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Extinction? Forever! Seed-Saving Class? Next Month!

Blog Archive | June 23, 2010 | By Jim Sluyter

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As more growers develop local markets for their crops, seed-saving becomes more important.

“Extinction” usually makes me think of things like mastodons or civil political discourse, not tomatoes or apples.

True, tomatoes and apples are in no immediate danger of going completely away.

Think about this, though: 100 years ago there were an estimated7,000 named apple varieties being grown in North America. Perhaps 1,500 remain, many hanging by a thread.

study by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) in 1982, found that 80 percent of commercial tomato varieties listed in 1903 by the USDA were no longer found in US seed banks. By optimistic estimates less than 25 percent of the vegetable varieties available at the turn of the last century still exist.  Most estimates suggest it is far fewer.

When a variety of apple or tomato, or wheat or rice, or any other plant is lost—goes extinct—it is no more likely to come back than T. Rex.  But with dozens or hundreds of varieties remaining, does it really matter? Aren’t there plenty of varieties left to assure us plenty of options in taste, appearance, and size?

Well, maybe.  But in nature, it is always good to follow the sage advice of naturalist and author Aldo Leopold: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

And as local growers think more about developing local markets, like they are in northwest Lower Michigan, taste, appearance, and size become more important to them. But so should genetic diversity. The lack of it can affect farmers and eaters in profound ways.

For example, not long ago scientists found just the right variety of barley and rice to provide needed resistance to a disease that threatened both. And in 1970, U.S. farmers lost $1 billion to a disease that swept through uniformly susceptible corn varieties.

So, for farmers growing food, not commodities, there are plenty of good reasons to save seeds.

It saves money; seed prices, after all, are headed up.

It also allows growers to raise their favorite varieties, no matter seed crop failures, out-of-stock stores, or “dropped by the trade” death sentences. It also allows them to adapt and improve those varieties to specific conditions and climates.

Seed saving can also help pay the bills: High MowingTurtle Tree and Fedco are among seed companies looking for growers. Growers can also sell seeds at farmers market or start their own mail order business.

And doing it yourself also makes sure you have the freshest possible seed. Seed companies are reluctant to admit it, but not every variety of every seed offered is grown every year. Seeds fresh from the store might just be a year old already.

There are plenty of growers—from big farms down to backyard gardens—saving seeds in the region. We could be a lot more systematic about it if we join forces and work together.

If you want to learn more, or just meet some of the growers who are interested in saving and sharing seeds, join us on July 6 at the Michigan Works conference room (on the south side of the building), 1209 Garfield Rd., Traverse City from 6:30 - 8:00 p.m.

Jim Sluyter manages the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Get Farming! program. For more information on the seed-saving session, reach him at jimsluyter@mlui.org or 231-941-6584 ext. 15.

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