The 5-Year Plan for the Heirloom Seed Sanctuary
BY CATE HENDERSON
As Fr. Thomas Berry famously said “we must say of the universe that it is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” He is correct.
Our seeds grow into plants that make decisions, that communicate with each other and with insects, fungi and others in their surroundings, and that give generously throughout their lives. For this reason, the Heirloom Seed Sanctuary seeds are not a collection of objects that can be packaged up neatly in bubble wrap and put in the corner of the basement to be unpacked again when we get around to it. They are living beings who must be grown out on a regular basis and given the opportunity to realize their potential.
Carol and Robert Mouck asked the Sisters if they could grow their precious seeds on the property back in 1998. When the Moucks needed to retire, the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul, from their compassion and Care for Creation, discerned through a process that the Heirloom Seed Sanctuary was a ministry too important to abandon. The loss of the seeds would be a loss to Creation and to the future generations who would, more and more, be exposed to food genetically modified and bred for mechanization and chemical use. “The cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth are one” when it comes to the fruits of chemical agriculture-both suffer from poor nutrition and contamination.
Now, the Sisters are making new plans for the future which must be realistic. The seeds must be passed down to the next generation just as the Moucks passed them to the Sisters for stewardship. But how can this happen? Who is able to take on an entire collection of living seeds, grow them out under the right, local conditions and take the time to sort and store them each separately, managing population sizes and pollination? Farmers are no longer in a position to do this work. When Carol and Robert started this work in the 70s farming was still a respected and relatively common profession, today farmers struggle to make even a small living working long hours and many are leaving the profession as a result. The children of farmers no longer want to follow in their parent’s footsteps keeping the family farm as it just doesn’t pay. Small seed companies still sell some of these varieties to home gardeners, but many are very rare, and some appear to now be unique to this collection. The Kingston Area Seed System Initiative (KASSI) is a local non-profit organization that would like to take on the stewardship of the seed collection, but they are still small, run by volunteers, and currently do not have the infrastructure (greenhouse, barn, office, etc.), land or staff required to take on such a massive responsibility! Where does one find funding for huge expenses such as these?
A five-year plan has been developed by Heirloom Seed Sanctuary staff and accepted by the Leadership Team in hopes that KASSI is able to amass the necessary resources in time. Year one of the plan is now complete and it was a success. Despite the drought, we captured a lot more information about each variety that was grown and we harvested drought-tolerant seeds from some of the varieties where our quantities of seed were low. Part of our challenge is that we don’t have a lot of information recorded about the varieties as Carol and Robert had a lot of data in their heads. I now know much more than when I started but recording that information to share with others has taken a low priority to growing back strong, resilient varieties that were on the verge of extinction. Without the knowledge of how these living beings behave and what they need to survive and thrive-again, that would be like wrapping them up and shoving them in a box to hand over and saying, “here, you figure it out!”
Here is where we are at in our 5 Year Plan: Years Two and Three 2017-18
- Grow out 1/3 of varieties that need extra help-with KASSI’s input as to their priorities for local market gardeners, with careful selection and documentation/photos throughout, including biennials
- Grow out 1/3 of varieties of which we have good stock, as if growing for market, not for seed. Document & photograph only the characteristics important to market growers and do NOT save seed (this way we can grow them closer together using less garden space, while still gathering key data for KASSI)
- amalgamation of historical research into a useable document, possible publishing & sales as fundraiser”
I believe we can find safe haven for these seeds, a sanctuary that honours them as living beings. And my hope is to keep them local, where they have been so lovingly grown for decades, through good years and bad. As Dr. Vandana Shiva points out: “Industrial monoculture agriculture has pushed more than 75% of our agro-biodiversity to extinction” (Seed Sovereignty, Food Security 2016 introduction, p. x). Through stewarding this local collection of heirloom seeds, the Sisters of Providence have contributed to the solution to this problem for almost 20 years. May others choose to follow this example!