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  • Nancy Redfeather

It All Begins...and Ends With Seed

Close your eyes for a second and think back...what is your earliest memory of placing a seed in the soil? Maybe it was in your families backyard, in a pot, or at school. What do you remember...and how did that simple act influence you later in life?

For me, my earliest memory of seed begins when I am six years old. That summer my father asked me if I would like to help him plant a sweet pea garden along one wall in our backyard in Los Angeles. We prepared the narrow bed and stretched string from the soil to the top of the wall. Then he carefully placed the little round balls of sweet pea seed into my outstretched hand and showed me how to press them carefully into the soil. It seemed like in no time at all, towers of multi-colored sweetly scented flowers would call me from my play…smell me…pick a bouquet for mother. My gardening life seems to have unfolded from that moment in time and yes, I’d love to hear your stories.

We know that seed is the foundation of agriculture and is vital for the expansion of Hawaii’s food production and security. Yet, Hawaii’s farmers and home gardeners are still quite dependent upon mainland seed produced in temperate climates to provide our foundation, but that is rapidly changing!

Seed is also the source of life and is a resource to protect and nurture in order to preserve life for future generations. Each seed is a complete self-contained work of art, a unique life capsule containing the blueprint for the whole plant with every cell, hair, vein, leaf, petal, and root waiting for germination and growth in order to manifest itself to it’s full potential. Seeds are masters of ingenuity when it comes to survival. Open-pollinated and heirloom seed has the ability through its epigenes to take the environment into itself adjusting gene expression to unfold new qualities in the next generation such as greater tolerance to heat or cold, drought or deluge, pests and disease, or subtle changes in color or form. Now that is something worth saving!

Hawaii’s climate is semi-tropical with diverse climatic zones as well as great variability in soil type and rainfall patterns. Open-pollinated (OP) and heirloom seed varieties also possess wide adaptation to climatic ranges and are very suitable for both variety trials and seed development for Hawai’i. Across the country, OP varieties have been disappearing at an alarming rate in favor of hybrids that cannot be saved by the home gardener and remain “true to type.” This is one of the long term missions of the Hawai’i Seed Growers Network, to continue to search out OP and heirloom varieties for trials and offer the best of those varieties to Hawaii’s growers. Each seed placed on the Online Seed Marketplace takes years of growing out, selecting and saving to ensure that it will thrive in Hawaii’s ecosystems. Many of you also will decide to save your own seed and improve varieties for your unique ecosystem, and so together we will regrow seed for Hawai’i. It may not happen as fast as we would like…seed teaches us patience, but someday we will look back on this time, and realize this was a necessary step for growing a vibrant, vital local food system.

Every time you purchase a packet of seeds from the Hawai’i Seed Growers Network, or save seed from your garden or farm, you are “investing” in the future of Hawaii’s community food systems. Growing a portion of our own food, continues to gain importance by the day, and it all begins with viable bio-diverse seed.

We know that biodiversity is one of the “keys” to a healthy agricultural system and that seed can’t be taken for granted. For the past 10,000 years, growers large and small have been growing, selecting the best plants, and saving seed for the next planting. But over the past century that practice has continued to dwindle. Today, we have lost (unavailable or extinct) approximately 92% of all food varieties of seed that were grown by our ancestors in 1900. These were the varieties that fed our families during hard times. As you can see in the infographic created by National Geographic, that in 1903, commercial seed houses offered a whopping 497 varieties of lettuce, and by 1983 there were only 36 varieties left, or they offered 298 varieties of beets – and then there were 17.

I would be remiss without a quick summary of who owns plant and seed genetics at the world level. Starting in 1980 with the Supreme Court decision Chakrabarty v Diamond, a decision was made (5 to 4) to allow “life” to be patented. Over the next decade the largest chemical companies (Monsanto, Dow, Dupont, BASF, Syngenta, etc.) went on a buying spree and purchased most of the smaller seed companies in the US. Over time, these mega companies merged, and today four seed companies control 60% of the global seed market and currently they are not interested in OP and heirloom seed, only genetics for developing genetically engineered and patented seed. I don’t say this to scare anyone, but we should all know that farmers and gardeners who continue to grow “open source seed,” OP & heirloom varieties are becoming quite important! In fact that practice could be called revolutionary!

Closer to home, our seed history in Hawai’i is much longer than I have space for, but I would like to share a small bit of history. The Hawai’i Seed Growers Network formed following the first statewide Seed Symposium (Hua Ka Kua – Restore Our Seed) in Keauhou on Hawai’i Island in 2010. At that time, the only seed grower of OP or heirloom seed in the State was the University of Hawaii’s Seed Lab. The UH Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) had been a famous Pacific research facility since the early 1900s when there were many seed and plant breeders on staff creating unique varieties of fruits and vegetables with disease resistance for the gardens and farms of Hawai’i. But as time went on, this focus began to dwindle until there were no more seed breeders on staff. Fortunately today there are still some young researchers doing variety trials, researching how to improve soils, manage pests and disease, and the Seed Lab is still offering their unique Hawai’i bred varieties, most of them open-pollinated, meaning you can save seed from them and they will be true to type. Please support all the seed growers in Hawai’i, as our unique climate and needs rest on our collective work including your growing knowledge and skill.

The idea and practices around biodiversity are gaining importance today both in the home garden and in the ecosystem. As you know, we are already facing unprecedented variations in climate and weather both in Hawai’i and in mainland growing areas that provide a good portion of Hawaii’s food imports like California’s Central Valley, or Mexico and Florida. These areas are facing their own unique challenges such as mega-drought depleting ground water resources, new pests and diseases, immigration barriers to field labor, food safety regulations, erosion or depleted soil minerals, trade wars and economic downturns, and the current pandemic. So when we look at the Big Picture, growing a home garden with the right varieties can mean fresh food on your families table and money saved in your pocket. I think we would all agree fresh food close to the source is one of the most important determinants of good health.

In the unique micro-climate of your home garden the varieties you choose to grow do not always perform uniformly. You have probably noticed that some varieties are more “tuned in” to the environment and others sprout and struggle to survive. Just like us, genetics and our environment, especially when we are young, help develop our unique qualities that will continue to unfold during our life. So plant a few different varieties of each crop you like to eat and observe their differences. Over time you will be able to select and save your own seed. If can, keep a garden log.

An inspirational new seed initiative for K-12 students has emerged and is catching on with our younger generation of online learners. SEEDS of Honua is on a mission to create a local seed circle for youth and provide a strong foundation for them to grow in their purpose and passion for social and environmental stewardship and advocacy. SEEDS of Honua is a collection of youth, adult allies, and partner organizations interested in supporting the community and schools through education, seed sharing and preservation of Hawaiian culture through the traditions and roots of the mea kanu – plants. You can learn more about this initiative by visiting the SEEDS of Honua website or check out this inspiring interview from KHON with Tyler Levine. The first phase of the their program, “Seed Sprint”, has attracted almost 1,200 students who will begin growing and hopefully sharing seed with one another as time goes on. The Hawai’i Seed Growers Network is a SEEDS of Honua Partner supporting all aspects of building the next generation of Island stewards, seed growers, and seed savers.

We have many new varieties on the Hawai'i Seed Growers Network Online Marketplace so check them out! Mahalo to those of you that sent me questions and stories about your seedy experiences. From all of us at the HSGN, our best to you for your fall gardens.

A Hui Hou and Stay Well,

Nancy Redfeather

Education and Outreach Coordinator

Hawai’i Seed Growers Network

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