When Mel Sylvestre was just starting out as a young organic farmer on Vancouver Island, she got her first customers hooked on purple tomatillos.
“People at the market were like, ‘Oh wow, that is so cool! Purple!’” said Sylvestre. The little sour fruits, usually bright green, sold exceptionally well, and she couldn’t wait to grow them again.
The following winter, Sylvestre tried to buy a new batch of the successful seeds at the local seed exchange, but none could be found. The seed seller she had purchased them from the previous year hadn’t grown or saved that variety again. No one else nearby had any either.
“It suddenly hit, the reality that I might not be able to grow my purple tomatillo!” Sylvestre said.
She faced a common challenge for organic vegetable farmers throughout British Columbia — the lack of reliable access to good quality seed.
While the demand for their organic produce has risen rapidly, the supply of locally grown organic seed has not kept up. Farmers are faced with the choice of importing organic seeds or buying non-organic ones.
That season back in 2007, Sylvestre got lucky. She scrounged up a few leftover tomatillo seeds from the back of her closet. But the close call with her prized crop had a big impact.
“My mission after that was to learn how to save seeds but also to create a system where B.C. seed growers could sell to producers,” said Sylvestre, who now manages the Seed Hub at UBC Farm.
Growing seeds together
Over the last several years, Sylvestre and other like-minded farmers have been working together to address the shortage of local, organic seeds.
Those efforts bore fruit in November, when they formally founded the B.C. Eco-Seeds Co-operative. It is the only group dedicated to increasing the quantity and quality of ecological and organic seed grown in the province.
“What’s nice about working collectively is that it increases our ability to have a wider variety of different types of seeds and bring them to a bigger market,” says Jen Cody, a farmer, seed saver, and founding member of the co-op.
In B.C., organic farms have small acreages. This means seed farmers have a tough time finding enough land to grow multiple crops for seed. It also takes years to develop the technical expertise to do it right.
The potential market for local seeds is substantial. Every year, B.C. organic farmers spend almost $8 million on vegetable seeds, the highest of any region in Canada.
But only about 20 per cent of seed used on organic farms in North America is actually organic, meaning it is grown without synthetic chemicals or genetic modification.
“You can’t grow food without seed,” said Andrew Riseman, the academic director of the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at UBC Farm.
“If you care where your food comes from, shouldn’t you care where the seed came from?”
A matter of sovereignty
With limited options to buy local, farmers turn to distributors further afield that offer more affordable bulk seed, like William Dam in Ontario or Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine.
The seeds they sell are sourced from the region where it is optimal to grow them. In some cases, this might be Washington state; in others, Holland or Israel.
Many small farmers consider their dependence on seeds from far away to be an issue of “seed sovereignty.” To some extent, the local seed movement is a reaction to consolidation within the global seed industry.
Patrick Steiner: The potential of the local seed movement (1’15”)
“Seed that is not locally produced is then seed that is outside of our control,” said Cody. “If someone else decides that they don’t want to produce that seed any longer, then we won’t have access to seeds for those vegetables any longer.”
In the last 80 years, almost 90 per cent of historic fruit and vegetable varieties that used to exist in the U.S. have vanished.
The story is the same in Canada. This trend poses a threat to small farmers who rely on biodiversity to make a living.
Local seed for local food
Aside from preservation and control, Patrick Steiner, owner of Stellar Seeds in the Kootenays, believes that there are other advantages to growing food from seed that is adapted to both B.C.’s climate and organic farming conditions.
In his experience, local seeds outperform conventional seed. They are more suited to vegetable production in this region, resulting in crops that have better flavour and higher nutritional value.
For Steiner and the rest of the B.C. Eco-Seeds Co-operative team, the next step is to decide who is going to grow which variety and how to assure that their high standards are being met.
“The idea is to re-skill farmers in the art of growing seed and therefore close the link on making the most effective and efficient food production system we can have,” said Steiner.
The co-op plans to have bulk seeds commercially available by 2016.