Embrace Freshness, Support Local: Thornapple CSA's New Journey Begins!

Seed Saving Secrets: Preserving Genetic Diversity in Your CSA

June 26, 2024

Table of Contents

Seed Saving Secrets: Preserving Genetic Diversity in Your CSA

The Rooster’s Steady Steps Towards Abundance

I grew up knowing that you harvest horseradish only in the months with an ‘r’ in them, and that every day gets a rooster step longer after the shortest day of the year. As a kid, I never quite understood my grandma Einck’s observation about the rooster’s stride. What on earth did that have to do with the changing seasons?

As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve come to appreciate the wisdom in her words. The shortest day of the year, December 21st, may have the sun setting as early as 4:30 pm, but by the end of January, it could stay light until 5:15 pm. And of course, by the first day of summer, the days seem a thousand rooster steps longer. One rooster step isn’t much, but a couple hundred of them make all the difference between a long, cold winter’s night and a glorious summer evening.

This steady, gradual progress is how the Thornappple CSA has grown and flourished over the years. When folks ask me how Seed Savers Exchange, the organization behind our CSA, got started and how we got to where we are today, I tell them it certainly didn’t happen all at once. It happened with the certainty of a rooster’s step.

From Humble Beginnings to a Thriving Seed Library

I’m especially reminded of this when I see the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook being compiled around this time of year. Our first six-page seed listing in 1979 was so small, we printed our 29 members’ seed listings along with their letters in their entirety. The next year, our group had grown to 142, and we printed a seventeen-page booklet on a hand-cranked mimeograph machine set up in an unheated back bedroom of our farmhouse.

Today, our members list more than 12,000 varieties in a 500-page book, and we send it to more than 13,000 members. We also organize the listings for easy online access at exchangeseedsavers.org. Amazing to think of the growth in all areas of Seed Savers Exchange that has transpired with 40 years of rooster steps.

Small Acts, Big Impact

Solutions to problems like genetic diversity don’t have to be complicated or large. They can be as bold or as small as you like. Just one simple act can make a difference. Plant a seed, save a seed, support your local farmers market, CSA, or community gardens, and simply ask your grocer or restaurant about where your food comes from. These small acts, added together, will make a difference.

Small is underestimated, small is a beginning, small can make an important contribution to your planet and family. Even something as small as a rooster’s step. As Diane Ott Whealy, Co-Founder and Vice President of Seed Savers Exchange, puts it, “Just one simple act can make a difference. Small is underestimated, small is a beginning, small can make an important contribution to your planet and family, even something as small as a rooster’s step.”

Heirloom Seeds and the Taste of Tradition

One of the small acts you can take is to start saving your own heirloom seeds. But what exactly makes a vegetable an “heirloom”? It’s like that old piece of family jewelry – something that has been passed down through the generations.

In the days before seed catalogs, folks would save seeds from the myriad vegetables they were growing for fresh eating and preserving, and plant those saved seeds in subsequent years. A family could save the seed from their best, most flavorful, most vigorous, and healthiest plants, and by doing that every year, improve their vegetables’ taste, texture, and production at that specific location.

Today, the agricultural landscape has shifted dramatically. Vegetable production has converted from diverse backyard gardens to large-scale monocultures, where vast acreages are dedicated to a single crop, often harvested by machine rather than by hand. Vegetables are no longer picked at their peak ripeness and eaten immediately, but rather are picked, packed, and shipped long distances to grocery stores, where they sit for an unknown amount of time.

The Price of Uniformity

To be successful in this modern agricultural world, a vegetable must maximize production per acre, be easy to pick by machine, be easily washed and packed, resist bruising during shipping, sit stably on a shelf for weeks, and be uniform in color, shape, and size. Flavor? That’s not even on the list.

To achieve these modern goals, people have done some crazy things to seeds, including inserting genetic material from other life forms, creating genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Most vegetables develop their full flavor as they approach ripeness, especially tomatoes. Ever eaten one of those hard, white-in-the-center tomatoes from the grocery store in January? They have absolutely no flavor because they were picked under-ripe to keep them hard for shipping.

A tomato that is allowed to ripen on the vine has time to develop sugars, which cause it to be soft to the touch, juicy when cut, fragrant, and sweet. But a soft, sugary tomato doesn’t travel well and certainly doesn’t travel well over thousands of miles. The only way to get your hands on one of these flavor-packed beauties is to grow them yourself or buy them from a small-scale farmer who can deliver them to your door in a short amount of time.

Reclaiming Flavor with Heirloom Varieties

This is where the small-scale farmer and the heirloom seed come into play. Small-scale farmers can pick tomatoes by hand, noting which are at their peak of ripeness, handle them gently, and deliver them to a market or to your doorstep in a short amount of time. They can even sell the ugliest of tomatoes, including cracked and crazy-looking heirlooms, because they can talk with their customers one-on-one, describe the flavor, and let you smell, touch, and even taste test the vegetables.

