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Seed Saving Podcast Transcript

What precedes growing a plant? Often times, a seed. Learn about the importance of seed diversity from Hanna Jacobs and Manish Kushwaha.


 

Avery Parkinson

Welcome to In the Weeds, a podcast dedicated to discussing everything to do with food, sustainability and urban agriculture, indoor growing, food insecurity, resource consumption, and anything else we think is exciting or important. I'm your host, Avery Parkinson.

Seed saving is the practice of saving your seeds from vegetables, grains, herbs, and flowers from one year to the next so that they can be used again. Such a practice was intertwined with agriculture in its earliest form, selecting seeds for certain favorable attributes and was commonplace up until even the last century, when food production became industrialized and genetic diversity was partially traded for efficiency of production. We talked with Hanna Jacobs, the founder and owner of Matchbox Gardens. 

Hanna Jacobs

So my name is Hanna Jacobs, and I am the founder and owner of Matchbox Garden and Seed. So I do everything. And what we do primarily at the farm is we're a seed production farm, so we're certified organic, and I produce anywhere from 100 to 120 different varieties of seed at the farm each year. 

Avery Parkinson

What was the need that Matchbox Gardens was designed to fill? 

Hanna Jacobs

So our focus at the farm in terms of our seed production is open pollinated, heirloom and rare varieties. And so that is one of the things that we provide for gardeners and for farmers. So when they come to our website or they see us at an event, they know that they can find varieties that they're going to have a hard time finding elsewhere. And I would say almost more importantly, because all of our seed is open pollinated, that means that anybody that has an interest in saving their own seed, as long as they follow the rules, they can save seed from whatever they buy from us. So that is another piece in terms of biodiversity and food security and seed security. And I'll take it a step further. Food and seed sovereignty. These are some of the needs that we fill with the business. 

Avery Parkinson

How did you start out from identifying this need to actually creating and growing your business? 

Hanna Jacobs

So when I started gardening just for fun, I wanted to find weird and wonderful things. And as the years went on, it became increasingly more difficult to find those things. And so that's when I really started doing the seed saving in earnest, because I saw that I was having trouble finding things. I was talking to other growers, they were having trouble finding things. And I was like, okay, so I didn't know how much need there was out there, but I knew that I was aware of it, and the people I talked to were aware of it. So I was like, okay, well, we're just going to do this. And it ties into conservation. And to say it again, the biodiversity. We have so many different varieties of plants around the world, and a lot of those are tied culturally to us, depending on where we're from and in conventional agriculture we tend to grow things for their store ability and for their ability to transport well. And so that kind of ignores a whole bunch of varieties, and then people stop growing them and then they become extinct. So in order to be a part of the prevention of that, that's sort of where I landed. 

Avery Parkinson

Monocultures, the practice of growing one species of crop very densely, are widely employed for commercial agriculture and are some of the biggest threats to provide diversity. Can you talk a little bit more about this? 

Hanna Jacobs

I think what we do helps to shift a little bit consumer purchasing at the end of the day, what we buy drives the markets to a degree. And so if people are opting to buy seed from me or seed from growers like me and there are so many of us out there, then we vote with our dollars every day. And so that's just a perfect example of doing that. 

To unpack that a little bit more… If you have farmers, small farmers, mid sized farmers that are purchasing the seed and growing it out to take to market, whether that be farmers market or grocery or restaurant, again, you're voting with your money because not everybody can grow stuff, but everybody's got to eat. So if people are buying from those producers, you are diverting that money. Again, a pebble in the lake, I would say in a way that can sort of shift where the industry is going. 

There's a lot of talk about food sovereignty and people being able to have access to food that is culturally appropriate for them. So there's so many different vegetables and fruits out there. But if you have more, larger growers hooking into that and what consumers are looking for, then that can sort of offset the monoculture a little bit. 

And that's if you're just talking with vegetable crops, when you look at commodities, that's a whole another beast. You've got corn, wheat and soy. There are farmers that are converting to organic, and there are farmers that are converting to no till. They're still in the commodity market. And that in itself is an important step because it gets them away from GMOs and it gets them away from the high levels of spring that happen in conventional growing. 

Avery Parkinson

Can you talk about seed saving and how your work intersects with this? 

Hanna Jacobs

Every year I will have at least one person that comes to me and says, my great grandmother brought this over from wherever they are from. And we've been growing it out ever since. And can you please grow this out? So they are seed saving. They recognize that I am a seed saver. And there's this thing that happens. Right. And so they are spreading that particular food around it's nine times out of ten. It's food. But food is such an important part of everyone's culture, right? 

