It seems appropriate to start the new year off with seeds. Little parcels of potential. I read this piece on North by Northwest in late February 2005 to herald in the Seedy Saturday season. I have updated and expanded it in my new book on the politics of food, called Something’s Rotten in Compost City.
Happy New Year!
I flipped the tassled hood over my face and slipped into the room unnoticed. The disguise had worked. I adjusted my sunglasses. I wouldn’t be caught dead in a poncho otherwise.
I was at a seedy little event in Qualicum Beach, attempting to infiltrate a group of rogue gardeners who were engaging in criminal activity. Well at least it’s illegal in some countries, and may soon be in Canada too. This garden gang had cells across the country, terrorizing governments and multinational corporations, by – “ saving their own seeds.
“Yoo hoo, Spring!” Darn it. It was Sally, code name: Scissorhands. My old partner in crime at City Farmer. I’d seen her prune a clematis within an inch of its life. She was now one of the organizers of this annual Seedy Saturday event.
“Shhh Sal, you’ll blow my cover,” I said.
“But you’re speaking here. It says so right here on the sign: Go Naturel!”
“Yes, but I’m incognito at the moment – “ on a fact-finding mission,” I whispered. “And it’s Grow Natural – “ not go naturel.”
“What’s with the poncho?” Sally asked.
“It’s my disguise, ok.”
“I wouldn’t be caught dead in a poncho,” Sally said. “It looks itchy.”
“It’s perfect for eavesdropping,” I said, scratching my arm.
“Well it’s just not seedy wear,” she yelled after me, as I crept further into the forest of fleece and rubber boots.
This was the third annual Seedy Saturday in Qualicum Beach – “ one of many Seedy’s that crop up across Canada through February and March. And what happens at a Seedy Saturday? Well it’s just criminal!
Gardeners, from all walks of life come into a big hall like this one and get overly excited about seeds. Gardening clubs and environmental groups set up displays; local seed companies, heritage plant growers and organic farmers unabashedly sell their wares. But the focal point of the day is always when gardeners – “ swap their seeds.
I noticed a cluster of suspicious looking characters walking towards the seed exchange area. I followed. Some of them carried little packets; others had film cases and pill bottles. I ducked behind a screen of pussy willows. A deal was about to go down.
“This is my third year here, but it’s my first time bringing my own seeds,” gushed a young woman in classic seedy-wear.
So basically, gardeners bring in seeds they collect from their gardens and swap them for free with anyone else. And some of them are rare finds. No illicit activity here – “ at least not yet.
I noticed a crowd gathering around one of the tables. Aha, grow your own mushroom kits. I ran towards them, caught some wind in my poncho and sailed across the room. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite clear the deer fence and it came crashing down, nearly taking out the vendor next door.
“Spring, Spring is that you?” the man scrambled out from beneath the fencing. So much for flying under the radar.
It was Dan Jason, the owner of Salt Spring Seeds and one of the kingpins in this seedy resistance movement.
“Hey, Dan. Sorry about that.” I helped him up and we put things back in order.
“How are sales?” I started to thumb through his seed catalogue.
“Good. Good. I almost didn’t recognize you in those dark glasses and that plaid poncho,” he said.
“Yeah, well, avante garden wear, you know.”
“You’re not very seedy savvy are you,” he said, all smug in his fleece and rubber.
“No, first time,” I confessed. “So Dan, what’s happening on the seed front?” I whipped my notebook out from under my woolly cloak.
“Have you signed the petition yet?” he asked.
“Over at the National Farmer’s Union. The government is trying to make changes to both the Seeds Act and the Plant Breeder’s Act,” said Dan.
“Do you think the room might be bugged?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t put it past them,” said Dan. “The changes would make it illegal for farmers to save seeds and give more control over the food system to the big agrochemical companies.”
“Sounds sinister,” I said.
Here’s what I uncovered at the Union table. Farmers and gardeners have saved their own seeds for centuries. Over time the seeds adapt to local growing conditions, so farmers continue to use the seeds that perform well. They save them and exchange them with other farmers.
But in the last decade or so, big multinational corporations have been buying up seed companies by the bushel and patenting many of the seeds. Farmers are being taken to court for saving their own seed; they’re even being sued because patented seed has blown onto their fields.
“These are the same corporations that are tinkering with the DNA in plants, inserting fish genes into tomatoes, scorpion genes into corn and herbicides into canola,” said Dan during his talk later that day.
As a result of this consolidation in the seed industry, we are losing much of the plant diversity in the world. Dan’s new project the Seed and Plant Sanctuary will act as a gene bank, protecting and preserving the heritage seeds that remain.
It was time for my own talk. The room was full of wild-eyed gardeners. It was going well until some of the radicals started to chant, “Go naturel baby, take it off, take that poncho off!” Fortunately, Scissorhands cut them off at the knees.
“Well, that pretty well wraps up my investigation,” I said to Sally afterwards. “No dirt here – “ yet.”
But she just had to make a final cutting remark. “Yup, looks like the only fringe activity at this Seedy was on that poncho of yours. Criminal, just criminal!”