Saturday Feb 1, 2014
Day 2 here at the OSA Conference in Corvallis, Oregon, and I’m really pleased to post a bit about the conference addresses that have taken place here yesterday and today – from 3 distinguished speakers, each of whom occupies a unique and important place in America’s seed movement. Micaela Colley, the Executive Director of Organic Seed Alliance; Matt Dillon, experienced seed advocate and co-founder of Seed Matters; and, just today, Tom Stearns, founder of High Mowing Organic Seeds.
Three speakers, with decades of combined experience in seed production, and advocacy from one end of the country to the other. Their diversity of perspectives informed 3 addresses that were truly remarkable… not just for the knowledge shared, but for their commendable approach of appreciating the current, and looking to the future, with a deeply felt connection to the past.
“Look away look away, don’t you see? One and one don’t make 2, ah! They make three…”
With a reverent reading of Pete Seeger’s Sowing the Seeds Micaela really set the tone for this weekend’s conference beautifully, paying homage to “the original seed sower.” As she spoke to the attentive conference room, the meaning of the lyrics, and their connection to our purpose here, sank in. Collaboration, trust, and relationships multiply our efforts as a movement because of the energy of the transaction, of the communication that takes place. 1 + 1 = 3. You + Me = more than the sum of our parts, as we are united in our intention.
From the ashes…
Equally powerful, Matt Dillon delivered the keynote address at last night’s dinner, and captured and kept our attention with his stories of the evolution of this organization, and this movement. The moment of truth of his address came in the telling of the story about his work with the Abundant Life Foundation, and the fire that destroyed over 3,000 varieties of seed, and – ultimately – inspired him to establish Seed Matters. In his incredibly honest talk, he shed a few tears at the memory of that fire, and the shame of not only losing an incredibly important collection of seeds (of stories, of heritage, of genetics) that were entrusted to them, but having to acknowledge that they did not have a back up. It was sobering. Of course, from the ashes of the fire came an organization that took the lesson to heart and, today, is doing incredible things for the conservation of germplasm in America.
What’s in that seed?
Finally, today, we heard from Tom Stearns, founder of High Mowing Organic Seeds. Directing our attention to unmarked seed packs on each table, Tom encouraged us each to empty one envelope of seeds into our palm, and look at it – really look at it! – and tell him… is it OP or hybrid? Or is it GMO? What variety is it? From what provenance? You can’t tell by looking… right? So, how do you know? You have to talk to someone. You have to ask to learn.
The message for the broader movement? We need to communicate with people in order to move our agenda in a meaningful way. And, he pointed out, the organic seed movement is too new, too young, and too inexperienced to say “no” to learning and collaboration with everyone. If the recent past of the seed industry is characterized by consolidation, its future will be defined by diversity!
A show of hands in the room today told us that while there were many seedy pioneers present, folks engaged in this work for over 20 years (to raucous applause), there was also a solid number of young growers and researchers at it no more than 5 years. Or 2. How valuable, then, is this opportunity to come together and share, when there is that much collective wisdom, experience, and passion in the room?
The core message of each of these presentations really came down to one thing – relationships. At a time when the global industrial seed system is upping its patent and trade secret game, the organics sector is cultivating relationships, building and working within a framework of trust, and going to extreme measures to talk to one another. It’s a vastly different paradigm, and – if folks here have anything to say about it – a game changer.
Skeptics can be forgiven their doubts. After all, as each of these speakers pointed at out, the seed industry is a global behemoth. And it’s all too easy to get discouraged and think about the possibility of failure. However, if I can be allowed an obvious metaphor, I’d have to say that in the same way that a chemical and monoculture-based agriculture is driven by short-term economics, unable to serve long term human interests; a seed industry that is characterized by consolidation, secrecy, and domination has numbered days. By contrast, we know as organic producers and advocates, the gains available to us by stewarding the earth, caring for community, and nurturing life-sustaining diversity are the way ahead in the long term. Cultivating that same diversity and resilience in the seed industry is only a matter of time and commitment.
If this gathering is anything, it’s proof of that commitment. Across the country, across the continent, and between sectors that can’t possibly become siloed as long as gatherings like this one exist.