Luckily, there are a lot of small-scale growers out there dutifully saving seeds from old heirloom varieties and sharing them with other farmers. This year, I ordered most of my seeds from Fedco, a seed co-op based in Maine, and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, a network of growers that specialize in varieties that grow well in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern US. Through the hard work of these growers, many heirloom varieties live on and are available for growers like me, new farmers just getting started, and for the members of the Thornappple CSA.

Homesteading and the Joy of Self-Reliance

While I don’t have any heirloom seeds that were passed down in my family, I do have a great-grandmother’s heirloom ring. Part of the reason I decided to become a farmer and live on my farm is because I like growing and preserving my own food. Mainly because I love to eat, and eat well.

When I first moved onto the farm this winter, I decided to try tapping some of the maple trees on the property to make my own maple syrup. I ended up tapping three trees and got enough syrup to keep my pancakes topped throughout the year, with a few jars of syrup to spare to give as gifts to my family.

Currently, the veggies and fruit are rolling in, and it seems like I can’t find enough spare time to do all the canning I’d like. Plus, my gas stove heats the kitchen up so much that I’ve convinced myself I’ll do all my pickling and canning when the fall comes and I can use the extra heat in the kitchen. For now, most of the food preservation I’ve been doing involves drying herbs.

Homegrown Mustard: From Seed to Condiment

Earlier this week, I harvested a crop of mustard seeds from the garden. In April, I planted white mustard, Sinapis alba, which is used to make the table mustard we’re all used to eating. Your basic mustard comes from grinding down the mustard seeds and adding them to water, vinegar, or other liquids and spices.

The super yellow color we normally associate with mustard actually comes from the addition of turmeric, although I’m sure a lot of cheap, store-bought mustard just uses food dyes these days. You can also use seeds from other mustard plants to make different kinds of mustard, like the spicy brown mustard I’ve made in the past using brown mustard, Brassica juncea.

After the initial April planting, the white mustard plants grew quite quickly and were in full flower by the end of May. Slowly, the flowers turned into green seed pods that plumped up and filled with green seeds. Then the seed pods began to dry up, turn brown, and the seeds inside turned from green to tan-yellow.

A few days ago, while the weather was dry, I decided that the majority of the mustard plants were dry enough, and I should harvest them before they shattered, which happens when the plant gets so dry that the pods burst open and spew their seeds all over the ground. To harvest the seed, I cut down handfuls of the plants and shook them into a large, clean garbage can, causing the seed pods to shatter and release their seeds – a process called threshing.

It took me 2 hours to thresh 250 square feet of densely growing mustard. A mechanical harvester would be a whole lot quicker, but I don’t have one, and I enjoy spending time in the garden doing repetitive work. It lets me relax, listen to the birds, and let my thoughts wander. At the end of the two hours, I had a can of mustard seeds and shattered seed pods, and I left the remains of the mustard plants, or straw, behind to compost back into the soil.

When I finished the threshing process, I brought my garbage can of seeds and pods to my kitchen and sifted it all through a strainer to separate out the seeds from the pods. There is still a little bit of chaff or non-seed material in with the seeds, so on the next low humidity day, I will take them outside with a fan and pour the seeds into a bucket in front of the fan to let the lightweight chaff blow off.

All in all, I will have around 4 lbs of mustard seed, which I will use to make mustard, spice up dishes, and to make my new favorite condiment, pickled mustard seed or mustard caviar. It’s a whole lot more work than buying mustard at the store, but at the end of the day, I love that my mustard will be homegrown, and the mustard patch was a huge benefit to the garden. It provided habitat for all kinds of beneficial insects during the flowering stage, its straw will help feed the soil, and because it was such a dense stand of tall plant material, it helped to keep weeds from sprouting underneath.

Recent research has also shown that growing mustard as a cover crop helps to fend off some of the pest insects and nematodes that live in the soil. All of that is wonderful, but honestly, I’m most excited about tasting my homemade mustard because, like I said, I love to eat.

Preserving the Past, Growing the Future

Whether you’re a fifth-generation farmer, a home gardener, or city folk, everyone can pitch in to help protect seed diversity. As my friend Will Bonsall says, “It doesn’t matter so much who carries on neglected heirloom seeds, just as long as someone does, and that someone might as well be me – or you.”

Through the steady, rooster-like steps of organizations like Seed Savers Exchange and the dedicated work of small-scale farmers and backyard gardeners, we can preserve the flavors of the past and grow a bountiful future. One seed, one plant, one harvest at a time. So get out there, plant a seed, save a seed, and watch as your small act becomes part of a greater movement to protect our agricultural heritage.

About Us

Thornapple CSA: A community-driven initiative championing sustainable agriculture. We connect members with fresh, organic produce, celebrating the bond between land and community.

Follow On

Subscrive Our Newsletter
To Get More Updates

© 2023 Thornapplecsa.com. All Rights Reserved