series of food crises that began to become evident in all corners of the globe. People want the seeds of our human commons back in the hands of those who consume the food.
But why worry, why not just breed more new varieties of non-hybrid, open-pollinated seeds? Well, while vintage varieties would continue to be displaced by these new varieties, the world’s bucket of seeds, the raw material needed to make the new ones, continues to leak as we speak. Seeds of Diversity Canada’s website, at http://www.seeds.ca, says that 6% of Canadian heritage seeds continue to go extinct every year. This extinction happens because the old varieties get displaced by the new. In Canada, 3,795 varieties are only available from one commercial source. There will be time for breeding new plants once the leaky bucket is plugged. New varieties would displace the old that are not being saved, that continue to go extinct. This can only happen when we, the eaters, take our responsibility for our seed security. Participation in our seed library is one way to play a crucial role!
Local food security, food sovereignty, is based on a local and diverse seed supply maintained by skilled seed savers and local consumers. In the Andes, the centre of origin for potatoes, the traditional crop insurance system was based on a wide diversity of varieties, as each farmer grew up to 50 varieties in a field. A single blight could never wipe out a whole area. The solution to Ireland’s potato blight was found in the genes of a resistant old Andean potato variety.
There is a taste adventure inside all those old varieties we don’t miss because we have never tasted them. Ancient varieties of beans have been tested to hold 10 times the nutrients as new varieties. The desirable traits we are seeking are waiting to be rediscovered in our vintage varieties on the brink of being gone forever. The ancient varieties with a deep gene pool hold strong resilient adaptation power.
In Janise Ray’s book, The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Seed, she tells the story of a wise seed saver, Sylvia Davatz of Vermont, who says that the system is not only broken, but destructive…and self-destructive; the real power is making the system irrelevant. That means non-participation in the existing broken system. With time and commitment, enough seed savers will make the broken system irrelevant. Seed security depends upon a diverse range of locally adapted seeds grown by local consumers in local gardens, passing on quality seeds and seed saving skills to the next generation!
In 1997, a local grassroots initiative was founded under the leadership of Caroline Chartrand. Along with allies, the Métis-led Métis Horticulture & Heritage Society (MHHS) was founded to rediscover and restore our agricultural heritage, for the history of the Red River Métis and our homeland includes the history and heritage of Manitoba and the Red River Métis Homeland. We have always invited the participation of all interested parties!
Initial research identified over one hundred varieties of garden vegetables grown in the Red River area in the 1800’s. This list was faxed to the Canadian Government’s Seed Bank, Plant Gene Resources of Canada. They only had three of these distinct varieties! This reflects statistics that show that in Canada, 75% of vegetable varieties have gone extinct within the past hundred years. Now, the vast majority of the remainder is available from very few, private, or unknown sources! The MHHS now has a current inventory of many dozens of varieties, many of which are not currently commercially available. For the past 15 years, MHHS has been stewarding seeds as our Métis ancestors did in our Red River Homeland for generations.
When the Canadian Mennonite University Farmers established their Community Shared Agriculture initiative, they took a leadership role and made a unique commitment to growing only open-pollinated heritage seeds. They have consistently supported the work of establishing an indigenous-led community seed bank, by voluntarily sharing their land and labour, to assist in growing out seeds in the MHHS seed bank on their farm in Winnipeg, Manitoba. We have worked together while developing our seed saving and training skills, including implementing the squash pollinating relay team developed by the MHHS.
When the Mennonites immigrated to Manitoba in the 1880’s, the local Métis were there to greet them at the Mennonite landing on the Red River just south of Winnipeg, to transport them with their Red River carts to immigration sheds, and ultimately, to the areas in southern Manitoba where they settled. Descendents of these two groups are reviving an historic relationship in the garden, sharing land and seeds.
This project is a partnership between many like-minded organizations, funders, and communities including the MHHS, CMU Farmers’ Collective, Mennonite Heritage Centre, Mennonite Church Canada, Food Matters Manitoba, the White Earth Seed Library and the Indigenous Regional Seed Library Network. The goal of the project is to lay the ‘Foundations for an Indigenous-led Regional Seed Library’, beginning with the seeds in our current collection. We invite you, our local and regional community, to assist us in multiplying our seeds for future public assess!
Ways to Participate:
1) Growing seeds in my own garden.
- This position is for people with intermediate seed saving and gardening skills—for those who feel confident in growing open pollinated varieties.
