Local food security rooted in island growers

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Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic include a number of positive results, such as a renewed interest in gardening and food production that has swept across Canada and beyond.

Garden centres around North America and in the United Kingdom reported immediate agricultural product shortages once lockdown restrictions on certain businesses eased. Here in B.C., plant nurseries and garden stores were recognized all along as the essential services they are. Local suppliers had a hard time keeping things like seeds and bags of soil and manure in stock, while online orders to off-island companies were reportedly backed up for weeks.

Salt Spring Seeds founder Dan Jason said he and his wife Celeste were run off their feet this spring trying to keep up.

“It was crazy for us, just like every other seed company,” Jason said. “We were going pretty much 12 to 15 hours a day just to keep on top of the orders.”

Some larger seed companies that are well-known in B.C. faced shortages in the spring, in part because they don’t grow crops themselves but order from the same global mega-suppliers. Jason said Salt Spring Seeds had enough stock to keep customers supplied, even though time was an issue.

Marsha Goldberg’s island-based company Eagleridge Seeds was also happily equipped to meet the demand.

“I’m glad so many local people are reaching out to me. It’s been fantastic,” said Goldberg, who reported her sales tripled this year. “It’s a worldwide phenomenon, but here on Salt Spring we’ve already stepped up.”

Goldberg noted she’s now at work on her biggest harvest ever, so the seed stock for next year should be plentiful.

The BC Eco Seed Co-op is a cooperative of 18 seed growers — including Kaleigh Barton and Ben Corno of Salt Spring’s Heavenly Roots Farm — who provide B.C.-grown seed that is ecologically grown, open-pollinated, regionally selected and free of genetic engineering. Their mission is to increase the quantity and improve the quality of ecological and organic seed grown in the province.

The cooperative reported this month that its sales from January to Sept. 1, 2020 went up 109 per cent from the same period of 2019, while the total number of orders went up 143 per cent. The period from April 1 to Aug. 30 saw a far more dramatic result, though, with an 847 per cent increase in sales and the total number of orders up 515 per cent. The co-op’s sales increase represented both consumer seed packets and bulk commercial seeds for farmers whose regular supply chains through the United States were interrupted.

“Currently, ecologically and locally grown B.C. seed is often difficult to source by farmers and home gardeners alike. Every year, B.C. organic/ecological farmers spend $7.79 million on vegetable seeds, the highest of any region in Canada, but there is no large-scale vegetable seed production in B.C.,” explained the seed co-op’s engagement coordinator Lisa Furfaro.

Furfaro said demand for local organic products is increasing, but the supply had not been keeping up even before this year, which is why the BC Eco Seed Co-op was created. Bringing together many small seed producers allows members to utilize co-op staff to take care of packaging, marketing, selling and shipping for them.

For producers like Corno and Barton, whose main concern is their market garden, there is much to be said for handing off those other chores while having access to the varieties the rest of the group is growing. At the same time, producing plants for seeds as well as for food has become something of a passion. Barton and Corno are now producing much of the seed they need to grow their crops themselves. They have ambitious plans ahead to grow their market crops entirely from B.C. and Cascadia-region seed in 2021 and, if possible, to grow their 2022 crops entirely from the seed that comes out of those plants.

“It’s an idea we hit upon as kind of a fun challenge. I liked the idea that it’s something really different, but it’s within our grasp,” Corno said.

The unknowns of longer supply chains during the pandemic is one reason why sticking close to home is a good plan when preparing for next year, for farmers and home gardeners alike. Another reason is the longer-term benefits of investing in local food security.

“We should be starting to think in terms of acquiring things locally because we don’t know what’s going to start to happen to the supply chains. We haven’t fully seen the ramifications and the repercussions of what’s been happening,” Jason said.

“Community resiliency is really important. It starts with food,” Goldberg added. “The more food security you experience, the happier your family will be.”

Corno points out that North America’s seed supplies tend to come from specific areas where they produce well: the Middle East for onion seeds, or Oregon’s Willamette Valley for spinach seeds. The latter was recently hit by forest fires and unexpected rain downpours, which put the seed crop for most of Canada and the U.S. at risk.

“That’s why Kaleigh and I feel pretty chuffed, because we have spinach seed at our house,” Corno said.

One of the things home gardeners can do, as well as farmers, is get their seed orders in early to prevent any shortfall when it’s time to get going in early spring. Corno said he and Barton employ a strategy of ordering seeds in October or November for things they want to get started in February, March and April. Then a second order can go in later for things that will go into the ground in the summer or early fall. 

It’s also not too late to get into the seed saving practice oneself, with plenty of varieties still in the garden through October. In addition to collecting and selling their own seed, local seed growers can be huge advocates and educators for people who want to learn how to do it themselves.

Goldberg’s main tip is to start with simple plants that self-fertilize and whose seed is easy to collect. Beans, peas and lettuce are all good starting points, while peppers and radishes can also yield good results for newbies. Leaving the best examples of your crops to go to seed will ensure the best strains carry on their lineages.

Seeds need to be gently cleaned of flesh or chaff and then thoroughly dried before storage. Goldberg said at this time of year, that likely means bringing them inside and drying them on trays. After that, she says the age-old mantra of “cool, dark, dry” is essential for successful storage. Seeds can go into plastic containers or glass jars, hopefully to be stored in a cool basement or storage room.

Goldberg took an apprentice under her wing this summer, and says she will entertain taking on more apprentices in 2021 as well as offering gardening workshops. She’s also open to help anyone who asks her.

“I have people reaching out to me from all over, and I’m available,” Goldberg said, adding that’s somewhat more the case in the winter months.

Jason is a prolific author on all sorts of farming and food sustainability topics. His popular book on seed saving has recently been re-released by Harbour Publishing under the title Stocking up on Seeds, and has become a best seller to boot. The user-friendly resource is available along with most of Jason’s titles at Salt Spring Books.

Corno and Barton have organized the annual Seedy Saturday event, put on by Island Natural Growers at the Salt Spring Farmers’ Institute, for the past five years. This is usually the place to find seed from local and regional growers, buy living plant stock and attend workshops and talks.

It’s unclear if the usual format will go ahead in February or not with the COVID situation unknown, but Corno said the organizers are optimistic they will come up with some way to distribute local seed and plants, although they may have to get creative. Stay tuned for announcements over the coming months.

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