– By Matt Frank –
Why save seeds? This ancient approach actively preserves the diversity of our existing organic and heirloom crops. Recently, this seed preservation method has made a huge comeback and is being rediscovered by family farmers, urban agriculturists, community gardeners and homesteaders alike. As people have started to become more consciously aware of how our food is grown, who grows it, and where it comes from, we’ve begun to recognize that conventional industrial agriculture practices adversely impact not only the environment, but also our personal health and the nutritional value of the foods we consume.
Within our global industrial agriculture system, a few large companies own a majority of the plant seeds available to commercial farmers. In fact, these seeds are patented and owned by multinational agrochemical and biotechnology corporations who control how they’re distributed and grown. When farmers purchase seeds from these corporations, they must sign an agreement stating that they won’t save and replant them. This results in farmers being forced to purchase more seed from the same companies year after year, locking them into unfavorable business relationships.
Currently, three quarters of the global seed market is controlled by six large companies. Of that 75 percent share, three companies control more than 50 percent of the world’s seed market. The three big players include Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, and Syngenta. This lack of access to saving seeds, and oligopolistic control over them, has culminated in a loss of over 90 percent of crop diversity within the global agriculture sector over the past century. Between 1903 and 1983, the world lost 93 percent of its food seed varieties. Just a few generations ago, the world contained ten times as much edible seed diversity as it does now!
In light of this staggering discovery, how can we reverse course and regain local control of nourishing food sources? By reclaiming our food heritage, one seed at a time! A local Twin Cities business named Seed Sages is doing just that by conducting seed saving research, providing consultations, and hosting educational opportunities. These services enable our gardening and farming communities to become re-skilled in the art of preserving and breeding unique seed varieties to grow healthy foods. While based in Minnesota, Seed Sages provides these services throughout the Midwest and beyond, contributing to strong food systems and a more resilient food future.
Founded by Koby Jeschkeit-Hagen, Seed Sages has been operational since 2015. Koby is humble and quick to note that she is but one of many great seed savers in a long line of wonderful teachers and breeders who came before her. Seed stewardship came naturally to Koby through her passions for farming, ecological restoration, and education. Her Masters Degree from the University of New Mexico in Community and Regional Planning with an emphasis in Natural Resources and the Environment along with a permaculture design certificate from the Permaculture Drylands Institute inform her work. While in grad school, her thesis focused on regenerating local seed systems in Albuquerque, NM.
Post higher-ed, Koby worked on a number of farms, including a small, family-owned CSA farm in Colorado as well as a variety of educational, research, bio-intensive, urban youth-focused, and seed saving organizations throughout the country such as JD Rivers’ Children’s Garden, Seed Savers Exchange, Seeds of Change, and Ecological Action, among others. In addition to running Seed Sages, she currently serves as Farm Manager and Community Outreach Coordinator for permaculture-based restaurant Tiny Diner in South Minneapolis. This extensive background has shaped Seed Sages and continues to guide Koby’s work.
Like many successful entrepreneurs, Seed Sages has established a number of partnerships with for-profits, non-profits, community-led organizations, and educational institutions. As a for-profit business, Seed Sages must make money to sustain itself. Yet, it acts like a non-profit in that it’s a values-based organization that is socially, ecologically, and economically conscious in every aspect of operations. In a similar vein, many of their organizational partnerships are with groups working toward a higher mission of improving the planet, our local food systems, and the communities in which we live. Locally, past Seed Sages’ collaborators have included Seed Savers Exchange, Birchwood Cafe, Pollinate Minnesota, Two Pony Gardens, Youth Farm, Tiny Diner, Land By Hand, and the Farm Table Foundation.
Current alliances include two grant-based research projects with the University of Wisconsin’s Horticulture Department and the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources. At UW, Seed Sages is working on seed breeding research and connecting local restaurants with organic farmers. At UMN, their research is focused on breeding Tiger Eye beans to better understand how they grow within an organic system. Another major partnership exists between Seed Sages and a New Mexican organization named Cuatro Puertas (Four Doors) involving breeding research focused on growing seeds in a temperate climate that have been bred in Minnesota. This project is looking specifically at seeds’ ability to adapt to multiple climate extremes and may help inform more climate resilient breeding methods.
In addition to larger research projects, Seed Sages partners with local groups to teach intro to seed saving classes and also hosts potato and tomato tastings open to the public. They’ve recently worked with a number of permaculture educators, farm-to-table restaurants, and ecological non-profits to spread the word on seed saving techniques and share a range of unique flavors. All of Seed Sages’ projects revolve around seeds that have a story to tell—whether they’re rare and unique, easy to grow in our cold climate, historically significant, or medicinally and nutritionally valuable. Throughout her work, Koby breeds seed for various beneficial traits such as size, color, taste, the ability to adapt to a changing climate, consistent yield, nutritional value, rarity, aesthetics, cold hardiness, and more. Each project calls for a different seed trait depending on its specific needs.
Ultimately, Seed Sages’ efforts raise awareness of the vast array of edible plants that exist and broaden the knowledge of the people who wish to grow them. By educating others about crop diversity, resiliency, and food security, Seed Sages is regenerating an abundant future for us all. When it comes to reclaiming our food heritage, Koby advises, “Save as much seed as you can from healthy plants!” Remember, whoever controls seed controls what we feed. Seed is a powerful thing indeed.