I first wrote about Native Seeds/SEARCH a couple years ago, ordered some unique vegetable seeds from them, and even dreamed about one day heading out west to visit their farm and attend a Seed School session there in Tucson, Arizona.
Well the timing wasn’t convenient for this spring, but then I noticed the program was also scheduled to be held in Amherst, MA, and so I decided to venture north and attend a Seed School in the middle of winter! Well the timing turned out to be perfect in many ways and I thought I’d share some of the experiences of Seed School with you.
Native Seeds/SEARCH Seed School
First of all to explain a bit about Seed School itself, the educational program spans a total of six days and focuses entirely on seeds; their importance, ways to preserve them, breeding techniques, and even the business side of seed commerce. The event was held on the campus of Hampshire College and was taught by the staff of Native Seeds/SEARCH including Bill McDorman, the organization’s Executive Director, and Joy Hought, the Director of Seed School.
Rowen White, co-founder of the Sierra Seed Cooperative was another primary teacher for the course. Also offering insight and instruction was a group of local farmers, educators, and seed growers that shared their own perspectives on seeds. These guest lecturers included Matthew Goldfarb, Petra Page-Mann, Fred Wiseman, Melody Brook and Tevis Robertson-Goldberg. And a big thanks goes to Oona, Larry, and everyone at Hampshire College that played a role in hosting us for this special event!
Who Benefits from Attending a Seed School?
According to Native Seeds/SEARCH organization, Seed School is for “gardeners, farmers, herbalists, nurseries, CSAs, non-profits, government agencies and everyone concerned with regional, sustainable and diverse agriculture,” and our group definitely fit that bill. The class of twenty-five was made up of college students, sustainable farmers, teachers, backyard gardeners, and a number of others engaged in businesses or community programs connected to food or agriculture.
It was great to see the representation of young adults in attendence who recognized and understood the importance, and chose to spend part of their winter break, or make up for missed school work in order to attend the week of Seed School. This was also a great opportunity for farmers and other professionals in the agriculture industry to exchange ideas and experiences within and outside of seed growing.
An Outline of the Program’s Curriculum and Daily Agenda
Seed School opened on a Sunday evening and ran through the following Friday with days full of lectures and exercises related to increasing our knowledge of seeds. Wednesday was field trip day with visits to the Laughing Dog Farm right there on the Hampshire College grounds, a drive to the Nasami Wild Plant Nursery, and final stop at the Smith College Botanical Garden. We were hands-on with processing wild seeds at Nasami and had a chance to tour the conservatory at Smith College and learn about how their international seed exchange operates.
The classroom sessions at Seed School addressed everything from plant breeding to crop seed production, and from the selection processes to general plant taxonomy. There were also friendly debates on sensitive topics such as GMO’s, plant patents, and the current problems impacting the agriculture and seed industries. More technical lectures covered topics such as botany, plant reproduction, genetics, and pollination techniques.
Guest Lectures and Special Presentations
It was great to share in the experiences of the guest speakers who provided great examples of the seed work being done here in the Northeast. First Matthew and Petra provided an overview of how their company, Fruition Seeds, came into existence and how they are working directly with farmers to breed and grow seed that is adapted to specific climates and conditions. Tevis Robertson-Goldberg of Crabapple Farm described the amazing work that he is doing with cultivating and preserving heritage varieties of grains.
Fred Wiseman and Melody Brook are members of the Abenaki Tribe and shared an emotional story related to the journey to regain their indigenous identities and the role that rediscovering their native seeds plays in that overall experience. They gave an interesting presentation that included the history, culture, seeds, and farming practices of the Abenaki People of the Northeast.
From the Practical to the Interpersonal Sides of Seed School
Sprinkled in between all the classroom lectures there was plenty of opportunity for actually getting hands-on with seeds. We began with an exercise to observe and identify a variety of seeds that are maintained by Native Seeds/SEARCH. Other exercises involved plant and seedling dissection, seed cleaning processes, germination testing, and even some microscope work.
There was always interesting chatter during breaks, at lunch, and the end of the day, but class time also incorporated discussion sessions where we divided into small groups to discuss various subjects. One breakout was organized around participant objectives such as raising seeds commercially, starting a seed exchange, or providing educational programs. Other sessions were geared toward regional groupings, agricultural problems and solutions, or special interests that weren’t otherwise covered during the classroom lectures.
Seed School Graduation Day and Beyond
By the end of the course we had all learned a lot about seeds, and also forged many new connections and friendships based on our common interests and the time spent together at Seed School. We left with different goals in mind ranging from; growing adapted seeds for use on individual farms, creating heirloom seed libraries or exchanges, educating others about seeds, starting seed cooperatives or businesses, breeding new varieties, saving seeds in the backyard garden, and much more!
Personally there was a subtle but definite change in the way that I viewed seeds. I had previously recognized that they were alive and held incredible value, but now I had a deeper sense of their importance, the challanges surrounding them, and for better or worse the ways in which they are being maintained within the seed trade. I also left with plenty of new ideas to apply in my own garden. I’ll be focusing more on my own seed saving and breeding efforts in the backyard and hope to have some offerings that will be of particular interest to other home gardeners in the future.
I will also be sharing more of the information that I learned at Seed School and encouraging you to look closer at those seeds and take advantage of the important opportunities that you have to save and maintain your own open pollinated varieties. There are great books out there to help you get started, experienced gardeners willing to share heirlooms that have been preserved and passed down, and if you’re interested there is likely to be another session of Seed School scheduled at Native Seeds/SEARCH.
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