Restoring the lost art of seed saving in New Hampshire

By: - August 17, 2022 5:49 am

The Moose Mountain Seed Savers met in Milton in July to discuss the creation of seed libraries around the state, where the public would be able to check out seeds and grow them at home for free. (Amanda Gokee | New Hampshire Bulletin)

This article is the first of a two-part series about seed saving. 

As a farmer and landscape gardener in Milton Mills, Georgia Elgar works the land every day. From that vantage point, the change has been clear: more pests, more drought, more disease.

Climate change is creating a host of problems that traditional New England farms aren’t used to, Elgar said. And last winter, she decided to do something about it.

Elgar started a grassroots group to save seeds that can survive the changing climate and democratize growing so it’s accessible to all. To do so, the group, dubbed the Moose Mountain Seed Savers, is looking ahead to the challenges posed by climate change and back to a skill that has largely vanished in the past 100 years – the art and science of seed saving.

As plants grow, they produce seeds. Depending on the kind of plant, there are different procedures for saving that seed. For some plants, like beans, it’s as simple as leaving the seeds on the plant and allowing them to dry, before storing them in a cool, dry place over the winter. Other plants, like marigolds, develop a seed pod that can be plucked from the plant at the end of the growing season and then stored. 

The Moose Mountain Seed Savers and other groups throughout the country want to take control of the seeds – and subsequently the food supply – out of the hands of a few companies and return it to anyone with the time and interest to learn about seed preservation. Their goal is to make seeds available for free at a variety of libraries around the state.

Seed saving used to be common practice among farmers, but that changed when companies started selling hybrid seed varieties in the 1930s. Hybrid crops promised greater yields and profits but disrupted seed saving since their offspring express recessive genes, leading to crop abnormalities.

Members of the Moose Mountain Seed Savers are learning the art and science of seed saving and working to create seed libraries around the state. (Amanda Gokee | New Hampshire Bulletin)

“Saving seeds has been essentially taken away from us as a skill that we still need,” Elgar said.

Another group member and Middleton gardener, Ashley Jacaruso, said that around 60 percent of seed companies are owned by chemical companies, such as Monsanto, which can design seeds that are resistant to the insecticides they sell. Genetically modified seeds can be patented, and saving these seeds is considered patent infringement. That’s led to legal battles over who can control seeds. In 1998, Monsanto sued Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, a seed saver who said his crop had been inadvertently cross-pollinated with a GMO crop patented by Monsanto. The case ended up in the Canadian Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 in Monsanto’s favor.

Many farmers and gardeners have now come to depend on seed companies, purchasing new seeds each year. But those seeds come from far-off locations, and they aren’t adapted to New Hampshire’s climate.

Seed companies could be breeding in Washington state or South Carolina, places that are nothing like New Hampshire, Elgar said. “We’re not giving the varieties a chance to adapt to the changing environment of New England,” she said. Saving seeds allows for that process to occur when plants are grown in the same place over several generations.

“This seed is going to grow better here because it was created here. It’s adapted to this environment,” Jacaruso said.

‘What happens if the seed supply isn’t there anymore?’

Seed shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic, which spurred a gardening boom, added extra urgency to seed saving.

“Companies couldn’t keep up, and all of a sudden you couldn’t get seeds anymore,” Jacaruso said. “What happens if the seed supply isn’t there anymore? What are we going to do?”

That realization pushed the Moose Mountain Seed Saver project forward. So did the knowledge that the genetic diversity of foods has drastically dwindled in the past century. Seed saving can help keep heirloom and indigenous seed varieties in circulation, and genetic diversity, in turn, is a safeguard in the event of future droughts, pests, and diseases. More diversity boosts the chance that a seed variety will have the genetic makeup to survive those future conditions.

The group is a loose collective, formed by around 10 people who are farmers or gardeners or simply interested in seeds. Members are trying to regain some of the lost knowledge around seed saving through research, workshops, and seed swaps, and teach others who are interested along the way.

“Just getting the seeds out to the people is a big goal of ours,” Jacaruso said.

By setting up seed libraries, the group can make seeds available to anyone who wants them, regardless of ability to pay. The group has no formal status but received $1,000 in grant funding from the New England Grassroots Fund to cover some of the costs of materials required to set up the workshops and seed libraries.

“There were people clamoring to learn how to seed save, to connect back to their food, and there’s this little burgeoning community around that area that wants to continue to develop a closer relationship to the food that they’re growing,” said Shane Rogers, a communications strategist for the fund.

Members are already in talks with several libraries throughout the state about offering seeds. They are focused on saving heirloom and open-pollinated seeds, which don’t require human intervention to breed but can either self-pollinate or be fertilized by insects and animals as well as the wind and rain. The seed that results will grow into the same plant in a subsequent year. In September, they plan to host a seed processing workshop, explaining seed saving methodology.

Some are easy to save, but others are more complicated. Tomatoes, for example, are sliced open and left out at room temperature for three days, allowing a mold to form on the surface before the seeds can be removed and dried.

Elgar is a beginning seed saver, a “seed baby.” 

Among the half-dozen or so varieties she’s saving this year, skunk beans are a particular favorite. The indigenous variety bears the black and white splotches of its namesake, which is originally an Abenaki word. Indigenous seeds, which have grown in the region for millenia, are particularly well-adapted to the local climate, but many have become rare or even endangered.

Elgar hopes that by saving the variety she can help bolster the low supply.

“Gardeners, they tend to kind of work on their own. They like to go in their backyard and do their thing,” Elgar said. “But there’s a tremendous amount of potential power if we were to organize ourselves in terms of what we choose to grow.”

 Coming Tomorrow: Restoring crops indigenous to New Hampshire through a new Abenaki garden.

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. She previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.

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