The STOP Community Food Centre in Toronto set up a Seed Exchange in 2010, following a successful seed saving workshop. The Community Food Centre runs an Urban Agriculture programme, teaching people how to grow their own food year-round through a range of projects including: a Greenhouse and Compost Demonstration Centre, supplying seedlings and compost to community gardens across the city; a Global Roots Garden, where plots are devoted to different ethnic communities; and, Yes In My Back Yard, a garden-sharing programme, connecting people who would like to garden but don’t have the space with people who have a garden they are willing to share. The Seed Exchange is integrated with the other programmes; people and seeds come and go through the various projects.
The sheltered garden at The Stop’s Green Barn at Artscape Wychwood
The Seed Exchange takes place once a month at Artscape Wychwood Barns, a beautifully restored early twentieth-century industrial complex, where some of The Stop’s offices and gardens are based. The seed bank is stored in a shiny new cabinet tucked away in the corner of the public café. Members meet in the café once a month to clean, sort and label donations, to exchange seeds, and to talk about seed saving. They also bring donations or take away seeds from the bank in return for a couple of hours volunteer time. The meetings are friendly and relaxed and lead to an informal exchange of stories, ideas and seed saving advice. Over 100 people have participated in these meetings since they started back in 2010, and a loyal group of volunteers and friends has emerged as the result.
The seed bank: an array of seeds from different cultural traditions
Mik Turje, the Urban Agriculture Coordinator, manages the seed exchange alongside a busy schedule of activities. She recently applied to the Bauta Family Initiative for a small grant (hence the new cabinet) but apart from that continues to run the project without any other funding. She doesn’t have staff or time to increase the project but is happy with how it’s running; it needs minimal management, allows community members to take the lead, and supplies much-needed local seed to community garden across Toronto. It’s a living example of the familiar maxim, ‘stay within your resources’ and a pleasure to see a simple project well executed.
Interview with Mik Turje, Urban Agriculture Coordinator at The STOP Community Food Centre
What were the main motivations for setting up the seed bank?
There was a workshop back in 2010 about seed saving and people were really keen at the workshop and wanted to continue doing this work and so participants asked if we could start a seed saving group and this began as a small group of about 4 or 5 people and it’s grown since then.
How many varieties are in the collection currently?
Is it mainly vegetables?
Vegetables, herbs and flowers. Although I’d say around half would be vegetables if not more.
What proportion of the seeds do you think are locally saved or saved by your members?
Probably around 75% – between our members and our community gardens that have donated to the programme.
What opportunities are there for members to meet each other and engage with each other?
Once a month we meet and sort seeds and chat and connect. We also tend to have at least one seed saving or seed-related workshop per year where people can come together and that brings more people in to the group.
Who are your members? What are they like? Are they old or young?
Our members are almost all people who have come to The Stop as participants on other programmes. Many people who come in to our Urban Agriculture programme began as people who were coming to the food bank or the drop-in meal programmes and the got pulled in to more of our programmes. For the most part, I’d say they are older women who have gardens at home and/or are accessing gardens through our Yes In My Back Yard programme, which is our backyard sharing programme.
How do the seeds in the library connect with the other programmes which you run?
They come from our other programmes and they go back in to our other programmes. Our community gardens, the sheltered garden right here at The Green Barn and the Global Roots Garden all produce seeds. Every spring we take the seeds that we’ve been sorting throughout the winter and we bring them back in to our programmes. In particular the community gardens that access seedlings here, they each leave here with a big packet of seeds from our seed bank.
Do you think the general level of skill amongst your members has improved in the time you’ve been running the programme?
I’d say. We have a few core members who are very knowledgeable about seeds and every single session they’re teaching people, so people definitely learn and leave with more skills. This is one of the few programmes we have where there is leadership in the community so that’s nice.
Do you have many seeds in your collection which are unique or not widely commercially available?
We have one thing called Molokheya, which is an Egyptian green that a co-worker of ours named Mary brought in and we’ve been saving that. I am Hungarian and when I go home to Hungary I try and bring seeds back, varieties of Paprika and what not, and try and save those as well. We also have something called Egyptian Collard Greens, which has appeared in here, which is a type of collard green I’d never seen before. Because of the Global Roots programme, we have a lot of things like bitter melon, hairy gourd, okra – so a lot of things that are less ‘white-people food’ which is really great and this is one place where people can access that.
Do you think the other members are more interested in these unusual seeds?
Well it’s only unusual for some people. For a lot of people they are happy to see something they are used to.
For more info about The Stop and their Urban Agriculture programme: http://thestop.org/programs/fight-hunger/urban-agriculture/