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An Interview with Sarah Kleeger, Andrew Still, and Nick Routledge

By Dan Armstrong

The Seed Ambassadors Project is a really remarkable and important grass roots effort found on the premise of seed independence. It is based in Oregon and is an independent, not-for-profit seed stewardship initiative. The project began during the winter of 2006-2007 when Nick Routledge, Andrew Still and Sarah Kleeger orchestrated an ethno-botanical exploration of nine Northern European countries to collect and distribute seed, information, and friendship. Andrew and Sarah went on a similar journey to Transylvania in 2008 and Thailand in 2009. Now Andrew and Sarah are back in Oregon, settling into the new home at Open Oak Farm just south of Crawfordsville with the intention of growing out the seeds they have collected as part of their two year-old seed company Adaptive Seeds.

Mud City Press went out to Open Oak Farm in August of 2010 to talk with Sarah, Andrew, and Nick about the Seed Ambassadors Project. Below is the wonderfully informative and intelligent conversation that took place that day. (Note: This transcript contains links to three short video clips from the interview.)

Seed Ambassadors Embelm
Seed Ambassadors Emblem

Mud City Press: We're here today at Open Oak Farm with Sarah Kleeger, Andrew Still, and Nick Routledge, the three founding members of the Seed Ambassadors' Project. Andrew, could you give us a little background on the Seed Ambassadors and what their mission is? (See this portion of interview as video.)

Andrew Still: The Seed Ambassadors Project is ... how would you say it? ... a bunch of geeks who love seeds and decided to form a little grassroots group to collect seeds and do some seed saving. We were all seed savers to begin with, and Sarah and I were ending a stint at a job and had decided that we wanted to travel. Sarah wanted to go somewhere warm. I thought maybe we should go find some seeds, but the seeds that would grow well here are only in Europe or other northern climates. Nick said, "Denmark. You have to get spinach and kale in Denmark and Germany." (In the winter when it's nice and warm, says Cooper Boydston, sitting nearby.) Then he said, "You can go to St. Petersburg, Russia too! Where there's only three hours of daylight in the winter. So despite Sarah's desire for warm weather, we decided to do as Nick suggested. He planned a whole bunch of visits and found lots of contacts. So we met loads people in Europe, and they found more contacts and we ended up staying there almost four months–just traveling around meeting every seed steward and seed geek we could find–collecting seeds and giving seeds away. We'd show up and plop down a bunch of seeds and say, "We brought a bunch of seeds from Oregon that probably would grow well here that you haven't seen before." They would check'em out and take a few and then run home and come back with their seeds–and it's just really kind of a gifting extravaganza of information and seed and meeting really cool folks. So that's how the Seed Ambassador Project began. It turned out to be kind of a burden in the end, because we had thousands of varieties of seeds that we had to evaluate and grow. We've just started to get to the point where we've grown most of them out, and now the burden is deciding who doesn't get to live on, who's not very suited for our area. So it's a strange project, but hopefully it will have a profound effect on biodiversity of this region.

Sarah Kleeger: Actually, it's been a party, not a burden. That first trip was just four months in the winter of 2006-2007, but we've taken other trips pretty much every year since then. We've gone to Romania and Thailand, and this year we'll be going to Italy.

Nick Routledge: For me, I think it was many things, but it was definitely an act of liberation. The Seed Ambassadors and Open Oak Farm and many other people who are working along similar lines are fundamentally concerned with following a path through the world that's ecologically coherent. It's one of the reasons all the seeds that we steward are open-pollinated, as opposed to hybrid. Open-pollinated seeds are seeds that are non-proprietary–and that have the capacity to co-evolve with the landscape–and that have the ability, in a sense, to become integrated with local culture; whereas hybrids don't. What we find is that open-pollinated food crops are being stewarded by a very small and narrow constituency globally. And for the most part, the vast majority of seed crops and food crops in our midst today are hybrid. They're owned by very large transnational corporations. The Seed Ambassadors Project is an attempt to link public domain seed stewards on this side of the Atlantic with public domain seed stewards on the other side of the Atlantic. It's essentially an independence movement for lovers of peace and lovers of truth, who basically surf that interface between red blooded culture and green blooded culture.

MCP: Red blooded and green blooded?

NR: Yes. One of the reasons hybrids are problematic is not so much that they force you to go back to the seed company to buy seed every year, rather the problem is that when you create a hybrid food crop, you are creating an organism that genetically "self destructs" at the end of the growing season. So the holding pattern dissolves, and that prevents you from carrying that seed forward year after year after year. With this dissolution, hybrids break the foundational co-evolutionary dynamic that has resided at the heart of human culture for thousands of years. That is, you prevent people from stewarding food crops, and also by extension through time, the landscapes those food crops fit into, and the red-blooded human cultures animated and shaped by those utterly foundational stewardshi;p activities. Open-pollinated food crops allow that dialogue to exist and continue, and for it to happen the only place it really can happen–in the locale. So, when we replace hybrids with open-pollinated crops, we give people the ability to steward culture at large once again. We've essentially been torn from that ability with the use of hybrid food crops, and it just so happens–wouldn't you be surprised–that it's the independence movement–basically that crowd–who are placing open-pollinated food crops at the heart of what you might call the regenerative design movement–and, from my perspective, that's essentially what the Seed Ambassadors Project was about, linking up the independence movements on both sides of the Atlantic. You can talk all you want about the worldwide web, but there comes a point where you actually have to embody the values and the virtues that we perceive really sustain human culture and make it worth living and worth doing. And seed is one of the most potent archetypes that we can share and work with to make that happen.

