As I sat with Jill last week I learned how she fell in love while interning. This love affair forever transformed her life. Truth be told, it was not quite love at first sight, but almost. The farm she had selected for her internship was well-known for its heirloom tomatoes and one of Jill's roles there was to save thousands of seeds from all these tomatoes. "That's a bit of a gross job," Jill tells me, "there's lots of fermentation, there's mold but then when it clears out, you see all the seeds."
As she witnessed this life-changing process, Jill's interest piqued; she inquired whether she could take some of these seeds home. Once there, she planted them and they sprouted! Several months later, Jill gathered baskets of gorgeous tomatoes that had grown from her tiny seeds. This was a magical moment and Jill knew at that point that she was forever hooked.
This was 2005. The path from a university degree to a seed saving practice was not a well-worn one. "When I first started people thought I was weird. No question about it. My family, my friends, they all thought I was weird. They didn't understand what I was doing. I don't even know that I understood the depth of what I was undertaking."
Now, however, things have changed. "People come to me and say, oh, good, you have black Russian, you have green zebra. They are coming in and are really happy to see I have those seeds. They are talking to me about the politics of it, much more than they ever did before." In all modesty, Jill acknowledges that this overall change in attitude is due, in part, to all her hard work.
When she decided to become a seed saver, Jill created a new company which she aptly called urban tomato. That same year she also launched Seedy Sunday. An annual event, Seedy Sunday has seen its numbers increase consistently year after year. This past March, over 1,400 visitors packed the hall at George Street United Church to search for precious heirloom seeds. Shoppers find an amazing diversity of heirloom seeds there, anything from the coveted Galeux d'Eysines winter squash to the extremely rare blue jay bean. A new vendor from Québec commented to me that the event was well worth her five-hour drive. She found Peterborians particularly engaged in this new "seed culture."
The event also hosts a local seed exchange. It offers gardeners an opportunity to donate some of their harvest, swap seeds and share stories. Unfortunately for the purists it's impossible to know how these seeds have been saved. The new initiative which is slowly germinating locally seeks to address this challenge.
With funding from the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, PCGN and the Nourish Project are combining resources to create a Community Seed Library. Designed to strengthen biodiversity in our area it will help disseminate information on ways to properly save seeds and will support the preservation of seeds adapted to our climate. And once again, Jill is at the centre of all this work.
Why would someone in the heirloom seed business want to cultivate a Community Seed Library? This is a question Jill often gets. "I can't possibly save all the seeds we need. I grow mostly tomatoes and people have other passions. We need to spread that out and the only way we can save all these seeds is if people are doing it consistently. You know, if my ceiling collapsed and flooded my seed bank it would be a disaster for me but if I knew other people had the seeds elsewhere, it would help me sleep better at night." Also "it's a very important skill for people to have and it has been quite lost, so the more that I can spread the net, the happier I am."
Once the Community Seed Library is fully functional, Jill will be able to relax a bit more. Her hope is that through this work a brand new crop of young people will, in due time, fall in love with the alchemy of seed saving, with or without fermentation.
Is seed saving already a passion of yours? Or are you thinking that it's time to give it a trial? Then get in touch with PCGN or with us and let's cultivate our community food literacy.