By Jon Letman
Photos Courtesy Of Regenerations Community Seed Bank
Perhaps you have a few acres in Pāhoa, or maybe just some papaya trees and a couple of small planting beds in your cramped Honolulu backyard. You can still take steps toward more sustainable living by learning how to save your own seeds.
Although some are smaller than dewdrops and lighter than a tuft of grass, seeds are more valuable than gold and more powerful than armies. But in a world beset by global crises, these tiny genetic storehouses—like the plants they become—face an uncertain future.
Today, the world of seeds increasingly revolves around profits and patents in a high-stakes industry where the demands of shareholders take precedence over the needs of cultures and communities. The wealth of crop diversity is also plummeting. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 75 percent of the world’s crop diversity was lost during the 20th century. Nearly one-quarter of wild potato, peanut and bean relatives may fall victim to climate change by 2055.
Here in Hawai‘i the understanding that we depend on outside sources for food and energy is fueling greater interest in becoming more self-sufficient. Many local farmers and gardeners say that one of the best ways to move closer to the goal of independence is to save seed. They argue that the majority of commercially available seeds developed for the continental U.S. are ill-equipped for the Hawaiian climate, soil conditions and growing assemblage of harmful pests.
Saving your own seed, even as a weekend gardener, also allows you to seek out varieties best suited for where you live. Farmers and gardeners in Kekaha, Kāne‘ohe and Kula have very different needs. Networking and exchanging seeds with like-minded growers in your area, and on other islands, gives you the chance to compare notes and share your own knowledge and experiences—something that doesn’t happen with a seed packet.
With so many variations in soil conditions and rainfall amounts characterizing the micro-climates of Hawai‘i, it’s important to seek out seeds well-suited to your area. Seed savers say that collecting and storing seeds, when done correctly, can result in better food and the preservation of traditional or obscure crop varieties that might otherwise be lost. But seed saving takes time, commitment and knowledge.
One of the most active, island-wide seed networks is the Hawai‘i Public Seed Initiative (HPSI), a program of The Kohala Center. Along with HPSI program director Nancy Redfeather, program coordinator Lyn Howe partners with the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Extension Services at the University of Hawai‘i to educate future seed savers across the state. These “seed trainers” help spread knowledge even further. Howe says it’s essential to select and grow the right seeds in order to preserve maximum viability and perpetuate good genetic material suitable for Hawai‘i.
“One of the best ways to store seeds,” she says, “is to grow them out repeatedly.” Rather than relying on mainland products from seed giants like Seminis (the world’s largest commercial fruit and vegetable seed producer and a subsidiary of Monsanto), Howe urges Hawai‘i growers to learn how to preserve crop diversity. For those who want to buy commercial seeds, she recommends companies that have taken the “Safe Seed Pledge” found on the Council for Responsible Genetics’ website.
Howe encourages growers to choose seeds proven to grow well in Hawai‘i. She says that, like landrace varieties saved by indigenous and traditional cultures, seeds that thrive in a changing climate and despite environmental stresses like prolonged drought, extreme rainfall and more frequent coastal flooding will best serve Hawai‘i in the future.
Howe gives her own example, a seed she calls the “tax man bean.” Her accountant gave her beans that had been handed down through generations in his family. With so many people having immigrated to Hawai‘i from Pacific and Asian nations, Howe says that many lesser known but valuable seed varieties still exist in the Islands, in backyards and small farms, shared between family and friends.
Banking on another kind of currency
On the north shore of Kaua’i, Paul Massey directs Regenerations Community Seed Bank and Library. Since 2008 Massey and others have held seed saving workshops and plant and seed exchanges around Kaua‘i.
Regenerations’ seed bank is run by its staff and volunteers (contact them to find out how you can get involved). Massey expects the operation to move from its current location in Moloa‘a to the Wai Koa Plantation near Kīlauea by next year. There, Regenerations will build a permanent seed center with a seed bank, lab and office space and fields for growing out seed, composting and maintaining perennial plants. His goal is to produce as much seed as possible for distribution.
Massey encourages people learn more about seed saving, saying that with the right training and tools—air-tight plastic containers, silica gel and a refrigerator—most people can properly save a modest amount of seed.
While it may not be realistic to expect every gardener to save seeds, Massey says for anyone interested in sustainability, growing at least some of their own food and seed saving go hand in hand. He sees community stewardship of agro-biodiversity as the key to a healthy future for Hawai’i: “The only way the seeds and plants that we have [will] represent the needs and desires of the local community is if they’re created by the local community.”
Not all seed savers are part of an organized movement. Some, like certified organic farmer Ellen Sugawara, have been saving seed independently for years. She says it can be done, but requires understanding the dos and don’ts of proper selection and a serious commitment of time, space and energy.
On Sugawara’s east Moloka‘i farm she keeps 300-foot beds where she grows vegetables out to seed. She’s been saving since at least 1980, after studying with plant pathologists who taught her the importance of examining planting beds to determine which seeds would survive. The best way to build a large gene pool is to constantly grow out huge numbers of plants, she says, and to select traits you want.
In the 1960s Sugawara studied under English horticulturist Alan Chadwick. She still remembers his words: “Any good gardener saves his own seed.” Chadwick, she recalls, aimed for the “middle seeds”—not the youngest or oldest, not at the top and not at the bottom.”
Sugawara grows five varieties of lettuce including rodan, little gem, sangria and a green oakleaf she calls “Wally.” She also grows cucumbers, eggplants, okra, endives and herbs. Her beet and chard seeds still sprout after 20 years.
The lifelong gardener says people need to closely follow the proper protocols of seed saving, “otherwise you’re just digging yourself into a hole because you’re passing on bad seed.” She adds that if you don’t look at the whole bed and plants in relation to the other plants, you might not get something worth saving.
If you want to save seeds, she recommends concentrating on one plant you love. Lettuce, eggplant and peppers are fairly easy but require time. “You’re supposed to grow out your seeds to make sure it’s what you want at least eight times before you sell.”
That’s where the value of creating seed exchange networks comes into play—provide planters with a good, mixed supply of seeds. Most small gardeners don’t have the room needed to grow multiple crops to seed.
Still, Sugawara says that people on Moloka‘i can’t just drive to Whole Foods to buy organic produce—so more farmers and gardeners save their own seeds.
“On Moloka‘i, if you want it, you have to grow it yourself.”
Learn more by contacting the Hawai‘i Public Seed Initiative or Regenerations Community Seed Bank and Library. The 13th Bi-annual Kaua‘i Community Seed & Plant Exchange will take place at Waipā on Saturday, April 19 from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. http://ribg.org/ (808) 652-4118