March 18, 2022
Seed swaps strengthen community — and improve produce
Sarah Reeves

It’s all about the seeds: Salish Seed Guild volunteers harvest grain seed at Inspiration Farm in Bellingham, in preparation for sharing varieties that will yield the healthiest crops for local gardeners. Seed swaps such as a long-running event in Whatcom’s South Fork Valley are one way to propagate local seeds, support food security — and build community. (Courtesy Salish Seed Guild)

March 18, 2022
Seed swaps strengthen community — and improve produce
Sarah Reeves

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Many in the Northwest have picked up gardening during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s a habit that community organizers hope to see stick. 

“We’re so divided these days. Everything is politicized. Gardening is one thing where people come together — people you wouldn’t expect to see in the same room together—talking away like neighbors and friends. Which they should be,” said Matt Thuney, communications director for the South Fork Valley Community Association (SFVCA) in Van Zandt, south of Deming. [Editor’s Note: Matt Thuney serves on the board of Salish Current.]

In harmony with that sense of community, SFVCA will host their annual Seed Swap Saturday (March 19) at the Van Zandt Community Hall. The event takes place each spring and draws a significant portion of the local population — 50 to 100 people each year. 

“The Seed Swap is one of our oldest events. Maybe even the oldest,” said Thuney. “It arose because there are so many gardeners in our community. It’s one of the things folks love to do, and it’s really boomed during the pandemic.” 

Gardening has strengthened community ties across Whatcom county, and promoting it has provided more people with access to nutritious, homegrown food. 

“Our whole foodshed — worldwide, nationwide, and community-wide — has been dumbed down by large corporations,” said Brian Kerkvliet, co-steward of Inspiration Farm and co-founder of Salish Seed Guild in Bellingham. 

As of February 2020, 60% of proprietary seed sales globally are controlled by just four giant corporations, which has resulted in higher prices, fewer varieties, and a decline in seed saving practices, per research from Michigan State University. This is referred to as seed industry consolidation.

Skagit County, according to its 2017 Farmlands Legacy Program report, ranked first in western Washington vegetable seed production valued at $6.8 million. Eight vegetable seed companies produced 8% of the world’s spinach seed, 25% of its cabbage seed, and 25% of its beet seed.

Local versus corporate

Salish Seed Guild is one of the SFVCA Seed Swap’s primary partners, and both organizations have received seed donations from local, independent seed companies that they then distribute to community members. 

“[Corporate] seeds are not selected for the tastiest or most nutrient dense or most locally adapted,” said Kerkvliet. “They’re selected for how easy they are to harvest, how easy they are to ship, how long they store, and how pretty they look.” 

The qualities that corporations look for in seeds aren’t the same ones coveted by home gardeners, Kerkvliet explained. “You want an extended harvest — you want to be picking beans all month. You want good flavor.” 

These are what small-scale seed farms select for, as well as nutritional density and local adaptability. These characteristics also take priority when home gardeners bring their own seeds to a swap. 

“Our growing environment is different than Bellingham. We have a few more ups and downs in our climate,” said Thuney. The Seed Swap is an opportunity for people to exchange seeds that they’ve been growing out year after year, adapting them to their shared microclimate. 

Another risk presented by corporate seed consolidation became apparent when COVID-19 disrupted supply chains. 

“If seeds are controlled by a few big companies — and even some small producers are being bought up by larger companies—they have to go through their supply chain. If there’s a crop failure, over-demand and under-supply, fuel or shipping price spikes, anything to do with this top-down distribution that causes supply chain issues, you’re beholden to these systems that can break down,” said Kerkvliet. 

“Bottom-up distribution,” he said, like what happens at community seed exchanges, “has a lot of merit in times of uncertainty.” This has everything to do with the resilient nature of both seeds and communities.

“Seeds are amazing because they will adapt. They have stick-to-it-iveness and perseverance,” said Kerkvliet.

More than seeds

Inspiration Farm’s own annual seed exchange in Bellingham started “about 16 years ago,” and quickly grew. Participants swapped more than seeds, sharing stories, knowledge, skills, and even value-added items like jams and pickles in what Kerkvliet called “a kind of mini barter fair.” 

Last year, the Salish Seed Guild broke ground on a longtime dream: a community seed garden where people can grow out seeds, learn how to save seeds, and contribute to seed security for their community. 

“It’s food. It’s nutrition. It’s well-being. You’re not relying on someone else. It’s taking back that power to be self-determined,” said Kerkvliet. 

The guild has recently networked with seed saving groups in the San Juan Islands and Skagit Valley, in addition to fellow Whatcom organizations like SFVCA. 

“I think it will continue to move forward. We really want it to be the whole Salish Sea region — west of the Cascades, across the peninsula, up into lower B.C.,” said Kerkvliet. “We’re a unique microclimate and we want to identify heirloom seed varieties that do really well in our ecosystem.” 

The whole idea of the SFVCA Seed Swap, said Thuney, is “to bring people together.” 

At last year’s event, Thuney recalled, a newer resident happened to be walking by and decided to stop in. Said Thuney: “Now he’s a member of the South Fork Community Association!”

Saturday’s event will take place at Van Zandt Community Hall (4106 Valley Highway) from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The event is free, and local COVID-19 guidance will be observed. 

Reporting by Sarah Reeves

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