A bright midwinter sun skirts leafless tree branches to illuminate St. John’s Episcopal Church in Ohio City. Though the church is quiet—its bright red door cheerfully shut fast—a chapel set back beyond a wrought iron gate is coming to life.
The congregation straggles in. Today’s services will last the better part of the afternoon, and all are free to come and go as they please. They gather inside, and slowly make their way among round foldout tables. The walls of the chapel are humble gray, the paint flaked off in patches. The words Hope and Freedom are painted on one wall.
I meet one of the faithful, named Colleen. She describes the 15-story rooftop garden at her office building, crops planted in prostrate file cabinets filled with garden soil. “Every year we try to do something different and grow different things and learn about gardening, and this year we did seed saving,” she says.
The faith that Colleen and others at the Cleveland Seed Bank’s third annual seed swap nurture is a faith in the seed. As Henry David Thoreau proclaimed:
Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.
Perhaps seeds in file cabinets atop a 15-story building would have shaken Thoreau’s faith. But for those in attendance, today is full of possibility.
The Cleveland Seed Bank was started in 2013 by Marilyn McHugh and Chris Kennedy as one initiative of their sustainable agricultural nonprofit, The Hummingbird Project. Simply stated, the aim of the seed bank is to encourage those growing crops to save seed for planting the next season, rather than relying on seed purchased from a company.
The project networks a community of growers online, and through events, such as the annual swap, to share information, including the diverse genetic information stored in their saved seed. Three local library systems also house saved seed for members to trade indirectly. The intent is not so much to bypass seed companies as it is to save plant diversity.
People arrive and add their offerings to the tables, which soon burgeon with worn seed envelopes, reused to store the progeny of the original packet. Bulging sandwich baggies, folded-up paper wrappers, and repurposed plastic food containers brim with crispy, prickly seed set aside from harvest season. Knobby tubers, wiry rhizomes, and the inevitable residual dirt from a hundred gardens, dried crumbly husks, and flower heads all accompanied by hand-written labels are all on display.
Wild, native, pollinator-friendly plant seeds—compass plant, butterfly weed, and indigo—lay claim to some table space. But for the most part, people are here to swap saved garden seed. These are sorted by how difficult it is to ensure their genetic integrity. Plants with flowers that pollinate themselves are likely to breed true to form. Plants that catch pollen on the wind—like corn—may beget unwanted mongrels with genetically modified plants in a neighboring field. Insect-pollinated plants are somewhere in-between. At the “table of mystery,” what will come of the seed is anyone’s guess.
By the end of the afternoon, all of this bounty will be divvied up and planted next spring in gardens, farms, patio pots, and yes, even file cabinets across the city and beyond with the potential for producing superlative gardens of heirloom crops that our great-grandparents knew, colorfully and aptly named:
Palla rossa (“red ball”) Mavrik radicchio; Wrinkled Crinkled garden cress; Strawberry popcorn; Passion Brune lettuce; King of the North pepper; Kentucky Wonder pole bean; Lemon Boy Yellow tomato; Pencil Pod Yellow Wax bean.
We circulate the tables, thoughtfully or frantically filling and labeling brown envelopes made available for a take-home portion of seed. The envelopes are donated by a seed-conservation organization and are stamped with its name “Seed Matters.”
Indeed, seed matters. Beyond our stored food and a potential wild harvest, humanity relies on stored seed for our next meals. To lose access to crop seed is, in short order, to lose access to food. Chris and Marilyn’s work in India with The Hummingbird Project made this concept real for them.
At one time, Indian farmers saved their own seed or purchased seed from many mom-and-pop seed stores across the country. These seed stores acted as a reservoir of seed diversity, obtaining their inventory from surrounding agricultural fields. In essence, these seed shops were seed banks.
But a billion eaters represents an enormous market share, and international seed companies wanted a gluttonous slice of the pie, enticing mom-and-pop seed shops to sign contracts to sell their proprietary “improved” seed. Farmers who weren’t saving their own seed now had to buy from a narrow selection of company products—hybrid varieties that don’t breed true or patented genetically modified seed. Along with burgeoning company profits, the results included impoverished farmers and farm fields.
As Chris recounts, “Learning how [Indian farmers] lost their seed supply overnight made us realize our seed supply in Cleveland wasn’t really secure.”
Agriculture was developed independently in about a half-dozen places on earth. In each case, local wild plants were tamed into domesticated fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans. Given that there were no seed companies, people had to save seed for the next growing season. Smart growers saved seed of the best performing crops or those with especially desirable traits.
This process made crop plants look very different from their wild progenitors, but it also meant that crops cultivated at one isolated farm or village could look wildly different from those grown in other communities; one has Cosmic Purple carrot, the other has Atomic Red.
Each group of people has its geeks, tinkerers, and hackers. In agriculture, these are the people who intentionally cross different- looking crops (or livestock) to see what they’ll get, and then maintain interesting novelties by controlling reproduction of those individuals. Their experiments led not only to new true-breeding varieties, but also to two or more recognizable vegetables from one. Bright Lights Swiss chard is the same plant as Bull’s Blood beet, while a wild European mustard species was coaxed into becoming Purple of Sicily cauliflower, Red Russian kale, Green Magic broccoli, and Golden Acre cabbage.