So there's this great tomato. Somebody gifted me the seeds a couple of years ago. I'm going to butcher the name. It's an Italian tomato, and it's Pomodoro del Vesuvio, but I'm missing a couple of words in there anyway. It is a tomato that is native to the Pompeii region, and it has specific qualities, so it stores for a really long time. So you can store it until January. You cut the clusters, and then you hang them, and the longer they hang, the sweeter they get. So this is very specific and has a very specific flavor. And the whole nature of how you grow it, how you harvest it, how you store it is all specific to that region, just a really special thing. And now I get to grow it out here and play with it here. And for sure, at some point, somebody is going to come up to me and be like, oh, my God, my mom used to grow that back in Italy. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And all of the things that come along with that, like the cultural pieces outside of food, food in that instance being the gateway. And then all of a sudden, we're talking about all these other cultural pieces. 

Avery Parkinson

How do you source your different varieties of organic seeds? 

Hanna Jacobs

Everything that I grow, I'm growing for flavor. I'm not really looking at yield, although that plays a little bit into it. And I'm looking for its robustness in the garden. So I'm looking for disease resistance. I'm looking for weather resistance, depending on what it is. How does it grow in clay versus sand. So there are those pieces that play into it when I'm looking for a new variety to bring in. So every year, I'm trialing anywhere from two to ten varieties, depending on the year.

Like I said, I get gifted some and then others. I'm just like, I'll stumble upon something and be like, wow, that looks really cool. I want to try that out. And then there are other things that I seek out. So, for example, I've been growing one variety of zucchini for, like, 15 years, and it's an Italian variety. It has all the attributes that I like in a zucchini. People are always asking me if I carry yellow zucchini, and I don't because I've never been able to find an open pollinated variety. So for the last, like, almost ten years, I've been looking for an open pollinated yellow zucchini. And so I look at all the seed companies. I ask people when I'm at seed events, I'm like it's there at the front of my mind. And so then I finally found one. I found one this year, and I grew it out. Like, I didn't save any seed because it didn't do what I needed it to do, but I'll keep going back. So it's sort of a combination of things. And I have my regular seed companies that I'll go to look for new varieties. And then if I'm looking for something very specific and I have no idea where to get it, then I just scour the internet. 

Avery Parkinson

Food tends to be a pretty big builder of community. How have you seen this emerge around the idea of seed saving? 

Hanna Jacobs

Yeah. Like, over the last 15 years, it just gets bigger and bigger, particularly over the last five years, the demographics are getting younger, which is really nice. Yeah. When shows were happening, I would have these young children, like, anywhere from five to 16, dragging their parents over to my stand. Well, we have to get this mum. So that's been nice. And that's a new community with my customers.

I see my customers at events. I used to see them at farmers markets. No, I wouldn't say that I've experienced, like, a purposeful community, but definitely like, that it is growing and people are becoming a lot more aware, and I don't see that stopping anytime soon, you know? Okay, so I'm 45 and I hear a lot of people around my age and slightly older often saying things about the younger generation. And I know that this is something that happens. Like, every generation thinks that your generation is bad in some way or another. And I just couldn't disagree more. I am so happy. It fills my heart. Like, I'm so inspired by seeing these people that are in their early 20s and their teenagers and mid 20s and late 20s. They know what's going on, which is a lot more than I can say for my generation at that age as a whole. Yeah. I just think that we have a whole bunch of younger people who are a lot more aware than we were when we were that age. 

Avery Parkinson

How has Covid 19 affected your sale of seeds? 

Hanna Jacobs

Yeah, there's been a huge increase. Like, our sales have definitely increased dramatically since the beginning of the pandemic. And I know that the seed industry in general, there was a run on seeds, like there was a run on toilet paper. A lot of people knew, a lot of people were expanding. I think that the pandemic and the fallout of the pandemic really have done well for organic food and gardening, and I think that will continue. It might tail off a little bit, but I think generally it's just going to continue to increase. 

Avery Parkinson

What's next for Matchbox gardens? 

