Greenbank Farm: Tiny Seeds Make a Big Impact

Posted in Community, Culinary, Feature, Gardens, More Stories, Second Chance

BY VICKY BROWN
Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
August 5, 2015 (republished from Spring WLM print magazine—May, 2015) 

It’s been ten years since I hung up my heels at the corporate office and traded them for muck boots. I went from Chief Financial Officer to Chief Milkmaid on a little five-acre farm in Freeland. My farm has goats, sheep and a llama. The Little Brown Farm is a working dairy. I make cheeses to sell at farmers markets and to exceptional chefs. The animals, mentors and vets have taught me a lot about goats and animal husbandry. Over the years I’ve learned a lot about cheese, cheesemaking, curds and whey. I’ve also learned a lot about the local hay I feed my dairy girls. With all that information, I still have no idea what it takes to grow food.

This year when I decided to take a year off from goat milking, I realized I might have time for the garden I’ve always envisioned at Little Brown Farm. After working to clear the area and adding some precious goat manure compost to the native soil, I was stumped. It turns out I don’t know beans about seeds, but I did know who would.

The team at Greenbank Farm.

Intrigued by the rumor of a mobile seed harvesting unit for rent, I decided to pay a visit.

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The heirloom purple collard must be left to bloom to produce the seeds that will be harvested for the Seed Saver Exchange. Crops for seed are grown differently than those for produce harvest, including adjustments made for spacing and growth time. (photo by Marsha Morgan)

As I pulled into the parking lot at Greenbank Farm, 60 or so herons were leaving their rookery for the day. As they took flight, the prehistoric looking birds cast impressive shadows over the fields of freshly turned soil, a stark contrast to the sleepy farmland just barely waking for spring. It was farmland that brought the three of us together: Executive Director Judy Feldman, Farm Manager and Lead Instructor Jessica Babcock, and me.

Seeds were the topic of the day. By navigating grants, policies and protocols, Greenbank Farm has managed to create a lending library of sorts. They call it the Organic Seed Project, and what they lend is a seed-harvesting trailer outfitted with equipment worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Lorn Brace-Wessel and Melissa Cipollone, Farm School students, learn that adding compost and adjusting nutrients in the soil is important for a healthy crop.   (photo by Marsha Morgan)

Lorn Brace-Wessel and Melissa Cipollone, Farm School students, learn that adding compost and adjusting nutrients in the soil is important for a healthy crop. (photo by Marsha Morgan)

When I casually mentioned Burpee as one of the giant names I associate with cheap seed packets, Babcock’s eyes lit up “Whatever gets someone growing, whatever their gateway seed is, that is the perfect seed for them at that time.” Babcock’s an advocate for just getting some dirt under your fingernails, confident that a passion and excitement for growing food will awaken in you once you do.

Babcock is growing organic farmers, harvesting organic seeds and running varietal trials of organically grown heirloom varieties at Greenbank Farm. What she values even more than organic practices is simply growing.

“If more people grew something, they’d realize what it takes and how gratifying it is to produce food,” said Feldman. While both agree even first-time gardeners are more likely to be successful with plants acclimated to their area, just getting people to put seeds in the ground seems to be their plan.

The urgency of their plan and the Organic Seed Project became clearer when I learned that over 93 percent of seed varieties available to farmers have gone extinct since 1903. Have you ever wondered why tomatoes don’t taste like they did that summer at grandma’s house? It’s probably because that variety is extinct.

What happens to our food when there is only one variety of cucumber seed left? According to the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation, cucumbers have dropped from 285 strains to just 16. Could the last cucumber die in a bad drought year or from a disease brought in by a visiting hummingbird? The loss of plant varieties isn’t just a loss of flavor, texture and resistant crops; it’s the loss of our food security.

Jessica Babcock uses equipment from the Organic Seed Program to clean Bouquet Dill seeds, grown in the Greenbank Farm field and acclimated to the Pacific Northwest.   (photo by Marsha Morgan)

Jessica Babcock uses equipment from the Organic Seed Program to clean Bouquet Dill seeds, grown in the Greenbank Farm field and acclimated to the Pacific Northwest. (photo by Marsha Morgan)

The simple act of saving seeds gave birth to agriculture. Saving seeds is now a profound act, critical for our food security and the survival of non-industrial farms. The situation is made more dire by global corporations that claim a patent on certain seed varieties—asserting themselves as owners of a life form—and heft their political weight to make seed saving and sharing a criminal offense. Some countries, including Guatemala, Argentina and the United States, have already outlawed the sharing of patented seeds. In these countries, farmers are routinely sued if rogue patented genetics find their way into a farmer’s field and contaminate the farmer’s own non-patented seeds. Not surprisingly, nations that have categorically banned Genetically Modified (GM) crops also don’t criminalize the saving or selling of seeds.

In countries where GM crops are allowed, they now represent up to 80 percent of planted seed. What has become of the strains of adapted or indigenous plants in those areas? They have become extinct. Healthy bio-diversity is gone.

Seedlings get the right start at the Organic Seed Program.   (photo by Marsha Morgan)

Seedlings get the right start at the Organic Seed Program. (photo by Marsha Morgan)

How is Greenbank Farm bucking the trend? The Farm has created this first-of-its-kind resource—the seed harvesting trailer—for lease to farmers at low cost.

Access to the trailer doesn’t just impact the global concern of seed saving, it accomplishes something that is one of the largest challenges facing farmers today—a path to financial sustainability. This resource allows farmers to return to the very basis of agriculture, saving seeds for future crops, fulfilling seed-growing contracts for seed catalogs and distributors, packaging and marketing seeds to the public to grow in our raised beds, p-patches, garden plots or even planters on our kitchen counter.

The Organic Seed Project, while historically traditional, is so groundbreaking in the current agri-business culture that it has already caught the attention of others. The team at 21 Acres Center for Local Food and Sustainable Living in Woodinville has invited Babcock to sit on an advisory board to help them implement a similar project.

Greenbank Farm, a Whidbey landmark since 1904, is making news again—this time with its new Organic Seed Program.   (photo by Marsha Morgan)

Greenbank Farm, a Whidbey landmark since 1904, is making news again—this time with its new Organic Seed Program. (photo by Marsha Morgan)

I have to say I’m proud that this idea came to fruition on our Island—almost as proud as when my Island Market broccoli seeds from Deep Harvest Farm started germinating in my kitchen window.

Babcock was right. Once you experience your “gateway seed,” you’ll be hooked.

Vicky Brown, Chief Milkmaid at the Little Brown Farm, puts her passions on the page writing about food, agriculture and the tender web of community.  

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