Saving Seeds

Saving Seeds

A visit to the Petaluma Seed Bank and interviews with representatives of Seed Savers Exchange and Native Seeds/SEARCH to learn what seed banks are and why they are important.

Grades

5 - 12+

Subjects

Biology, Geography, Physical Geography

The old Sonoma County National Bank building in Petaluma, California, used to house the money of the rural region’s residents. Now, the building is home to a different sort of riches: 1,400 unique varieties of seeds. The Petaluma Seed Bank is helping preserve the region’s agricultural diversity.

The Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company runs the Petaluma Seed Bank. Jere Gettle, founder and owner of Baker Creek, points out some of his treasures.

“One of my favorites is the Chinese red noodle bean,” Gettle says, pulling out a seed packet. The bright red vegetables can grow to 45 centimeters (18 inches) long. “The red color is just stunning on the plants. They are ornamental as well as really delicious.”

Gettle pulls out seeds of more exotic-sounding produce, including white-flesh watermelons and chocolate peppers.

He then moves to a bin where customers can find almost 200 varieties of squash. He picks up a packet of black futsu squash seeds. Black futsus will grow into dark green vegetables with a rich, meaty, chestnut flavor.

“They have a really good taste to them,” he says.

Seed Banks

Gettle is part of a growing movement of individuals and organizations determined to sustain lesser-known food varieties by creating seed banks. Large-scale agriculture has focused on producing a small number of plants with desirable traits at the expense of more delicate local varieties. These varieties may be more difficult to grow or ship, but they are tasty and nutritious.

“Our biggest goal is to preserve the vegetables that have been left by the wayside,” Gettle says.

Shanyn Siegel, collection curator for Seed Savers Exchange, says her organization has a similar goal.

“From our perspective, we are a preservation-based organization, so we are trying to maintain the varietal purity with few or no genetic changes occurring each time that we would grow something in the field,” she says.

Siegel says that what industrialized agriculture wants out of a plant might differ from what consumers desire. For instance, producers might create fruits and vegetables with a tougher skin and longer shelf life, so the produce is easier to transport.

“What’s been lost in the process [of large-scale agriculture] is a lot of varieties in localized food systems that have better eating qualities and better taste,” she says.

Seed Savers Exchange has more than 25,000 seed types kept on its 890-acre farm in Decorah, Iowa.

“Our goal is to have them all stored under freezing conditions around -18 degrees Celsius (nearly 0 degrees Fahrenheit), and we have most of our collection held that way,” Siegel says.

Seed Savers Exchange maintains other collections of its seeds at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado, and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, in case something happens to its Iowa facility.

“They are in packages, inventoried, sealed,” Siegel says. “They basically just hold those seeds for us under ideal conditions.”

Sustainable Seeds

Some of these rare seeds can be essential when agricultural crises arise. For instance, if a disease wipes out a crop that people have come to rely on, the rare seeds can be used to fill the void.

“The magic behind sustainable agriculture is a rich and diverse genetic base from which to draw so you can find things that are resistant to the pests and insects, and are naturally drought-tolerant,” says Bill McDorman, executive director of Native Seeds/SEARCH.

Native Seeds/SEARCH was established in 1983, when the nonprofit organization received the base of its seed collection from more than 50 Native American tribes, including the Apache, Hopi, and Navajo.

In Tucson, Arizona, the organization has a 465-square-meter (5,000-square-foot) facility, with a climate-controlled storage room. Native Seeds/SEARCH has grown to house a library of 1,800 varieties of seeds native to the American Southwest and northern Mexico.

A good portion of the seeds is given back to Native American tribes to help keep their agricultural traditions alive. “About 20 percent of the seeds that we send out go to the Native Americans for free,” McDorman says.

Native Seeds/SEARCH does more than just preserve seeds. “Our design criteria for the seed bank is . . . at least every 10 years . . . take things out that have been in our seed bank, and grow them out again, and evaluate them to make sure that we have fresh seeds to return to the seed bank,” McDorman says.

Like the “investors” in the Petaluma Seed Bank, McDorman knows what his organization has is valuable. “We see what we have as a huge treasure chest from which anybody in the world can start to draw from,” he says.

Consumers can “start growing and saving seeds in their own area, and start allowing nature to adapt those genetics there. That’s how after 10,000 years of human agriculture we got all this diversity in the first place.”

Fast Fact

Berry Good
One of the newest species preserved in seed banks is Fragaria iturupensis, a rare variety of wild strawberry. This fruit grows only on the slopes of a volcano in the remote Kuril Islands in Russia.

Fast Fact

Doomsday Seed Vault
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, nicknamed the "Doomsday" seed vault, stores duplicate collections of seeds from seed banks all over the world. The seeds at Svalbard can only be accessed when the original seed collections have been lost. Svalbard has the capacity to house 4.5 million different seed samples. Each sample can contain about 500 seeds; as many as 2.25 billion seeds may be stored.

Fast Fact

Seeds of Society
If we want to live here for a long time, we have to have our own agriculture, especially in an era of diminishing fossil fuels and climate change.
Bill McDorman, executive director of Native Seeds/SEARCH

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Writer
Stuart Thornton
Editors
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
Producer
National Geographic Society
other
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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