The advent of agriculture is credited for people staying put, and tending fields rather than chasing game. But the history of humanity is a history of migration. Farmers on the move took their life support system—saved seeds—with them. Crop ranges expanded into new environments that played on the success and failure of the harvest, adding to their diversification. Saved seed became a record of the successful harvest and human migration.
Moving around the planet, agricultural people would invariably encounter one another. Seeds were exchanged. New genes could be tinkered with, new crosses made. Crop fields, diets, cuisines, cultures, were changed.
By midday, the crowd at the Cleveland’s seed swap has likely reached its zenith. The buzz of many conversations happening at once is complemented by Meredith’s lively accordion playing on one side of the room. Across the room, Doc Fermento is giving samples and advice on fermenting while Alex weaves his way through the crowd, personally handing out his homegrown heirloom garlic for planting. Seizing on the opportunity of an audience, people take to the stage with bold and optimistic announcements.
Mike is giving away burlap coffee bags for a multitude of gardening reuses. Ben makes a revolutionary call to plant a multitude of trees. Chris rises to his duty and thanks the crowd for coming, pointing out the table with free seed-saving guides and other swag, and clarifies the reason they were all here—to preserve biodiversity and resist the corporate monoculture in the name of seed freedom.
The mother of all seed swaps has a name. Coined by historian Alfred Crosby in 1972, the Columbian Exchange began when Christopher Columbus’s sea legs steadied on the Bahamian island of San Salvador. Columbus was looking for a shortcut to Southeast Asia, from where valuable spices, like black pepper, trickled into Europe at great demand and great price.
Instead he was introduced to aji, as his journal entry from the 15th of January 1493 remarks:
“There is also plenty of aji, which is their pepper, which is more valuable than pepper, and all the people eat nothing else, it being very wholesome.”
It didn’t take long for Columbus’s scheming to bring wholesome aji—chili peppers—and the seeds they carry back to Europe. “Fifty caravels (Portuguese sailing ships) might be annually loaded with it,” he surmised. By his second voyage, a sample was brought to Europe for a royal introduction.
Needless to say, chili peppers were a hit.
The Columbian Exchange has been viewed by biologists as a slow-moving catastrophe, with consequences as calamitous as a meteor impact. The event exchanged more than agricultural products. Species transferred between the Old and New Worlds wreaked havoc on peoples and ecosystems, as previously unknown diseases ignited epidemics, and introduced predators and weedy competitors pushed rare endemics to extinction.
More than 500 years later, the repercussions are still being felt. The event is still going on, as exotic species creep across oceans and gain a foothold on new shores, making the biotas of New and Old Worlds more and more alike over time. Some scientists have argued that Columbus’s arrival in the Americas was so monumental that it should mark the start of a new epoch in history. The name they propose for this epoch? Homogenocene.
But did the Columbian Exchange kick off the erosion of agricultural diversity to which agro-ecologists and activists like Chris and Marilyn alert us? Some communities may have adopted exotic crops at the expense of traditional ones. New World maize and cassava supplanted sorghum and yams in parts of Africa. But by and large, the loss of crop diversity has been a recent phenomenon, hastened by the industrialization of agriculture that began after World War II. The Green Revolution—ironically named in today’s parlance—boosted agricultural production by the use of pesticides, herbicides, and artificial fertilizers. Diverse crop fields gave way to expansive monocultures of high-yielding crop strains sustained by large irrigation systems and managed by giant machines.
India is the poster child for the success and cost of the Green Revolution. The country overcame chronic grain shortages to become a global exporter, especially of rice. Rice was first cultivated around 10,000 years ago in southern China. Within 7,000 years it sustained the Indus River civilization. Prior to the Green Revolution, farmers in India were growing 30,000 different varieties in their fields. In 2005, just 10 varieties occupied the vast majority of farm fields.
While it might seem out of our individual hands to stop the erosion of biodiversity in the natural world, those attending the seed swap know that we can preserve and even produce agricultural biodiversity in our own backyard gardens. Not only can we place faith in a seed, if we save seed and are willing to experiment, we can find reason to hope that something novel, something unique, something valuable might come from our efforts.
After all, home gardeners and peasant farmers across Europe, Africa, and Asia adopted those chili peppers Columbus carried across the Atlantic. From New World chili peppers they coaxed celebrated Old World varieties—Hungarian Hot Wax, Czech Black, Ethiopian Brown, Thai Red, and the infamous invention from India, Bhut jolokia ghost pepper.
Humanity’s creative expression isn’t relegated to paper and canvas, clay, wood, and stone. The garden plot is a studio of creativity, and heirloom crop genes represent a palette full of color, flavor, and nutrition.
Nancy just walked into St. John’s chapel. She’s visiting from Pittsburgh. Her mom grew up in Guyana and had a huge farm, but then immigrated to Queens where Nancy grew up without much garden space. She just bought her first house and is excited to have her own backyard garden. She leaves the seed swap with a sunchoke tuber. It isn’t beyond imagination that one day Nancy—or someone with whom she shares her sunchokes—might introduce a new variety to the world’s gardeners.
Maybe they’ll call it Pittsburgh Purple Sublime sunchoke.
For more information on The Hummingbird Project, visit HummingBirdProject.org.