Seeds of a brighter future

Dec 21, 2023

By Katie Hastings

Wales Coordinator for the Gaia Foundation’s Seed Sovereignty Programme and former WWOOF UK trustee, Katie tells us about how WWOOFing can lead to cooperative seed selling…

Would I be stating the obvious if I told you that seed is the start of all our crops? On one level, we all know this simple fact. But seed is often taken for granted, even in ecological farming systems. Where seed saving used to be an intrinsic part of our farming cycle, it is now a forgotten craft. Seeds are increasingly ordered in, sourced from seed companies and bred by someone else. Our relationship with our crops often starts by opening a packet.

When Matilda Gomersal went WWOOFing at the Seed Cooperative in the East of England, she was hoping to demystify the seed saving process. It was 2019 and the Seed Cooperative had been selling biodynamically produced seeds for five years. Matilda spent her WWOOFing time learning about plant botany, germination testing, processing and drying.
“It was a brilliantly informative and inspiring experience to have so early on in my seed growing journey” she says. “I developed a love for the sensual experience of gathering and processing seeds, the smells, colours and forms. The tactile feeling of running seeds through your hands and realising how much potential they hold.”

Photos by Matilda from her time WWOOFing at The Seed Cooperative

Following her WWOOFing experience, Matilda continued on her journey towards becoming a professional grower, working at a handful of market gardens in England and Wales. Growing seeds along with vegetable crops, she volunteered for the Bishops Castle Seed Bank. Making the connection between the resilience of local growing systems and seed diversity, Matilda began to understand the importance of seed sovereignty beyond the walls of the market gardens she was working in.

Over the last 100 years, we have lost 75% of our global crop diversity (UN FAO). Where the worlds fields used to be a mosaic of regionally specific varieties, our seed system has been centralised and industrialised along with our food systems. Untold numbers of vegetable and grain varieties have fallen into extinction in recent decades, as growers have outsourced their seed growing to a shrinking number of seed companies.

Matilda growing seed at Centre for Alternative Energy

One of Matilda’s favourite seed crops; Coco Bicolour, Climbing French Bean. “Reminding me of tiny yellowhammer eggs”

At the Gaia Foundation’s Seed Sovereignty Programme, we have been working towards building a more resilient seed system in the UK and Ireland. When our programme was conceived in 2017, seed saving was still a niche activity on UK soils. Our obvious starting point was to address the huge seed skills gap by designing a year long training in seed production. Working with a handful of seed experts to cover topics like seed cultivation, isolation, basic botany and seed processing. We mobilised to skill up the next generation of seed farmers.
Ultimately, our hope was that this training would be a spark to light a gas tank of enthusiasm for reviving seed diversity in the UK. Having taken part in our training, Matilda joined forces with other Welsh growers also freshly trained in seed production. Together, we founded the Wales Seed Hub, a cooperative of ecological seed growers working together. Across nine Welsh farms, over 70 varieties of open pollinated vegetable seed crops are being trialed and grown for sale.

Katie Hastings [left] behind the Wales Seed Hub stall at Builth Wells Smallholders Fair

While each grower produces and packs their seed independently, they work together to distribute, market and promote them. With the packets printed using vegetable inks and the online shop run through the Open Food Network (OFN), ethics are central to the Wales Seed Hub operation. Seeds are grown agroecologically, with great attention to quality. All varieties on offer are suited to a Welsh climate, with some holding a special story.

In keeping with her love of legumes, Matilda is growing the Brecon Black runner bean for the Wales Seed Hub. Saved by a family in Brecon since the 1940’s, this bean’s jet black is likened to the coal of the South Wales mines. But the link to Wales goes beyond history and into genetics, “these seeds are adapted to our Welsh climate” says Matilda, “they will thrive
in our soils.”
Not only looking to the past, the Wales Seed Hub are also looking to the future for new varieties. Last year, Matilda sold Peacevine tomato seed through the Wales Seed Hub, produced in a polytunnel in Mid Wales. As well as being sweet and delicious, these heritage cherry tomatoes contain a high level of Vitamin C. They are named ‘Peacevine’ on account
of containing high levels of an amino acid which is associated with relieving anxiety.

As the Wales Seed Hub goes from strength-to-strength, we are seeing an emerging pathway from our seed training into selling seed. For Matilda, WWOOFing was a valuable part of this learning journey, complementing the more theoretical training she was receiving through the Seed Sovereignty Programme.

Wales Seed Hub grower Carolyn, tending to her gigantic parsnip plants growing for seed this year

As more people bring seed saving back to their farms, we are at a pivotal moment for the Seed Sovereignty movement. While some older seed varieties have been lost forever, others are waiting to be rediscovered and regrown. Seed growing is politically and environmentally important, but it is also joyful! Matilda tells us that “learning about the botany of vegetable
crops, the complexity of pollination and plant populations, stimulated a fascination in me, allowing me to have a whole new understanding of my plants lifecycle.”

Wales Seed Hub online shop reopens for seed sales on 1st January 2024:

Tips for saving your own seed:

1. Think carefully about your starter seed – Is it Open Pollinated? Does it have a
regional connection? Is it suited to your climate? Was it grown ecologically?

2. Know your cross pollinators – Is your crop an inbreeder or outbreeder? Will it cross-
pollinate with other crops of the same species nearby? What can you do to prevent
your seed crop crossing with nearby crops?

3. Check your population sizes – When growing for seed, each crop has a minimum
population size to ensure enough genetic diversity. Outbreeders need big
populations to create healthy seed crops.

4. Get trained – Vital Seeds run an online seed saving course for home gardeners, while
the Seed Sovereignty Programme is offering training for commercial and community
scale growers.

5. Share! – Seeds are meant to be shared. Form a seed circle and share varieties with
your local growers.

We are ever so grateful to Katie for writing this article for us and for providing photos and the permission to use Wales Seed Hub photos from their instagram page.

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