Signs of spring are all around us and dormant gardens are re-emerging, teeming with young life and shoots of reassuring green. The garden, allotment, window ledge and greenhouse is a space with enormous potential, in which we can grow our own food, cultivate the most succulent of vegetables and... vote for a fairer food and seed system.
From 18th to 22nd March we're celebrating Seed Week, a chance to share news of the inspiring work going on across the UK and Ireland to foster a more diverse and resilient seed system on home soil. Seed Week is coordinated by the Seed Sovereignty UK and Ireland programme, which aims to increase the diversity of seed being grown on home soil by supporting budding and existing small-scale seed producers. If you're pondering which seeds to plant this season please consider purchasing from one of the small-scale producers growing locally adapted, organic seed near to you.
Here we journey across the British Isles and Ireland to meet the five coordinators who are supporting the up-skilling of seed savers from the coast to the highlands, and forging critical connections with grain growers, seed producers and seed banks. Follow the links to find out more and connect with a coordinator or seed producer near you.
In Wales, Katie Hastings is working with a small group of agroecological farmers who want to bring grains back into their fields. Katie points out that "less than 100 years ago the Welsh landscape supported a patchwork of arable and vegetable crops. The seed stores in genebanks tell a story of hundreds of oat, wheat and barley varieties once grown here, with descriptive names such as ‘ceirch llwyd bach’ (small grey oat) and names specific to places across the country such as ‘Bardsey’ and ‘Menai’."
Today there is a stark lack of diversity of grain seed available to farmers. Gerald Miles, an organic farmer from St Davids, is growing a black oat grown on his farm for many years. “I can’t find a single farmer who still has this seed but me” he says. Without Gerald’s crop, it’s possible this black oat would no longer exist in Wales.
Following enthusiasm from the farmers of Llafyr Ni to trial new varieties and strengthen seed resilience, a plan for a Welsh Oat Circle has been hatched. This year 10 rare oat varieties, some of them Welsh landraces, will be taken out of the genebanks and grown by the group on Gerald’s farm. The group will monitor how the oats perform over the year and share the bulked up seed to be taken home to their farms for growing in future years, step by step they hope to bring some of these rare oat varieties back into their soils.
Also in Pembrokeshire you'll find Real Seeds, a family-run seed company that's been running since the 90's! Read more about the exciting work going on to revive heritage wheat, oats and grains across Wales and why not...
"Only 3 corporations sell 75% of the worlds seed; if we all start sowing open source, organic seed, we can grow a democratic food system." David Price, Seed Cooperative, Lincolnshire, UK
In the South West of England, our programme coordinator Ellen Rignell is part of the South West Seed Savers (SWSS) network, a group of commercial growers who are all interested in learning about seed production and exchanging seed.
This January saw the annual meet up of the group which now has over 20 members. The day began with some farmer-to-farmer learning with Ellen Rignell and Ashley Wheeler from Trill Farm Garden leading a workshop on time saving techniques in seed production and processing, alongside Fred Groom, founder of Vital Seeds. Vital Seeds is an open-pollinated seed company producing and selling an array of different varieties which have been carefully selected to perform well for gardeners and small-scale growers based across the country.
This year, the South West Seed Savers will each be saving a tomato variety to exchange at the next meetup. The group welcomes all growers interested in seed production who are based in the South West and you can get involved with this dynamic group of growers too. Read more here and then...
“Just four seed companies now control the majority of the global seed market. They have a monopoly and set the agenda for seed – the very heart of all life. It is critical that to counter this risk, small-scale producers are supported as they are the bastions of diversity. It is this diversity which will be critical in the future as the impacts of climate change are widely felt and crops suffer in unexpected ways. We must take a stand to buffer diversity in the UK and Ireland, and that’s what this work is all about.”
Wayne Frankham, Seed Coordinator for Ireland, The Irish Seed Savers Association.
On the first Sunday of March, nearly 200 people visited the Irish Seed Savers in rural County Clare, for their most successful Seed Share to date. A working farm in East Clare, the event welcomed visitors from all around the country.
Wayne Frankham is the Seed Sovereignty Programme Coordinator for Ireland, working within the well-established and much-loved Irish Seed Savers Association. He observes that seed events and trainings throughout Ireland are finding equal interest and participation from domestic, commercial and community growers, as well as culinary professionals and consumers exploring food provenance, authenticity, ethics - and stories.
Irish Seed Savers offer seed saving courses and ‘Seed to Seed’ seasonal trainings for growers developing their experience in seed production skills, to become seed guardians or producers. The next Seed to Seed series begins this November. Find out more and...
In Scotland, Maria Scholten is working closely with the Scottish crofters of Uist and the Black Isle to ensure the transition of seed related knowledge across generations. She observes how even the dying number of names and descriptions used for staples such as potatoes (or tatties!) and kale, hold a clue to the loss of culture in agriculture.
Nonetheless, there is no shortage of committed gardeners and growers looking to source and swap locally adapted potatoes. The Transition Black Isle Potato Day held earlier this month saw 500 visitors from far and wide. Testimony to a culture of growing, that still offers much optimism. Read more from Maria here.
Last year we visited Poyntzfield Nursery on the Black Isle to learn more about the hardy, alpine varieties being collected and cultivated to protect the seed diversity of herb varieties from across Europe.
Small-scale producers like Real Seeds in Wales, Vital Seeds in Devon, the Seed Cooperative in Lincolnshire and the Irish Seed Savers are all committed to cultivating the most delicious, locally adapted and resilient varieties that we have to offer here on home soil.
Supporting them is a vote for small-scale farming and a vote for environmentally conscious gardening. At the end of the day, when seeds are produced organically, they don’t cost the Earth.
Jason Taylor for The Gaia Foundation