Nancy Redfeather of Kailua-Kona, Hawai’i, remembers the exact moment she became a seed saver.
“I was at a three-day conference with John Jeavons of Bountiful Gardens/Grow Biointensive here in Hawai’i in the winter of 1994,” she says. “He was quoting a new Food and Agriculture Organization seed study that predicted 95 percent of all seed varieties grown in the U.S. in 1900 would be extinct by 2005. I fell off my chair.”
Nancy asked herself, “How could this have happened? This was the seed that kept our ancestors alive.”
Nancy and Gerry Herbert have operated Kawanui Farm since 1999. The climate in Kona, Hawai’i, is unique, typically providing six months of rain followed by six months of relatively dry weather. They grow crops year round at an elevation of 1500 feet.
She describes the winters as semi-tropical and temperate, cool and dry conditions ideal for growing many types of vegetable, herb, and flower seed. The summer moisture provides good growing conditions for corn and sorghum, “grains of the tropics,” she says, “though no one else seems to grow them.” The summer conditions also yield good dry beans and squash.
Nancy and Gerry primarily grow seed for their own farm, but they also share a good amount with school gardens and other farmers and gardeners in their region.
“Growing seed provides so much abundance,” she says.
And this abundance is used for enhancing the genetic diversity in their region as well — from seed saving to on-farm plant breeding projects. Kawanui Farm has conducted plant breeding trials for 14 years. These trials support the conservation of Hawai’i’s seed heritage while also serving to expand well-adapted seed varieties for various farm conditions and regions.
As one example, Nancy says it is hard to get short-day onions to go to seed in her region, but that she will keep trying.
“We experiment with any crop that can be grown for seed in the semi-tropics,” Nancy explains. She is determined to adapt crops that currently don’t perform well as seed crops, showcasing a common character trait of seed innovators: a quiet doggedness.
“Cabbages and chard will not go to seed here, nor will beets, and only occasionally carrots or onions,” Nancy says. “But after reading John Navazio’s new book we’re going to try the vernalizing techniques he describes.” Vernalization involves exposing seed and young plants to certain conditions of cold temperature and light exposure to promote floral induction without development of the plant.
She says finding short-day varieties of many types of plants is an ongoing need.
“I know these vegetables exist in other tropical regions around the world, but very few people go out around the world like they used to, looking for new varieties and bringing them home to trial.” (Read about two seed stewards who did just that.)
If Nancy could travel anywhere to look for new varieties of seed, she would head to Mysore, India.
“Mysore varieties seem to do very well here,” she explains. “Recently a friend of mine was traveling in Asia and I asked him to look for short-day garlic varieties. He came back saying that China is their chief supplier now.”
This hits home for Nancy. “What has happened here in the U.S. is happening all around the world,” she says. “A loss of locally adapted varieties due to globalization.”
Nancy notes that there are no commercial seed companies established in Hawai’i except for the biotech companies doing experimental field trials or maintaining parent lines. She feels fortunate that no biotech companies are operating on Hawai’i Island at this time, pointing to her concerns about genetically engineered crops.
One day she and Gerry hope to start their own commercial seed business. Until then, she has a full plate working for the Hawai’I Public Seed Initiative (HPSI).
In 2010, she helped start HPSI, a program of The Kohala Center, to help farmers and gardeners select, grow, harvest, store, and improve seed varieties that will thrive in Hawai‘i. A statewide conference called Hua Ka Hua, meaning “Restore Our Seed,” launched the initiative. The three-day conference brought together 120 farmers and gardeners, and Organic Seed Alliance attended to provide education and other support.
“We partnered with OSA because they had the expertise, knowledge, and innovative thinking to help us begin this project, and really, lifelong work,” she says. “I think rediscovering and rebuilding the world of farmer and gardener saved seed is the most important work that can be done on the planet today.”
Following the conference, a statewide working group was created as a joint effort between the University of Hawai’i and non-profits to travel around the state doing seed workshops. (Learn about a 2013 “Train the Trainers” event here.)