Hanna Jacobs

Like I said before, primarily I'm a seed producer. I also do seedlings in the spring. And I've been doing workshops at the farm and online for the last few years. So I'm in the middle of creating a gardener's course that I'm going to be hopefully rolling out in January. It'll be an online gardening course, and it takes people from because I do love teaching. Yeah, I really enjoy doing workshops and seminars, so the two month course takes people from garden design and crop planning all the way through to what to do with your harvest and seed saving. So just full circle with that. I also teach yoga and I'm doing some more teacher training so that will come into the fold at the farm and at some point we'll be offering day long retreats. My husband is a chef, so we'll be doing garden yoga. 

Avery Parkinson

That was Hanna Jacobs, owner of Matchbox Gardens. For more information about her work visit www.matchboxgardens.ca. We also talked with Manish Kushwa from Gaia Organics. 

Manish Kushwaha

My name is Manish Kushwaha. I'm originally from India, moved eleven years ago for studies. I majored in Computer Science and minored in Mathematics and Business Management. I worked in software industries for over five years then decided to make a complete switch last year doing Covet to do farming full time. I come from a third generation farmer's family from India. My dad operates a seed company in India. Growing up, I never thought I would be into seeds or even running a seed business. Once I started growing food and selling my own seeds. Then I started realizing the importance of seed food and farming and added climate change to the whole equation. I decided to see the big challenge ahead of us to adapt seeds to our changing climate. From this internal process emerged Gaia Organics and it's a mission to provide well adapted seeds to our climate. 

Avery Parkinson

You talk about honoring and respecting the complex interdependence that has always existed between seeds, soil microorganisms, pollinating insects, other animals, and ourselves to sustain the cycle of life. Can you talk about what this means? 

Manish Kushwaha

Growing seeds in an organic way honors every being involved in the process. Let's start with this soil where seeds are grown and briefly discuss the soil food web. So most seeds are inhabited with a diverse microbiome consisting of bacterial, fungal and other species that play a crucial role in plant development, their growth, fitness and diversification. As the seedling emerges, these microorganisms colonize various parts of the plant while living in a mutualistic symbiotic relationship. For instance, in lagoon crops, the rhizobacteria found in roots live in symbiotic relationship with the plant and it replenishes the atmospheric nitrogen back to the soil. Further like, let's learn about all the other organisms involved in the entire soil ecosystem. 

As the plant grows, some root feeding nematodes and the mycorrhizae fungi in the soil feed on the live roots. The organic matter created by the roots by the dead roots is further fed by bacteria. The root feeding nematodes and the mycorrhiza fungi and bacteria become food to the arthropods, which are further scavenged by eaten by birds and other mammals. So the bacteria that consume the organic matter would also be consumed by fungus by the fungus and the bacteria feeding nematodes. And then there's protozoa, which feeds on the organic matter, that feeds organic matter, and then those are eaten by the predator nematodes. 

This is a complex ecosystem. And then other earthworms also eat the nematodes. And while the earthworms are feeding on the soil and fungi and they are screening fertilizer soil. So as you can see, there's such a complex independence in this entire ecosystem. If we remove any one of them from the equation, you will see how it will deplete very easily. Now let's come to pollination. Now, moving on to pollination, we can see pollination is the crucial step of food production where bees pollinate the flowers and flowers become the fruit or vegetables. Pollination can happen in many ways. Like insects, birds, animals, wind and water plants and animals have evolved with the earth elements together. It has created a living system that sustains the production cycle of the plants. 

A few things to notice here to highlight here are like the nectar of the flower is table died for bees only. Hummingbirds can get too long tubular flowers with nectar that assist in the pollination of the flowers. If you remove hummingbirds and these flowers will work, only wind can pollinate some flowers with long stamens and in the same or nearby plants. While water is a carrier pollen for plants and flowers thriving in water. As you can see, there's so much independence between these various aspects. So these are the most important pointers for most of our majority of our crops and species. And their population has been declining in the last decade and it has a cascading impact on the under ecosystem. 

Government has placed stricter regulations on pesticides and other things, but it's only for the honeybees. We have native species of bees that are going extinct and we have no way of life. They help the native species and that helps the local ecosystem and that's also being threatened by not protecting the native habitats through our understanding of the natural world, we make sense of this complex independence. In my view, all of this understanding of independence comes with an even greater responsibility of doing the right thing and preserving this independence and preserving the diversity of these plants, animals and the ecosystem that we thrive on. So more diversity is better for everyone, our planet, various ecosystems and for our own health. So we also play a very important role as a conscious being to preserve this biodiversity as we have a capability to make these habitats for species at risk and keep sustaining the habitats already in place. At least with my own work preserving and nurturing the biodiversity of food crops, there's a lot of more work outside of that too, I believe just like me, if everyone takes care of habitat for at least one species, then there's potential to save millions and billions of species at risk through our human effort. 