Thrashing Wheat Stone Ground Flour

MCP: So the name, Seed Ambassadors, suggests this worldwide sharing and exchange. A kind of embodiment of the gift economy as opposed to ownership of the seeds and controlling the seeds. It really is quite beautiful. So what's the future of the Seed Ambassadors? Is that Adaptive Seeds?

SK: With the creation of Adaptive Seeds and our work at Open Oak farm, the Seed Ambassadors Project has taken somewhat of a back burner. We still actively give workshops on seed saving and seed stewardship. Andrew and Nick do a winter gardening workshop that is part of the Seed Ambassadors Project. We host seed swaps. And we've published a little seed saving 'zine that's distributed through Adaptive Seeds and that we bring to our events. So I imagine we'll continue taking trips and continuing the dialogue both internationally and nationally to promote seed saving.

NR: You're going to Italy.

SK: Right, we're going to Italy. We were selected to be delegates to the Slow Food's Terra Madre Conference this year, and we're going to be there for two weeks. So we're hoping to be able to seed ambassadorize a little while we're there.

MCP: Is the Propagation Fair at Lane Community College part of the Seed Ambassadors Project or is that separate?

NR: The Spring Propagation Fair. Yes, the Seed Ambassadors are an integral part of that. The fair now involves native plants, tree crops, and vegetable crops, and the Seed Ambassadors Project is very largely responsible for stewarding the vegetable crop side of things.

MCP: Many of us are concerned about the future of the planet, even the future of the human race. Do those concerns fit in with what you're dong?

NR: Yes, we definitely do see this work in those terms. (Laughter, everyone.)

MCP: The Willamette Valley stretches just about 100 miles from Portland to a little bit south of Eugene. This is more or less our bioregion. As Adaptive Seeds and the Seed Ambassadors, can you imagine an ideal future for this valley? That is, how it would look if farmed and stewarded perfectly? And what do you imagine to be your part in the shaping of that future? (See this portion of interview as video.)

AS: I asked myself that question even before we decided to start farming our own land. Pretty much what we're trying to do is what I think needs to happen everywhere if we're going to have resilient, stable, food systems throughout the world. We're going to need to convert all of our good farmland to ecological food production and mostly for regional retail sales. But at the same time, I think most of that resilience is going to be based on smaller–you might say homestead-sized farms–like about a hundred acres or less–where you can have a little better attention to detail and a little bit better relationship with the land. That makes it possible to have more success and also be more sustainable. But we come at this whole thing from the perspective of seeds, so we're trying to build it from the bottom up–like finding good seeds that we can steward here and that will contribute to a sense of food sovereignty. That's what I think needs to happen. One of the things people often ask me is if we do plant breeding–if we're plant breeders or what not. In a small sense, being seed stewards, whenever you're selecting plants or choosing a variety or saving seeds and kind of guiding them in a direction one way or another–that, in a sense, is being a plant breeder.

I really think it's necessary to develop and find crops that thrive under low input conditions and that are suitable for ecological systems, because all of the commercial varieties, especially the hybrids that have been developed in the past fifty years, have been developed for high input–that is, lots and lots of nitrogen, whether it be chemical or chicken manure, and lots and lots of herbicides. These hybrids have high yields, and they all mature on the same day, and they're very uniform in shape and color, but most of the traits that we need in order to achieve a resilient food system are no longer available in most modern varieties. So we want to take some of the modern traits and fit them to what we can actually do here in this valley. Say we want Brussel sprouts that make big giant Brussel sprouts, but we also want them to be a really good variety that grows well here, that is frost hardy, and that doesn't need to have an excess of nitrogen and water in the soil to produce something good. So I think, no matter what happens, our world is going to have either a shortage of inputs or the cost of the inputs, be it chemicals or compost or chicken manure–or gasoline to move all these amendments around, is going to go really high fairly soon–perhaps within the next fifty years. So we need to have varieties that grow under low input conditions and love it here.

Starts Pea Pod Jewelery

MCP: So is that philosophy also the Open Oak philosophy, minimum inputs?

AS: We're trying to make sure everything grows well–which is a little bit challenging right now. But we're certainly not going to over fertilize just to create an extremely high yield. And we're trying to water as little as possible, but still water enough to make things survive. So we're really trying to find the stuff that thrives under moderate conditions.

MCP: Nick, you have an operation going on at the Food for Lane County farm where you're living that is generating starts and, essentially, giving them away as widely as possible. Do you consider that part of the Seed Ambassadors Project? (See this portion of interview as video.)

