Written by Michelle DiMuzio, Slow Food USA Editorial Intern
photo from Slow Food Nations 2019
“We form these beautiful time-honored relationships, to seeds and food that inform us as people.” – Rowen White
Seeds hold stories, providing insights to the past and creating pathways for the future. This sentiment reigned true throughout the final week of the Slow Seed Summit, as we heard from seed keepers and savers, educators, grain experts, and seed activists. The stories shared revealed the deep roots of seeds and their connection to history, ancestors, and sovereignty. A common thread throughout the final three days of the summit was the power of seed stories, the significance of building seed communities, and the importance of emboldening future generations through seeds.
“Seeds unlock the stories of time and place,” shared Karen Washington, also known as Mama Karen, the closing speaker of the summit, who is a farmer, activist, and community organizer. Karen revealed the story of seeds from her ancestors, commenting seeds foster reconnection with familial history. She told us women in Africa hid seeds in their braided hair to preserve them when they came to the New World, bringing with them their healing methods and agricultural knowledge. Africans grew their own food, she described, which was classified as slave food by slave owners and was kept separate. This food was transformed into several dishes that have now become popularized, including grits, gumbo, and jambalaya.
“Seeds unlock the stories of time and place.”
– Karen Washington, closing keynote
Karen discussed the importance of hearing her story to understand why seeds are so important; not only do seeds tell the story of history and culture, but seeds also sustain life. These rich stories of the past were paired with a grave outlook on the current landscape of seeds. Karen shared 90-95 percent of seed diversity has been lost forever. The extinction of seeds means losing not only culture and history, but also endangering the health and livelihood of our foodways. However, Karen provided us with a positive message, explaining all is not lost. She described there are gardeners, farmers, and seed librarians coming together to give seeds new life and new meaning. She gave us all a call to action and encouraged us to sit down with our ancestors and learn their seed stories, so they are not forgotten.
Karen left us with the notion that seed saving provides the opportunity for a whole new generation of growers and represents not only a celebration of life, but also a political act of power. “It’s about history, legacy and tradition, and providing truth and answers for a history that has been co-opted,” Karen shared.
While the presenters at the Slow Seed Summit represented diverse backgrounds and perspectives, building community was echoed throughout their stories. Whether participating in seed libraries, seed exchange organizations, or youth networks, cultivating relationships was the key element to saving seeds. Bevin Cohen, owner of Small House Farm and founding member of the Michigan Seed Library Network, shared the most successful seed libraries are built on relationships and finding stakeholders in the community to circulate seeds in a sustainable manner. Jeanine Scheffert, Education and Engagement Manager at Seed Savers Exchange, stressed the importance of stewarding America’s culturally diverse and endangered garden and food crop legacy, through saving and sharing seeds within communities. Melissa de Billot, from Slow Food South Africa, presented a model for community seed saving through the Rainbow Maize Revival Project.
The Grain Changers film, created by Andrew Calabrese, and discussion presented another layer of community building – the importance of developing relationships within the local grains sector and connecting farmers, bakers, and customers to grains. Nanna Meyer, from the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs Grain School, emphasized the importance of critical food literacy and raised the issue of providing access to heritage grains to all community members. Andy Clark, baker and owner of Moxie Bread, shared the importance of relationship building with farmers for their business model and building up systems for grains. Reana Kovalcik announced the Share a Seed Campaign (which launched on March 2), a community seed sharing initiative that mirrors the mutual aid model with seeds.
A clear message throughout the summit, was the importance of involving youth in seed space and conversations. Julie Brunson, founder of H.O.P.E. Gardens, emphasized kids are the future seed heroes and savers. Neha Shah and Kim Aman, members of the Slow Food School Gardens, echoed these sentiments, outlining impactful programs and successes they have achieved with their local school gardens. The importance of youth involvement is also shared across the world. Elphas Masanga, an organizer of the Slow Food Youth Network in Kenya, stated youth can learn stories from elders and become seed advocates, sharing “our seed is our right, our seed is our future.” June Russell from GrowNYC, discussed the importance of teaching young people about taste, as it can be a life changer for future generations. In a different vein, Brijette Peña, owner of San Diego Seed Company, taught us techniques on how to save seeds, underscoring our dwindling seed supply. As a society, she emphasized we have an obligation to save seeds for future generations and to save our future food supply.
As Karen Washington spoke about seeds, she highlighted the power of seeds to hold stories. This was felt throughout the summit as seed savers and leaders shared personal seed stories. Bevin Cohen discussed his relationship with the Old Carolina Tomato and how he became acquainted with the seeds through a community member, who stored the seeds in her freezer for nearly 70 years. He was able to later connect with one of the seed owner’s family members to reveal the story, explaining just like a seed, a seed story is alive; it is static. As seed savers, Bevin encouraged us to add to and become part of these stories.
Owen Taylor, co-founder of True Love Seeds, also shared a seed freezer story with King Phillip Corn. He discussed the history of the Wampanoag Tribe and King Phillip, explaining the Wampanoag people still connect corn back to its original land today. Owen stressed the importance of lifting up these stories and bringing back these historic varieties. Mimi Edelman revealed the story of the Jimmy Nardello Pepper, commenting it was the coastal views that made this variety taste good, according to Jimmy. She also revealed each pepper holds a connection to the past; when you pass along seeds, you pass along stories.
The Slow Seed Summit concluded with an informal discussion with attendees. Participants discussed impactful aspects of the summit, agreeing it was both inspiring and validating.
Karen Washington is inspired by black women farmers who are returning to the land, stressing the importance of this movement, as it is also about equity and rights. She left us with a quote by Maya Angelou to guide us forward. “We cannot change the past, but we can change our attitude toward it. Uproot guilt and plant forgiveness. Tear out arrogance and seed humility. Exchange love for hate – thereby, making the present comfortable and the future promising.”
We hope the summit inspired you all to save seeds, share seed stories, become seed advocates, build relationships, and support future generations. Thank you for being part of our seed community!