Yeah, I think I would like to say soil health is a very important aspect of organic farming as topsoil is degrading very fast. I'll give you some facts like 82% of Ontario agriculture soil is estimated to be losing more CO2 to the atmosphere rather than increasing soil or getting organic carbon. That means we have to do organic farming too. We can trap more carbon into our soil. It may not be just the organic way, but like the other ways of doing it. You can build forests and stuff, but like organic farming through cover cropping, there's a way to do it and we must support that phenomena going forward. There's a whole crisis unfolding for farmers in Nevada where they have lost the average depth of the topsoil from like 14 to 18 inches in the early 20 century to six to eight inches by the end of the century. This is all from tilling and disturbing the farmland leaving them bare open for many parts of the time. We have discovered ways to stop that and we must continuously adapt to these new ways of no tilling farming, vegetable farming, just being able to support these new ways of farming so we can adapt our way to the changing climate and our methods and processes so we can make better systems, better organic growing systems. 

Avery Parkinson

What are some of the things that can be done in order to continue to honor this interdependence both on a consumer level but also on a commercial level? 

Manish Kushwaha

I've lived in Iowa for a while and I visited farms where a single family would operate up to 20 acres of corners that have been conventional. I've also met farmers who have a similar amount of line 1500 acres and they grow many biodiverse crops. 

At the end of the day I feel like they are both alternatives that exist. But change is a two way street even though this farm can employ and grow biodiverse food. But unfortunately it depends on who will buy that. So it starts with increasing the diversity of food on our plates. If consumers can change their habits and have the biodiversity crops in their plate then that will drive the demand of the market and then departments can grow their food. So I feel like this is a two way equation. Unless we change, the farmers who are growing food for us won't change, right?

This is the question of scale. I find small scale farmers have to be biodiverse to be able to be sustainable. If they grow onions somewhere and if they keep growing onions in the same place, they have many diseases and eventually they won't be able to grow onions in the same place. So small farms already like our biodiverse. You see small organic CSA popping up everywhere. And I have met many local farmers who have better soil management practices that help them have better quality food and better soil health and more diverse food at individual level. I think just learning about these different apps, how can we diversify our food? Can we eat like Mackay or can we eat some different Greens that we don't have access to in big box stores? Can we grow that food in our backyard? So things like that, we have to also educate ourselves to be able to diversify our diet and that will lead and just sharing that knowledge with others who will benefit from that and just creating a moment of growing our own food through diversifying our crops. 

Avery Parkinson

In your opinion, what does the future food look like and how does the work you do at Gaia Organics fit into this? 

Manish Kushwaha

I feel like the market is heading in all sorts of directions. What you guys are doing is amazing. There's a whole phrase about hydroponic systems and vertical farms in urban centers and it is at a very early stage but the demand is growing. Like even I have customers who grow hydroponically and they ask me like, okay, what are the best seats to grow in a hydroponic system? So I'm not at that stage to do experiments like, okay, what seeds? 

I just recommend to the best of my knowledge from what I have heard from my customers, what grows well for them and I just recommend that to them that. But I am seeing an expansion of organic seed demands and hyperbolic systems. On the other hand, the organic market itself is growing at 15% rate. Almost like every big box store has started to have an organic section. Consumers are becoming more aware of the impact of conventional farming has on the environment so they have started to support organic products so it is more sustainable for the environment in the long run. So a lot more organic. Local farms have started to offer CSA baskets in summer and fall. That has expanded the interest in local food and I believe it is growing at a substantial rate. I have several friends who are in the business and we support each other and have a better ecosystem of pharmacy companies and people interested in local organic seeds. So you will continue to offer organic seeds to these people and continue to provide quality seeds to them. 

Avery Parkinson

That was Manish Kushwa from Gaia Organics. For more information about him and his work, visit gaiaorganics.ca.

We hope you enjoyed this episode of our podcast. If you're interested in learning more about Just Vertical and our work, follow us @justvertical on Twitter,@just.vertical on Instagram or visit our website, www.justvertical.com. Stay tuned for our next episode where we'll be discussing more about urban agriculture, food sustainability, or really anything else important or exciting that we feel like talking about.

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