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Online and in person, seed swaps are fostering friendships, supporting eco-resilience, and strengthening cultural connections

Bear Island Chippewa flint corn seeds from Sovereign Seeds.Sovereign Seeds

Karli Feser’s journey down the rabbit hole of seed sharing had an unlikely starting point: Reddit, the social-media site known for its anonymous forums.

“About five or six years ago, I took part in a Reddit seed exchange. Someone mailed me seeds and I mailed seeds to someone else,” Feser explains. The person-to-person gifting scratched a social itch for the introverted gardener, whose first gifts included Sweet William, calendula and Peruvian daffodil bulbs. (“I have it to this day; it’s such a gorgeous flower,” she says of the exotic daffodil.) She began participating in more swaps through her Farmed.And.Foraged Instagram account, part of a growing social-media seed scene.

Karli Feser's Farmed.And.Foraged Instagram account is part of a growing social-media boom in seed saving and sharing.Handout

Seed sharing is the gifting or exchange of seeds, person to person or within a larger group. Some people buy seeds and share the extras, while others distribute ones saved from their own gardens, including heirloom or hard-to-find varieties. The practice – done through swaps, little seed libraries and other non-commercial initiatives – attracts socially minded gardeners eager to grow community roots along with plant life. Proponents say it promotes food security, increases biodiversity and deepens cultural connections. It’s also a budget-friendly form of ecotherapy, soothing frazzled nerves during these pandemic times.

Once the pandemic hit, Feser was eager to find new ways to share seeds and help others within her community. She built a little seed library on her property and launched national and local swaps. In early 2021, she created a Facebook page to promote the multiple seed libraries that were sprouting up in her area.

She saw the potential for her Comox Valley Little Seed Libraries Facebook group (which has more than 300 members), to help lower social barriers. “We may have our circle of family and friends, but there’s also people who don’t have that, whether they’re just arrived in Canada or they’re antisocial like myself. Or they just don’t know how to reach out to groups, or they don’t have the resources. Maybe they don’t know what events or workshops are going on in the community. But if they go on a walk, they can see the seed library and know it’s there for everybody,” she said.

Indigenous seed keeping

For many, seed sharing has taken on even greater importance during the pandemic. A September, 2020, survey by the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, in partnership with Angus Reid, revealed that 17.4 per cent of Canadians started growing fruits and vegetables at home during COVID-19, and 53.9 per cent of new home gardeners were worried about food shortages.

This growing boom led to some seed dealers selling out of inventory.

“COVID-19 has exacerbated pre-existing food insecurities and injustices, and this has really impacted both communities’ access to seeds and the seeds themselves,” says Nicole Davies, executive director of Sovereign Seeds, an Indigenous-led national network dedicated to strengthening Indigenous seed keeping leadership, knowledge and mentorship.

Nicole Davies of Sovereign Seeds.Sovereign Seeds

For Indigenous seed keepers, planting and harvesting seeds is about long-term resource stewardship. Seeds are considered relatives and partners, not commodities. “Seed keeping is truly an act of intergenerational love. Seeds and seed keepers work together to shape our future generations’ seed collection,” says Davies, a Saulteaux-Métis grower based out of Dufferin County, Ont., in Treaty 18 territory and the territory of the Tionontati, Attawandaron, Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe.

“When we make decisions about which seeds to grow for our communities and about what traits we select for, we are often making decisions for descendants, and even for descendants we haven’t met yet,” she says.

“We think about what the growing conditions might be in our territories in the future through climate change, and how to ensure that both the seeds’ descendants and our descendants can survive together through this change.”

Seneca bird egg bean seeds from Sovereign Seeds.Sovereign Seeds

Pandemic border closings, supply chain problems and rising food prices spiked demand for homegrown food. As a result, seed keepers had to divert some much-needed supply to harvesting, rather than saving. This has the potential to put ancestral varieties at risk by reducing numbers, genetic health and climate responsiveness. “The stability of all of our seed varieties has always been a big concern under colonialism,” Davies says. “Now, with COVID-19, we are seeing this food security issue worryingly exacerbated.”

Sovereign Seeds is balancing its emergency response with its stewardship and education strategy. “In many Indigenous community spaces, there has been a surge in community gardens, garden and food processing programs and projects, seed saving initiatives, community-administered food grants, garden starter kits and food distribution activities,” she says. As knowledge and expertise is transferred to a new generation of growers, Sovereign Seeds anticipates the number of seed keepers will grow.

Indigenous seed keeping, Davies says, operates in resistance to land theft and occupation, the suppression of intergenerational knowledge transmission, industrialized food systems and market-based solutions to food access. It’s also a crucial tie to cultural identity: “Seed keepers keep our cultural, reciprocity-based economies of gifting and trading alive.”

Growing community resilience

In Hamilton, another group is also discovering the effect seed sharing can have on community resilience. “Food really is at the centre of everything. We need it to live, we need it to cook, to eat. We even entertain with it. But some households aren’t sure if they can put food on their table,” says Sheila Gutierrez, garden program co-ordinator with Green Venture, an environmental education organization in the city. “When we garden, when we share seeds and the knowledge that comes with it, people connect with their food systems, and they can feed themselves. Gardening is a powerful tool for resilience-building.”

Sheila Gutierrez, Program Coordinator with Green Venture, at the organization's community garden facility in Hamilton, Ontario.Nick Iwanyshyn

Green Venture's seed library.Nick Iwanyshyn

And in these pandemic-weary times, the lessons of growing your own food are especially valuable, she adds. “It teaches you so many skills, like failure and acceptance, planning, time management and leadership. I think that’s a little similar to therapy in the sense that it equips you with tools to cope with everyday stressors. It allows you to rediscover your own resilience and helps promote well-being in so many ways.”

For some devoted seed sharers, the practice has become a cornerstone of their gardening. “There is a beautiful interaction between people walking by or messages I’ve received through social media of neighbours saying how excited they are to have the seed library in their neighbourhood,” Feser says. “I’ve felt super welcomed and that’s a beautiful thing, being someone who doesn’t socialize a lot by choice. It has created a community around me – and it feels really good. I don’t think I would ever not have a Little Seed Library now.”

Visit Seedysaturday.ca for seed sharing events across Canada, and Sovereignseeds.org to learn about and support Indigenous seed keeping efforts.

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