On the Ground with the Growers Working to Localize Seed Production - Modern Farmer

On the Ground with the Growers Working to Localize Seed Production

The local food movement often has its roots in seeds grown far afield, but more farmers want to bring those foundational pieces of agriculture back home.

Nicoya Farm hosts students on a field trip. They are shelling peas while learning about local seeds.
Photography submitted by Melissa DeSa

For many small-scale fruit and vegetable growers, “local” is the word that makes their business work. Shoppers seek out—and pay premiums for—the promise that a juicy tomato or vibrant squash was raised right down the road. 

Yet much of the time, the local food economy ultimately depends on big farms thousands of miles across the country or even overseas: the seed producers who provide planting stock for the growing season. The resulting seeds, developed under very different environmental conditions, aren’t always a great agricultural fit for the farms that grow them. And mistakes by large seed farms can reverberate widely, as with last year’s “Jalapeñogate,” where stores across the United States sold peppers that had been mislabeled by an international grower.

Phil Howard, a professor of community sustainability at Michigan State University, has estimated that more than 60 percent of the global seed market is now controlled by four multinational companies after decades of consolidation through corporate acquisitions. Even regional seed distributors often get supplies from those centralized sources.

Aware of that disconnect, some growers are trying to keep things local all through the supply chain—including seed farming. Their efforts could make their local food systems more resilient, with seeds better adapted to regional climates and soils. 

Siembra Farm staff shelling Southern peas grown on the farm during a staff meeting. Photography submitted by Melissa DeSa.


Chris Smith’s Appalachian collective

Since 2018, Chris Smith has been working to promote agricultural biodiversity through his nonprofit Utopian Seed Project, based in Asheville, North Carolina. He’s explored and promoted obscure cultivars of southern staples such as Turkish Yalova Akkoy okra and colorful Ole Timey Blue collard greens, as well as experimented with creating new genetic potential through “ultracrosses” of many existing varieties.

“We’ve been talking about these seeds as ‘the seeds that know the South,’” says Smith. “They understand the heat, the humidity, the diseases and can respond better to that because they’ve been grown locally.”

To get those types of seeds into more hands, however, Smith knew he’d need a broader coalition. In 2022, he partnered with fellow farmers Leeza Chen and Shelby Johnson to reach out to regional growers and discuss what a local seed initiative might look like. They knew they wanted an approach radically different from the centralized model that dominates the market.

“It all has to be built on relationships; we have to know the people and trust the people that we’re working with,” says Smith. The group held monthly meetings with local farmers, many in-person around boxes of pizza, to establish shared values and goals.

What emerged was the Appalachian Seed Growers Collective. About a dozen members agreed to grow 11 regionally adapted crops in 2023, with the collective using a $25,000 grant from the Ceres Trust to invest in a mobile trailer that can visit each farm and process seeds using a “Winnow Wizard” and a threshing machine. 

Varieties on offer during the collective’s first season this year included Coral Sorghum, a cultivar Johnson is developing for both grain and syrup production; Blue Ridge Butternut, a squash resulting from 15 years of breeding by Western North Carolina farmer Matt Wallace; and Living Web Ventura Celery, which has naturalized and diversified over a decade of self-seeding.

Smith admits that the economics of seed work can be challenging, with global suppliers able to leverage scale and lower labor costs. But on the consumer side, the collective is working to boost demand by educating area distributors and gardeners about the added value of local seeds. Asheville’s Sow True Seed, where Smith worked prior to starting the Utopian Seed Project, is paying a premium for the seeds as part of its mission to support local growers.

On the production side, the collective guarantees farmers payment based on the amount of land they dedicate to seeds regardless of yield, which reduces the financial risk of a bad harvest. Smith says that approach can encourage more sustainable growing and shift attitudes away from regarding seeds as pure commodities. “We’re distributing the seeds, but what we’re really valuing is the people’s land and labor in producing them,” he explains.

Winnowing beans at Chris Smith’s community seed day. Photography submitted by Chris Smith.

Melissa DeSa’s seeds at work

Although Melissa DeSa grew up amid the snows of Western Canada, she took the first chance she got to move somewhere with a bit more sunshine— Sarasota, Florida—to work as a wildlife ecologist. 

