Seeds Form the Foundation of our Food System
by Martha Jackson Suquet
Image courtesy Bigfoot Farm, Williamstown.
It’s that time of year when farmers and gardeners put their faith in tiny seeds that will sprout, grow, and produce a summer’s worth of harvest bounty. In many ways, seeds form the foundation of our food system: they allow us to produce food year after year, and they offer the promise of food security for the future. Throughout the spring, farmers sow seeds in tiny cell trays in warm, protected environments, whether a heated greenhouse or a plastic-covered “high tunnel,” or indoors under grow lights. As their roots extend and multiply (and in between bursts of rain) the seedlings are introduced into in the warming outdoor soil. We spoke with some of our member farmers about their relationships with seeds and how they navigate the seed-starting process. 
Image courtesy Red Shirt Farm, Lanesborough. MA
The task of seed starting – also called propagation—can be tedious when undertaken on a large scale. Farmers carefully fill hundreds of plastic cell trays with potting soil, and precisely drop thousands of tiny seeds into the small cells. The seedling trays then need delicate and thorough watering on a daily basis, just like a gentle spring rain. The reward for this work is (ideally) hardy, healthy seedlings that are ready for planting at just the right time. 

Before the first seed goes into its tray in the greenhouse, or directly into the ground, farmers create a crop plan for the growing season. The plan details which varieties they will grow, how many seeds or seedlings they’ll need of each variety, and when each needs to be started. Crop plans can be quite complicated, especially for larger farms,
and while some farmers may still use pen and paper for the task, many turn to spreadsheets or even specialized software to help them manage their plans. Farmer Laura Tupper-Palches, at Full Well Farm, uses a program called Tend designed for small scale farms. Tupper-Palches says the software has replaced “what used to be many spreadsheets” and allows the farm to better visualize their growing season. 
Most farmers prefer to start their own seeds. It offers them control over timing and the type of environment that the seedlings will mature in, and they can choose the varieties that work best for their climate and soil conditions. But for the home gardener, buying already-started seedlings is another option. Laura Meister of Farm Girl Farm transitioned from growing vegetables to focusing solely on seedling production. “I love the connections I have with my customers,” says Meister. “I love being a part of their garden dreams and aspirations and helping to make them reality by providing healthy, productive plants.” 
Both gardeners and farmers know the satisfaction of perusing seed catalogs over the winter. Thanks to seed companies ranging from the extremely local (Turtle Tree Seed) to regional (Hudson Valley Seed Library, Fedco, High Mowing, Johnny’s), to the specialized (Experimental Farm Network, Indigenous Seed Savers, Ujaama, Kitagawa), we all have a wealth of seeds to choose from. Laura Meister prefers to source from smaller, family-owned seed companies, especially those who sell varieties adapted to our specific Northeast region. “I love discovering new seed companies that spring up,” she says, and she dreams of someday establishing a local Berkshires seed bank.
Seedlings at Farm Girl Farm, Great Barrington, MA
For the serious gardener, there’s another way to get seeds—seed saving. Saving seeds allows growers to keep beloved varieties on hand, improve plant genetics, and save some money on seed costs.
With all the varieties out there, how do farmers choose? There are a lot of factors to consider: customer preference, suitability for our Northeast climate, disease resistance, productivity, seed cost, and availability. Varieties that are hardy and productive aren’t always the most flavorful (and vice versa), so these choices are always a balancing act. At 328North in Williamstown, farmer Tu Le focuses on “aromatics and flavor” when choosing varieties to grow, and is especially fond of lemongrass. 328North also offers ginger, Asian garlic, and many other unique varieties.
Image courtesy 328North, Williamstown, MA.
To add another layer of complexity, there are hybrid and open-pollinated seeds. As the Seed Savers Exchange explains, hybrid plant varieties are deliberate crosses intended to improve vigor, while open-pollinated varieties are pollinated by natural means (wind, insects, etc.) and are more genetically diverse. “While hybrids have their benefits, choosing open-pollinated varieties conserves the genetic diversity of garden vegetables and prevents the loss of unique varieties in the face of dwindling agricultural biodiversity,” the SSE concludes. Farm Girl Farm’s Meister puts it simply, saying “variety itself is my favorite variety” and encourages gardeners to “try a little bit of everything, and grow a rainbow”.
As a result of the care and effort that our farmers put into crop planning and seed starting, local food shoppers in the Berkshires have a wide variety of products to choose from. At your favorite local farmers market, you might find several types of kale, a rainbow of heirloom tomatoes, hot pepper varieties from around the world, and interesting herbs, salad mixes, and other offerings.  
To learn more about starting your own seeds, explore these resources: offers A Seed-Saving Guide for Gardeners and Farmers (30-page free download). takes a deep dive into Black and Indigenous perspectives on seed saving and food sovereignty.

UMass offers Mass Aggie Seed Library. Visit this page showing a tremendous amount of information and useful links. 

Berkshire county neighbor Margaret Roach offers her extraordinary "horticultural how to" about seed starting tools and techniques (and more!) on her website
Both Turtle Tree Seed and Hudson Valley Seed Company recommend the book Seed To Seed By Suzanne Ashworth.

Described as a complete seed-saving guide describing specific techniques for saving the seeds of 160 vegetables with detailed information on each vegetable: botanical classification, flower structure and pollination, isolation distance, population size, caging or hand pollination, and proper methods to grow, harvest, dry, clean, and store the seeds.

Visit your favorite local bookstore and order a copy today!
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What we are reading:

How Do You Store Your Seeds?
Bridget Shirvell for Modern Farmer

Glass jars, photo storage boxes and old library card catalogs all make excellent seed storage solutions. Just don’t forget to label your collection!
Photography courtesy of pipdiddly, Flickr/CC.

It happens more often than most of us would care to admit. We reach into the pocket of a jacket we haven’t worn in a while and pull out a half-empty packet of seeds.

Seeds are powerful. They’re the secret to bountiful gardens, resilient food systems, biodiversity and so much more, but they’re also pesky little things that feel impossible to store. Each season, we tend to end up with a copious number of leftover packets and, of course, loose seeds. Enter our fascination with seed storage systems.

Read the full article here.
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Margaret Moulton, Executive Director
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Kate Burke, Program Manager, Farm to Food Access
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