NR: Oh, yes. It's all a part of the same ethic. One of the things that we were talking about earlier is that so many of our plant breeding techniques are driven by economic concerns. Hybrids present certain economic advantages to industrial food growers. For example, it's very easy to roll a particular disease resistance into a line when you're breeding with hybrids. And you can get your crops all maturing on the same date. And all the same size. And if you're basically in the business of moving vast numbers of migrant laborers into a 20-acre field to harvest cabbages on a single day, having a hybrid variety of cabbage works very well. But as we move towards a more ecologically coherent approach to raising food crops, what we find is we step away from that necessity–from those economic rationales. And as we move away from economic prioritization towards a more ecologically coherent approach, we find that the shape of our stewardship shifts very significantly. One of the things that makes the nursery where I work interesting and unusual is that fundamentally it's a nonprofit endeavor. And because it's a nonprofit endeavor, it allows me to take an approach that has great ecological integrity. We focus on putting out open-pollinated food crops that are as locally adapted as possible in as timely a manner as we can. And interestingly, those three qualities can be very difficult to match up when economics enters the picture. The nature of what we're doing allows us to be somewhat avant-garde and cutting edge. For example, I've recently been wandering around saying, "Rutabagas are the next big thing." But if you want to grow rutabagas in the States, you will basically find the same two and a half varieties in every catalogue you go to. That's about it. So one of the things the Seed Ambassadors were able to do is bring varieties of rutabagas back from northern Europe that out perform anything we have domestically–and also withstand the crushingly cold weather of last December. So some of the things that we're able to do at the nursery I manage is to steward the encouragement and acceptance of food crops that intuition and experience suggest to us are going to emerge as mainstay food crops in forthcoming years and to seed more appropriate varieties. For example, we put out an astounding diversity of kale varieties. Many of these kale varieties aren't available anywhere else, and many of these varieties are what we call grexes or "evolving mixes" of material no seed company's going to sell you because they're just a little too fluid–but also very dynamic. Basically, they're still evolving. And what we found last winter in that really hard, cold December stretch, that crushed most winter gardens in this bioregion, was that the varieties we brought back from Europe simply breezed through that stuff. They barely blinked. So, it's another classic example of what we do. We go to the foremost independent plant stewards in Europe, and we find their finest varieties, and we bring them back to the States. Then we introduce them to each other in a way that nature has not yet managed to do, or no other culture in the world has yet managed to do, and we have an entirely novel phenomenon on our hands. That is, it's a sort of quintessential American experience. We enter into a new ecological territory with a new ecological approach, an approach to stewardship that's not driven by the demands of the market but by common sense.

AS: I'd like to say that it's really fun and beautiful and absolutely inspiring to grow something and see a cross and the F3 of what it creates and how it just adapts and does its thing. It's a really potent relationship with plants and a garden that only seed saving and this kind of ecological gardening can achieve. It's an intimate, immediate experience–as opposed to just going in and buying some hybrid at the RiteAid and planting it in your garden and eating it and being like, "Eh, that kale's okay, maybe I'll grow it next year." It's a completely different experience. And at the same time, it's beyond just being really fun and beautiful. It's necessary. For instance, we've said, "We can't grow grains and beans in the current economic model because everyone's complaining and freaking out that wheat prices are going through the roof." But no one tells you that wheat's just $8 for 60 pounds. That's a pathetically low price for something that takes that much work to produce. And it's almost like we're starting to see what the real price of things should be. So we've decided we're going to grow a really rare variety and a really good heirloom, and maybe select a little bit, maybe cross it up, and plant it out and figure out how it makes this very special kind of bread–and pretty much create a new workhorse heirloom for Oregon. Maybe then we sell it for $4 a pound. And the people that value it will buy it. I've lived under the poverty line for ten years, and I would buy it in a heartbeat. It's not about trying to find the cheapest food anymore, because that's a corrupt model. Even if you're fairly poor, good food is an absolute necessity in daily life. So in a way, we're creating new economic models, and we're creating a new market. We're leaving behind a corrupt model, that's not very functional and is reductionist, for more of a holistic one.

MCP: Nick, what's your relationship with food? Why are you doing this, really?

NR: It's difficult to describe an experience that basically carries us into the wordless. But certainly in my instance, what I'm finding is that every step I take towards a more coherent relationship with my food brings me that much closer to a coherent relationship with what is real in my world and in my life. Real in terms of my relationship with the world outside me and real in terms of my relationship with my interiority. And surely I'm not the only person who experiences this adventure into beauty and truth around food. It's where we find our health, our sanity, our compassion, our feeling, our sense of awe, sacredness, beauty, terror, magnificence, all integrated. And so that's one of the reasons I do this and, of course, it carries me among the most treasured community of plants and people I could ever wish for.

MCP: That's a knock-out answer for sure, Nick. And a nice note to conclude this discussion. Thank you Nick, Sarah, and Andrew. It's been uplifting to say the least.

Return to Visit to Open Oak Farm.

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