Seed Stories: Narratives of Self, Science, Spirit, and Social Context

The 2019 Student Organic Seed Symposium was held this August 22-25 in at Bethel Horizons Retreat Center near Dodgeville, WI. The symposium’s theme was “Seed Stories: Narratives of Self, Science, Spirit, and Social Context,” because each of us has a story – a lifelong series of causes and events, people and places – that led us to work with organic seed systems. Each of those stories has context: of personal choices, cultural values, and socioeconomic structures. And importantly, none of these stories is finished. SOSS 2019 was envisioned as an invitation to share, re-examine, and re-imagine our seed stories.

Thursday, August 22

For our Thursday evening welcome dinner, we gathered around picnic tables for locally-raised barbeque pork, braised summer squash, coleslaw, cornbread, and more from Underground Catering. An opening campfire followed, at which organizers framed the SOSS gathering itself as a story. We met one another – the cast of characters – with responses to the question “if your plants took notes on you, what would they see?” We met the place we were gathered, now a Lutheran-affiliated camp and retreat center, set on ancestral Ho-Chunk land. Elena Terry, Ho-Chunk chef and presenter, greeted us in her language and expressed thanks that we were gathered for the purpose of caring for plants and the land. After a review of the SOSS story’s plotline – our agenda for the coming days – we dispersed for conversation and grown-up s’mores with locally baked graham crackers, handmade marshmallows, and organic chocolate.

Friday, August 23

Friday began with the stories of two seed professionals. Kristyn Leach of Namu Farm in Sunol, California described her work: preserving Korean American culture through its foodways and, by extension, seed. She partners with Kitazawa Seed Company to make seeds important to Korean culture – like perilla, which she described as a “lamplight” by which those with Korean ancestry can locate one another in American neighborhoods.

Jason Cavatorta, co-founder of EarthWork Seeds, told his story of creating an independent vegetable seed company after conducting graduate research in organic plant breeding at Cornell University and then working for Monsanto as an onion breeder. He and co-founder Jon Hart draw on their scientific training, knowledge of the vegetable seed marketplace, and strong work ethics to create tomato and melon varieties with strong disease resistance, reliable performance, and exceptional flavor for both commercial and garden-scale growers.

Next, a Seed Story workshop led by Ken Greene of SeedShed and Hudson Valley Seed Company challenged us to research and write origin stories for existing vegetable varieties. This activity led us to consider the many layers of human-plant contact embodied in any single seed. We discussed the dynamics of telling seed stories from cultures other than our own, and we reflected on the ways that seed stories hold not only the seed variety’s history but the storyteller’s perspective.

After lunch on the sunny retreat center deck, we came together for a discussion of race and farming. Rowen White, the scheduled facilitator and keynote speaker, was unable to attend, but we felt that the topic was too important to discard. To start the discussion, an impromptu panel composed of Ken Greene and Deborah Ni of SeedShed, Kristyn Leach of Namu Farm, Yusuf Bin-Rella of UW Dining and the TradeRoots Collective, and graduate student Solveig Hanson offered perspectives on the way their respective racial identities inform their work with seeds and food. That is, they opened discussion around the way race influences the questions we ask about seeds, the goals of our seed and food projects, the resources available to carry them out, and the communities served by those projects.

Discussion about these topics – and many others – continued into the afternoon’s free time. It was sunny and 75 degrees (Fahrenheit), unusually cool for Wisconsin in August but a welcome respite from summer heat and humidity. Many attendees went hiking on Bethel Horizons’ 548 acres of forest, rocky outcroppings, and grassy valley. We returned for an impressive succession of student research presentations.

The day concluded with a taco dinner featuring supersweet corn from Dr. Bill Tracy’s UW-Madison Sweet Corn Breeding Program. After dinner, a panel of plant breeders discussed the intersection of business and plant breeding. Don Tipping of Siskyou Seeds, Lindsay Wyatt of Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and Kristyn Leach of Namu Farm discussed the way business imperatives influence their breeding goals and decisions about resource allocation. Campfire and conversation continued into the night.

Saturday, August 24

Saturday began with a bus trip to the West Madison Agriculture Research Station to view the SOSS Demonstration Plots which showcased SOSS attendees’ plant breeding work. Next, Dan Cornelius of the Intertribal Agriculture Council introduced us to Native corn and squash varieties, by way of describing his work to strengthen Indian agriculture, food culture, and seedkeeping traditions. He also discussed the congruities and tensions between indigenous seedkeeping traditions and modern organic plant breeding and seed production. We then gathered corn and squash from the Indigenous North American Crops plots and beets, peppers, tomatoes, and more from SOSS and Seed to Kitchen Collaborative plots. After locally-sourced sandwiches and salads from Pasture and Plenty, we headed back to Bethel Horizons.

The group then embarked on a communal meal preparation extravaganza. Over a firepit, Elena Terry and Dan Cornelius directed the preparation of corn tortillas, smoked whitefish and pulled bison to fill them, wild rice “cowboy” bread, roasted gete okosoman squash, and corn mush for dessert. In the Prairie Center, we stuffed tomatoes, concocted four different salsas, grilled zucchini, and roasted beets under the direction of chef Yusuf Bin-Rella.

Dinner was served a smidgen (read: hour and a half) later than scheduled, but everyone had been involved in its preparation, and the group was convivial and patient. The buffet line was resplendent in tomato-red, zucchini-green, and squash-gold; redolent with smoky and roasted aromas; vivacious in its offer of hot salsas and pico de gallo; grounded in a bounty of corn. The meal was truly an Indigenous Meets Nonnative Organic feast; it embodied a merging of cultures and foodways, and it arose from an afternoon’s worth of learning-from, teaching-to, and plain old camaraderie.

After our late dinner, the gracious and flexible Ken Greene offered a keynote telling (bedtime) seed stories and describing Hudson Valley Seed Co’s own story of working with artists to illuminate the person-plant narratives embodied in seed.  After still more conversation and campfire, Saturday wound down.

 Sunday, August 25

SOSS closed on Sunday morning with brunch, a brief group closing, last minute discussions, a preliminary planning session for SOSS 2020, and goodbyes. SOSS 2019 was indeed a place to share, re-examine, and re-imagine our seed stories. We were challenged to think about the way our work with seed is situated within socioeconomic structures, personal experience, and cultural values. We came away with new and renewed ideas, new and ever-present questions, and a strengthened network of personal and professional relationships to sustain us in the asking.