Meeting a seed saving legend

Seeds are the very living embodiment of heritage. They are the source of everything we eat (yes, even the carnivore’s meat is from animals that graze on flowering, seeding grasses/grains). Knowledge of saving seed has been foundational to human culture for thousands of years going back to the Fertile Crescent – and maybe even before that ! As our heritage should, seeds illustrate our past, help define our present and give hope for our future.

Recently we had a ‘pop-up’ stall at the annual Bungendore Harvest Festival (organized by the amazing folks of the Southern Harvest Association).

We were particularly delighted to receive a visit from Joe Swartz, a much-respected elder of the seed saving movement in Australia. Joe literally wrote the book on seed saving with his 1980 publication, ‘Help Save Our Seeds Through Homegrown Action’ (still available via the National Library!). And to really add icing to the cake, Joe very generously donated two archive boxes of heritage seed catalogues and historical publications that take us back to the very beginnings of the Australian seed saving journey. Wow!

Leafing (pun intended) through these wonderful catalogues prompts all sorts of thoughts around our food heritage. There are varieties in there that remain good friends today – Burnley Bounty and Roma tomatoes, Fordhook Giant spinach, California Wonder capsicum and Jack O’Lantern pumpkins to name just a few. Others look like they have had a change of name along the way – we’re guessing
Rhubard Chard is probably called Rainbow Chard now and, while Aussies will still recognise the name New Zealand Spinach, it has become better known this side of the Tasman as Warragul Greens.

Others have us scratching our heads completely – has anyone recently heard of a Munsterlander Spinach or a Phenomenal Early Cauliflower ? [If you have, we’d love some of the seeds !! ☺]

Possibly even more engaging within Joe’s kindly-donated collection are a number of catalogues that hint at the long story of community seed saving in Australia. The then Self Reliance Seed Co’s Seed Magazine and Catalogue (December 1980) contains fascinating articles about the genesis of seed saving with the impending introduction of Plant Varietal Rights legislation. Interestingly, this magazine contained, loosely slipped between pages, a notification from the Self Reliance Seed Co that they were having to cease trading as a result of a threat from a US company alleging copyright infringement. As the notice points out, a small community-based entity can simply not afford to take on such international litigation. Globalisation had, indeed, arrived.

Also among Joe’s treasures (well, the published ones, anyway) is a copy of what looks like a very early (if not the first) the Seed Saver newsletter (Spring 86) from the Seed Savers Network founded by Michel and Jude Fanton. Among its other articles, the newsletter tells the story of how the Network started, with its strong links to the permaculture movement co-founded in Tasmania by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.

Reading though this insight into the true heritage of seed saving is both daunting and hopeful. So many of the issues raised within these pages remain true today – corporate domination of seed supply (which, if anything, has only become worse !), the degradation of our farmlands via ‘industrial’ agriculture and the global inequality in food supplies. At the same time, we can still celebrate the importance (and wonder) of diversity and the desire of people to engage in community
around food and seeds.

It is our very dear wish that those early seed savers can see that, while some issues remain challenges, there is still a strong interest out there to cherish the diversity of our seed culture – a vital heritage that lives on!

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