- Knowledge of and willingness to learn and abide by our isolation distances and population sizes is crucial to maintain the quality and integrity of seed varieties, to maintain the trust of those depending on our seeds for their livelihood (eg CSA farmers and market gardeners), and the reputation of our Seed Library.
- Coaching and mentoring for seed selection and roguing will be provided as needed. Please refer to How to Save Your Own Seeds 2013 edition, available for only 15.00 including shipping at http://www.seeds.ca.
- Information on seed saving training at CMU Farm will be provided as it becomes available; please see # 2, 3 and 4 below.
- Seed growers will be required to make observations of varieties (don’t worry we will have forms- see a sample observation form at : http://www.seeds.ca/proj/tomato/Desc_Tomato_EN.pdf )
- Time Commitment: Must be available to tend to crop maintenance, observation, rouging and seed selection and harvest for the entire growing season. We highly recommend having at least one or two people to work with you to pass on and share your experience, and for back up in case of unexpected situations when you may not be available (eg. out of town funeral, health reasons, etc.).
Please fill out and send us the Grower Application Form found at the bottom of this post to help us assess your available space and situation in order to meet required population sizes and isolation distances and to identify crops you are interested in growing for our seed library.
2) Join our ‘Squash’ pollinating relay teams at CMU Farm! No Experience necessary!
- The technique is the same for all members of the Cucurbitaceae family, which includes cucumbers, watermelon, squash and gourds, which we may also be pollinating at CMU Farm!
- Training and practice will be available in early July, using a common variety like zucchini started earlier, so everyone is ready, trained and confident for the rare and/or ‘low quantity’ varieties. All from beginner to advanced seed savers welcome!
- Trainees must attend both evening and morning training sessions as morning sessions include different tasks as a follow up to the evening sessions. Homework: Please review How to Save Your Own Seeds pages 4-21 and 50-61, available at http://www.seeds.ca for only $15.00 including shipping (one of our non-profit partner organizations).
- Training will include many practices as well as observation charts not included in the book, plus hands on demonstration and practice.
- Those trained will be expected to sign up for morning and evening pollinating shifts in groups of two from Mid-July to mid-August.
- Time Commitment: am sessions usually 7 am Mon-Fri, 8 am week-ends, pm sessions usually 6:30 pm
- We will send out meeting doodles with week day and week-end time slots in need of filling.
We request trainees commit to at least 6 or more! pollinating shifts in exchange for the ‘free’ training. The more practice, the better to hone our skills!
Please email both Caroline and Brielle at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com to confirm your interest so we can plan for how many people will be attending training and joining our teams. (ie.This will help us determine how many varieties from the squash family to grow at the CMU Farm). We will then follow up with more information and questions for you!
3) Stewarding seeds at Seed Demonstration and Learning Gardens at CMU Farm on the Northwest corner of Grant and Shaftsbury, Winnipeg.
- We meet every Thursday rain or shine from 6:30-8:30 pm.
- (We have indoor rain plans and/or bring rain gear!)
- Free seed saving training and skill sharing in exchange for your sweat equity.
- Beginners learn new skills and intermediate and advanced seed savers hone seed saving, training and mentoring skills!
- Time Commitment is flexible; tasks are prioritized and training is delivered on Thursdays 6:30-8:30. Volunteers may return on their own schedule for follow up tasks.
- There will be occasional work bees scheduled for big jobs like garden bed prep and fence installation, TBA. Some week-ends and potlucks!
Please email both Caroline and Brielle at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com to confirm your interest. We will be sending out a questionnaire soon to determine levels of commitment for planning purposes.
4) Programming and administration
- This is a great position for those who don’t have the time commitment or ability to garden, but believe in the cause of seed saving and want to offer their strengths and abilities in other ways that are also extremely helpful to our projects!
- Some of these positions may be very flexible and will include tasks such as:
- Starting seeds indoors and hardening off
- Aiding administrators and coordinators with tasks
- Managing data from gardening observations
- Organizing seed library
- Overseeing volunteer coordination
- Promotion of project: posters, events etc.
- Grant proposal writing
- Photographic documentation
- Computer expertise and tutoring in specialized areas
- Time Commitment: Flexible or TBA.
Please email both Caroline and Brielle at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com to confirm your interest.
Benefits of Volunteering:
Be proud, you are addressing food security for future generations!
Knowledge and skill building – honing skills!
Networking & building community!
Playing important roles in a grassroots community effort in founding a regionally adapted seed library for local seed security and seed sovereignty!
Enjoying the benefits and fruit of your labor!