Nancy hopes the initiative will build a strong network across islands of farmers and gardeners who have the knowledge and skills to build the diversity of regionally adapted varieties.
“It is our ‘kuleana,’ our responsibility, to steward seed from one generation to the next,” she says, which is why she invests in the next generation of not just seed, but people.
“I work with children as much as possible,” she explains. “This is a natural activity for them — they love to collect and replant seed. Seed education should begin with our children in their school and home gardens.”
Earlier this year, a local seed exchange invited five middle school garden groups to attend and participate in special activities, including a scavenger hunt and seed mandala. The youth were fully engaged, Nancy says, bringing seed packets to fill and mingling with adult gardeners who exchanged both seed and stories.
“I heard last week from the teachers who came that the children are still talking about the seed exchange,” Nancy says. “We can engage our youth in meaningful and fun work through seed. It is a way for them to value this natural resource, and to protect and preserve it for their children and their children’s children.”
She hopes to see more farmers in Hawai’i incorporating seed work into their lives, too.
“We continue to lose varieties at a rapid rate, and few farmers feel they have time to add seed work to their busy days,” she explains. “But it is an essential part of growing a whole system. When you begin growing, selecting, and replanting your own seed, you see how the varieties adapt to your specific climate, soil type, and seasonality. Plants adapt themselves to respond to the unique situation they find themselves in. We must learn to do the same with our lives.”
Nancy recommends saving seed from crops that grow well in your area, and, ideally crops that are especially important to your farm. That way you’ll be more inclined to grow, select, dry, and save with care. Then, “replant and observe,” she says. “You may be surprised at how enjoyable seed saving can be,” she says, “and how much money you will save.”
Beyond enhancing the genetic diversity of our seed and food, Nancy also views seed saving as a right that needs to be exercised. This has become important, she says, as restrictive intellectual property practices, such as patenting seed, increasingly impacts farmers in profound ways. This includes barriers to operating as seed stewards.
“The loss of knowledge necessary for growing, selecting, and saving seed impacts us all, including future generations,” she says. “Seed is the foundation of life, the beginning and end of our food system. There should be no patents on seed.”
It is clear that beyond a sense of urgency and duty, Nancy has fallen in love with seed as a craft.
“I love watching plants go to seed — stretching out, losing its form, expanding into something wild and unique,” she explains. “And I love cleaning seed.”
And her favorite varieties?
That seems to change with time, she explains. Right now she points to two varieties. The first is an older open-pollinated sweet corn called ‘Supersweet #9’ developed in 1977 by plant breeder James Brewbaker at the University of Hawai’i.
“I have been saving and improving this variety on my farm for 25 years,” Nancy explains. “And I still look forward to planting and eating it.”
She also loves the ‘Komohana’ tomato bred by another University of Hawai’i plant breeder in the 1970s named Jim Gilbert. This is a clustering grape tomato that does well in tropical climates and makes incredible pasta sauce.
These varieties carry with them two stories that illustrate the vulnerable nature of plant breeding programs and seed as a natural, living resource.
One is the story of sweet corn breeder Dr. Brewbaker who is now in his 80s with no one in line to take his place. The second story is that Dr. Gilbert’s varieties of tropical tomatoes were lost in a flood that swept through the University of Hawai’i in Manoa in the 1990s.
“We can never take seed for granted,” Nancy says. “It can be lost in a blink of an eye.”
These stories reiterate the need to adequately support plant breeding work happening in the public domain, including the next generation of plant breeders. They also reiterate the importance of public seed initiatives like HPSI that are building a foundation and network of seed innovators to ensure the security of both seed and seed knowledge.
“I have been working with seed for almost 20 years, and I feel like a novice,” Nancy says. “There is so much to learn, so much to experiment with, so much to share. It will be part of my life’s work.”
This post is part of our Farmer Seed Stewardship initiative series. The initiative is a partnership between OSA and Seed Matters, and promotes farmers engagement in seed systems – training farmers in seed production and crop improvement, and advocating for farmers’ ability to save, improve, and plant the seed they need. Learn more here.