Working with seeds and spending time in nature is part of our heritage as human beings, which may explain why many people believe vegetable gardening is therapeutic and that getting their hands in the soil is good for mind and body. But in decades past, as grocery stores started offering a wide array of produce and aisles full of convenience foods, we began to lose some of that connection. We didn't have to grow food anymore.
"What I love about being part of the movement back to the land is that more and more people are learning what it really means, and how it can extend into all realms of health," says Scott Chaskey, author of Seedtime: On The History, Husbandry, Politics, and Promise of Seeds.
Chaskey is a farmer and educator who for a quarter century has worked the land for the Peconic Land Trust at Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett, NY, was a past president of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, and also the author of This Common Ground: Seasons on an Organic Farm.
Whether you're a seasoned gardener or are just getting interested, Chaskey advises, it's incredibly important to pay special attention to the seeds you purchase. Chemical corporations have flooded the seed industry, putting many small mom-and-pop seed companies out of business.
To delve into this issue, Chaskey's book Seedtime goes back to late 19th century, a time when land-grant colleges and universities received federal funds to disseminate seeds for free to the American population, and to emphasize the importance of teaching agriculture and science in higher education.
Today, land-grant colleges have changed drastically; many now receive lots of funding from companies that produce genetically engineered seeds.
"Fast-forward to less than 100 years later," Chaskey explains, "and you see laws passed that consolidated the seed industry and took seeds out of the hands of individual farmers."
In fact, seeds are not only being patented, but corporations that sell seeds are actually suing farmers for issues such as their patented seeds blowing into the farmers' fields by accident.
"To be in an era when one company controls 27 percent of world's seed trade, in my mind, that's a pretty big problem," Chaskey says.
Luckily, Chaskey sees some universities and nonprofits running programs to save open-pollinated and heirloom varieties. Just like animals, plant species, even vegetable varieties, can go extinct. Seed diversity is so important because some could hold genetic traits that can survive major plant diseases. Without diversity, a major plant disease could threaten our entire food supply in the future.
"Almost every type of vegetable, we've lost 90 percent or more of the varieties," Chaskey says. "It's an astonishing figure. Interestingly enough, there probably is more diversity out there than we know about. It's happening in small gardens everywhere, and surfaces in small exchanges like Seed Savers Exchange."
So, your tiny plot of land in your backyard might be more important than you think—it might even be vital.
Luckily, there's a movement back to the land—even if that land is just a small plot behind a suburban home or a pot of soil in a container on a city balcony. And the beginning of all the life that will emerge from those tended plots is seeds, little pods of energy just waiting to connect with the earth. Seeds serve as that common ground, our connection to our ancestors who had to grow food to live. They're also our future.
Find out more about how you can help support growing diverse, organic seeds below.