A friend there got her involved in the local chapter of Slow Food, where she became passionate about the connections between agriculture and the environment, and after graduating from an ecology masters program at the University of Florida, DeSa cofounded the nonprofit Working Food in Gainesville in 2012. She soon became convinced that the long-term success and sustainability of Florida’s agriculture depended on locally adapted seeds. 

“Florida seems like a great place to grow stuff, and we do have a nice year-round growing season,” says DeSa. “But we also have poor, sandy soil and a lot of pest and disease issues that never get knocked back by freezes. We can’t just open up these big, beautiful heirloom seed catalogs, pick things, throw them in the soil and have them do well.”

DeSa established Working Food as a regional seed hub around north-central Florida, supplying local gardeners and market farmers with thousands of packets of suitable varieties. The bulk of those seeds are grown in Gainesville in partnership with GROW HUB, a nonprofit nursery that serves adults with disabilities. Others are raised by the University of Florida’s Field & Fork teaching farm or gardeners with a row to spare.

One local cultivar DeSa has championed is the Seminole pumpkin, long grown by the state’s Native communities. They’re robust against squash vine borers, taste pleasantly sweet and keep extremely well—a key quality in the humid Florida climate. “Having a pumpkin that can sit on your kitchen counter at 75 degrees for six, eight, 10 months? That’s pretty awesome,” she says.

Last year, Working Food scored a $41,000 grant from the US Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program to help encourage seed farming among local market gardeners. By building a network of local seed suppliers, DeSa says Florida can become more prepared for an uncertain future.

“I truly believe that if, say, during the pandemic, more growers already had these decentralized seed systems and food distribution systems in place, it wouldn’t have felt so crazy and scary,” she says. “We can’t depend on those big institutions or companies that are centralized to always be able to come through for us.”

Edmund Frost’s research and resilience

Edmund Frost’s job involves eating a lot of cucumber. As a member-owner of Common Wealth Seed Growers, he’s led the Louisa, Virginia-based project’s efforts to breed and produce regionally adapted vegetable seeds since 2014, and the cucurbits are a major focus.

“You’re looking for sweetness, crispness and a kind of cucumbery aromatic flavor, while avoiding bitterness and excessive astringency,” says Frost of his taste-test checklist. “Some plants will produce a lot, they’ll look good, but the cucumbers aren’t really inspiring.”

Just as importantly, his two leading varieties—South Wind Slicer and Common Wealth Pickler—can stand up to the heat and downy mildew pressure of late summer in Virginia, when most other cucumber cultivars have already petered out. Many breeders for the big seed catalogs are based in the Northeast, says Frost, and while their varieties often grow quickly and productively, they haven’t taken the conditions of the South into account.

Beyond breeding cucumbers, butternut squash, pumpkins and melons, Common Wealth has helped introduce varieties previously unknown to the South, such as a Guatemalan green ayote squash, that do particularly well in the area. Frost says the goal is to get market farmers and gardeners thinking more deeply about how to match the seeds they select with their regional realities.

“The idea with starting Common Wealth was to express values of regional adaptation and research through seeds, get those out to the customers and then the customers would value and pay for it to help fund our research,” he says. 

The ideal of resilience has taken on particular resonance for Frost: In March, a wildfire tore through the Twin Oaks intentional community where he lives, consuming a warehouse that housed Common Wealth seeds. Thankfully, many seeds were in another location due to planned renovations on the building; he expects his work to recover, and he plans to back up his stocks in multiple locations for the future.

Frost says the fire highlights why a more distributed, locally adapted seed economy will be so important in a time of climate uncertainty. “There’s so much opportunity—and need—for people to do seed work in our region,” he says. “I’d love to see a dozen farm-based seed companies in the Southeast.”

Joe Durando of Possum Hollow Farm shows other farmers the Cuban Calabaza (Cucurbita moschata) he’s been saving for many years at Possum Hollow Farm in Alachua, Florida. Photography submitted by Melissa DeSa.

Want to learn more about local seeds?

The first thing to do is shop local! Buy local seeds, ask your local nursery or garden center to stock local seeds or find growers near you who are prioritizing local varieties. 

Learn how to save local seeds yourself with our handy guide to seed saving, and connect with other seed savers on the Seed Savers Exchange, where you can find other heirloom varieties and learn more about particular plants in your area.

To find out who is working with local seeds near you, try out the Local Seed Search map. In Canada, you can use this map from the Young Agrarians to find your local seed source. 

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