From market farming to urban homesteading, local foods are playing an increasingly important role in Cleveland. A new project promises to increase the resilience of Cleveland’s urban local food system by improving access to heirloom and open-pollinated seeds. The Cleveland Seed Bank, an initiative of the Hummingbird Project, an international permaculture organization, is working to inspire people to protect seed integrity and promote our shared seed heritage.
Typically, gardeners and farmers use seeds that are shipped in from outside of Northeast Ohio. Because most of these seeds are hybridized or, increasingly, genetically modified, seeds generated from these plants will not reproduce. By contrast, heirloom plants generate seeds that can be saved for future years and selected for traits that best match local growing conditions.
Marilyn McHugh and Chris Kennedy, co-founders of the project, have been teaching permaculture and soil biology at the Navdanya Farm, located in northern India and operated by organic food activist, researcher, and author Vandana Shiva. Inspired by the seed banks established by Shiva across India to protect food sovereignty for Indian farmers, Marilyn and Chris received support from the Cleveland Colectivo and the California-based Pollination Project to establish a similar seed bank project in Cleveland.
A successful community seed bank requires community capacity for storage, cataloguing, and education. So, when the Cleveland Seed Bank began looking for a partner, one institution stood out for its long history of specializing in all three—the Cleveland Public Library. Together they piloted “Seed Libraries” at five branches last year.
But how, exactly, can checking out seeds be like checking out books? The Cleveland Seed Bank has a unique take on borrowing. Patrons “check out” seed packets from the library, plant the seeds in their garden, and nurture the fruits or vegetables to maturity. Then they save seeds from the best plants and “return” a packet of seeds to the library at the end of the season. To help folks get started, the Cleveland Public Library hosts seed-saving workshops led by botanist Ann McCulloh from the Cleveland Botanical Gardens.
According to Rose Hoge, a librarian with the downtown branch, the seed bank dovetails with the library’s mission as the “people’s university.” Hoge noted that the libraries of the old days were mostly about maintaining collections of books. Cleveland libraries today are evolving to provide residents with the tools they need to “impact their communities socially and culturally.” And because libraries have a wide outreach capacity and provide safe spaces in every community for people to learn, gather information, and network, they are a good partner for housing the seed banks.
In addition to the libraries, the Cleveland Seed Bank website enables people to learn, share seeds, and connect as a broader community. The website features a collection of online teaching videos and a “Craig’s List for seed saving”—a place where people who are enthusiastic about preserving and sharing seeds can connect.
Projects like this one are fundamental to the future of our food system. According to ethno-botanist and author Gary Paul Nabhan, “We are living in a world where the climate, cultural traditions, and the economy are all changing … those seeds need to evolve and change with us.” Nabhan noted that the global loss of biodiversity in agricultural food crops is something that threatens a stock of seeds that have been passed down for more than 10,000 years.
Seed-saving in Cleveland can help to maintain historic seed stock that, over time, can become increasingly adapted to the unique conditions of Northeast Ohio. Thousands of farmers, home gardeners, and urban farmers, including you, can be involved with selectively breeding these seeds and passing them along to others, thereby safeguarding and evolving the most fundamental base of our local food system.