About Seeds of Diversity
Seeds of Diversity is a non-profit organisation with a mission to identify, perpetuate and preserve endangered varieties of food crops, in particular, those that have been breed in Canada or have a history of being cultivated there. They run a national Seed Exchange programme in which members exchange seeds directly with each other and they curate their own seed collection of rare varieties, called the Canadian Seed Library.
The Canadian Seed Library contains over 2300 varieties that have been identified as rare or at risk. Some of these come from the Member Exchange catalogue and many are derived from Canada’s public seed bank, the Plant Gene Resources Centre (PGRC). The PGRC is an important partner for Seeds of Diversity; their gene bank contains many seeds that have dropped out of commercial supply however they have few resources to grow out these seeds and get them back in to general use. With its network of seed producers and skilled seed savers, Seeds of Diversity is able to supply the knowledge, expertise and most importantly, the human-power to increase and perpetuate their seed stocks. Seeds of Diversity request seed stocks from the PRGC, allocate them to growers in their network to grow out, and then replenish the seeds kept at the PRGC, as well as adding them to their own Canadian Seed Library. Seeds of Diversity connects the institutional seed bank with ordinary people growing seed, a bridge which otherwise would simply not exist.
The network of seed producers fostered by Seeds of Diversity currently contains about 100 skilled growers, including a mix of backyard gardeners, organic farmers and specialist seed producers. Over the past few years, the network has rapidly expanded, with the launch of The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security. The initiative aims to conserve and advance seed biodiversity by placing seed producers at the heart of their programme. Through the initiative, seed producers have been able to apply for small grants, attend training and networking events, and gain access to rare Canadian varieties. As part of their involvement, Seeds of Diversity have been able to recognise and expand their Vegetable Seed Producers Network on a more formal footing. They are working towards a co-ordinated network, in which members produce seed crops, which can then be pooled for bulk-scale supply to vegetable farmers and other growers. The network launched officially in 2015 so it is still in its infancy, but it demonstrates a shift in focus for Seeds of Diversity, from the production of high quality seed, to a particular focus on high-quality bulk-scale production.
The Bauta Family Initiative has also provided funding and resources to a growing number of community seed projects. Bob Wildfong, Executive Director at Seeds of Diversity, commented that he had witnessed an explosion of interest in seed saving in particular since 2013. In 2014, they received so many great applications to their small grants fund they were compelled to offer support to 17 groups from across 5 different regions. A further 11 groups were awarded funding in 2015. Bob admits that interest may have reached a plateau and so their work going forwards will focus on collating inventories from these regional collections and encouraging their community partners to follow best practice in terms of how their collections are managed. It is encouraging to note that some of the community partners have joined the elite group of seed growers who are trusted grow out stock for the Canadian Seed Library.
Interview with Bob Wildfong, Executive Director, Seeds of Diversity
Please could you introduce yourself and explain what you do
My name is Bob Wildfong. I’m the Executive Director of Seeds of Diversity, Canada. Seeds of Diversity is a national organisation that engages seed savers and seed producers in conservation programmes and also trains growers to produce high-quality bulk quantities of farm-scale seed.
Why were you drawn to working in this field?
I joined Seeds of Diversity and became very active mainly from an interest in history but then throughout the 90s and the next two decades, we learned that seed diversity was important for food security worldwide. Seed diversity is one of the leading concerns in worldwide food security because it allows us to adapt the food system to changing conditions. We know the climate is changing and energy use is changing and all of the indicators are there will be more change in the next century then there has been in the previous. I found out that my little seed savers group was key to adapting our food system for the future. I realised that this was something important and not just fun. I became more involved and eventually wound up coming on staff and I was the first Executive Director.
What area of the work of Seeds of Diversity do you think you’re most proud of?
I’m really proud of how the current network of organisations that are involved in the Bauta Initiative as partners or as grant recipients. I know very few sectors where organisations are able to work together as effectively as this network and I’m ever so proud to have been involved in it from the very beginning. It’s been a real treat to be part of a movement where people are much more interested in getting the job done than in competing with each other.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your work at the moment?
I think our biggest challenge comes from plain Canadian geography. We struggle all the time with the distances that exist between people who are working together, that most of us have never met, and many of us will probably never meet in person. It’s a difficult thing running a national organisation in a large country with a relatively small population.
What do you think the seed sector as a whole needs to develop next? We’ve seen a lot of changes already but what are the next steps?
Next step for the vegetable seed sector is working on quality assurance of larger scales of seed production. Most of our vegetable seeds are either produced overseas and imported, or else they are produced in Canada but in relatively small quantities. I think we are overcoming a lot of the quality concerns that have existed over time but we’re still working at a very small scale – maybe at a gardener scale but not at a farm scale – and probably one of our biggest challenges in vegetable seeds over the next few years will be to figure out how to scale up quantities and maintain the quality.
Can you tell me about a community seed project that you know about that’s doing really good work at the moment that you’d like to highlight?
There are a few community seed projects that have really blossomed over the last few years. I would point at the Kingston Area Seed Savers Initiative as one example, that’s in Kingston, Ontario. It’s led by a small group of very experienced seed savers who have gathered a larger group of newer seed savers and really emphasised quality above all. People are coming to their workshops and learning from them, liking what they learn and getting involved. They’re really paving the way as an example of how to involve a community of gardeners and also farmers in backyard seed saving but also farm-scale seed production all under one umbrella.
What’s the main advice you’d give to someone setting up a community seed venture?
My main advice, which I have learned and seen from many people, is start small. Don’t try to grow your collection or make your collection too big. Keep it manageable because quality is the most important thing and it’s so easy to get seeds. For very little cost you could get 100s and 100s of packets of seeds and put them all in a shoebox… but how would you look after them? I always say once you’ve acquired your seeds, you have one tenth of the seed collection done because the other nine tenths is looking after it. Those seeds are living things and they don’t live forever so you have to be able to regenerate them and that’s 90% of the work. So keep that in mind and make sure you do it well by keeping it of an appropriate size.