78 percent of the world’s seeds are now owned by three companies, and it’s those companies who decide which ones to make available to the public.
That’s quite a turnaround from America’s early years, when the U.S. government was giving billions of seeds away for free. But it’s not just the variety of seeds being lost, it’s also the history that those seeds represent.
Beth Bridgeman is a faculty member at Antioch College who teaches a series of reskilling and resilience courses like sewing, fermentation, shoe repair, and hide tanning.
“It’s all about the skills we used to have that we are sort of a generation away from still having,” Bridgeman says sitting in her office overlooking the campus. “ So, it’s things that students are fascinated with and just haven’t had access to anymore, at home, and so one of these courses was seed saving course that I taught this fall.”
Along with learning how to collect and save seeds, part of Bridgman’s class included collecting the oral history of seeds.
“It’s important to save the story of the seeds as well. The history of culture is in every single seed. Even at Seed Savers Exchange, it’s the largest non-governmental seed bank in the United States, it’s people like us sending the seeds that they grew to Seed Savers, and exchanging with other people. Seed Savers Exchange started because Diane Wheatly , she saved Grandpa Ott’s Morning Glory, and that’s how it started. You know, there’s a story behind that Morning Glory - it was her grandfather's, he brought it over from wherever, and so our students were really interested in different things.”
And so, Bridgeman set her students loose to interview people all around the country to find their seed stories.
Amanda Seigel spoke to Ira Wallace, writer, seed saver, and the driving force behind Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.
"It’s a long story. I did not foreshadow that it would become such a big thing in my life," said Wallace when Siegel asked her how she began saving seeds.
Seigel says she's invested in maintaining both the legacies of African seeds and also the stories of those that have been affected by the diaspora. She asked Wallace about the importance of seeds in retaining Black cultural legacies and memories.
"Well, I think that a lot of the history of African people in the United States has not been maintained as a written legacy," said Wallace. "Our stories are hidden in the foods. These recipes, these flavors that we have, are sometimes all that connects us to the ancestors. And so I think they’re quite important in that way."
Another Antioch student, Noah Evans spoke to Bill McDorman his experiences with seed saving.
"Let me tell you a story. It’s really one of the more profound stories of things that have happened to me," McDorman begins. He goes on to talk about a visit to Second Mesa, on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona and how he was stunned that they could grow corn in conditions where corn shouldn’t thrive. McDorman had asked a tribal elder about the word Hopi.
"He said Hopi is a philosophy. It’s a way of living. It’s a way of being in the world. But, it had to do with humility, and listening, and service. And then he said something that would change my life - that really put me on the path I’m on. He said, we learn how to be Hopi by growing the corn. That is our spiritual path. And so that’s it. I’d never equated gardening with identity- let alone deep identity - let alone with spiritual growth that way. I mean, that’s pretty amazing for me. So, that’s what I’m doing. I went home after that and said I’m going to grow corn, and try to be Hopi. [laughs]."
Bridgeman says it’s not too late to save our seed diversity and the cultural history it represents.
“There’s a ton of genetic material still out there. So maybe it’s you, going to visit your great aunt that you haven’t seen in Louisiana since you were three years old, and she takes you into her backyard, and you say ‘what’s that’, and she says….and all of a sudden we have a new variety that we thought was lost and that’s been in her backyard the whole time. So people are finding old genetic material in seeds all the time. It’s in peoples backyards. It’s on roadsides. It’s in the fields. So, we still have time to turn it around. It’s important that we do it, and we can do it with joy, and with can do it in community. “
The interviews from Bridgman’s class are part of the Great Lakes College Association’s Oral History in the Liberal Arts, which funds oral history-powered field work.