For Seed Week, our Northern England Coordinator, Catherine Howell, has gathered stories from some of the wonderful people she is lucky enough to share the region with. Scroll away, or skip to a chapter that catches your eye:
The Seeds of Hope Seed Library was launched in January 2021 and had a wonderful response from folk in and around Bradford, with 60 people becoming members.
The learning curve has been steep, but supported by experienced seed libraries in Dumfries and Galway, and these organisations are all working together to make seed available through northern (book) library systems. The team have also been learning from the pioneering London Freedom Seed Bank about their use of Airtable.
Needing to pass the seeds and infrastructure of the library on as she moves away from the region, Charlie met fellow seed stewards, Maryam and Silvie, to discuss others getting more involved in all aspects of saving seed and running the infrastructure, logging the seeds coming in and out of the library and communicating with members.
‘It’s been lovely how many people have chosen the pay it forward membership option, meaning they buy membership for themselves and one other. We also appreciate members patience as we find what we hope will be a more permanent home for the seeds and the library and improved admin systems’, said Charlie.
They have now made connections with the local library in Bradford, who are happy to host the seeds there and look at how it might integrate with the City of Bradford’s metropolitan district library service. The more we can connect and offer multiple services together, the more we strengthen local connections and that’s what Seeds of Hope is all about. To find out more or to offer support, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org
Daphne is based on the southwest tip of our Seed Sovereignty Programme’s northern region, in rural Shropshire. After completing a PhD in food policy, she’s built a thriving and beautiful smallholding, Little Woodbatch, and is drawing on the strengths and skills within her community to make significant steps in achieving food sovereignty in the county. Daphne is pictured with colleague Esther Copper-Wood, in our We Feed The UK photo booth at the Oxford Real Farming Conference.
Little Woodbatch produces high quality, open pollinated seed as part of its vegetable production, and this forms the basis of the stock distributed through the Bishop’s Castle Community Seed Bank. Launched during the pandemic period of 2020, when the fragility of our seed supplies was a real wake-up call to growers across the country, the seed bank is an integral part of Bishop’s Castle Community Food Resilience Plan. Volunteer run, distribution currently takes place at the monthly farmers’ market and the seed bank collaborates with the food bank and library to distribute seeds, providing easy access for all members of the community to grow their own food.
Daphne and the seed bank volunteers have plans to scale up in 2023, increasing their reach across the region with the Rural Seed Bank Network project, as part of the broader remit of the Shropshire Good Food Partnership. The aims of the Shropshire Rural Seed Bank Network are:
The project will:
Emma Cardwell is a lecturer in economic geography in Lancaster Environment Centre, with a specialism in politics and justice in food production. Together with Warren Draper, they are both members of the Bentley Urban Farm Collective, a grassroots organisation in Doncaster that focusses on both local food sovereignty and international solidarity. They reflects on what the UK can learn from Mexican seed saving culture…
Common land, seed sovereignty and community in Mexico
Chiapas, in Southern Mexico, was made famous by the Zapatista revolution: a political movement closely tied to agriculture and food sovereignty. The 1994 revolution was a radical local response to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — and more specifically, its impact on agriculture, food and land in Mexico, where over 50% of land is in common ownership; held and managed collectively by communities. NAFTA threatened this way of life. As part of the agreement, the US government stipulated that the Mexican government had to remove the rules protecting common property.
Mexico also has a very high level of agricultural diversity, especially for culturally significant crops like maize. Free trade with North America threatened local economies by flooding Mexican markets with US grown, heavily subsidised monocrops. This threat to localised agroecological systems was so important that the Zapatistas labelled themselves ‘the men, children and women of maize’. Zapatista territories in Chiapas have increased in area since 1994, and both Zapatistas and other Chiapas peasants are big proponents of seed saving and sharing: it’s estimated that around 90-95% of seeds planted in the region originate within the communities, with very few people buying industrial seed. Whereas in the US 93% of local seed varieties being sold in 1903 were effectively extinct by 1983. The not so Green Revolution tied agribusiness to the petrochemical industry, with a small number of large corporations dominating the global food chain. But, as Vandana Shiva points out, these tend to be involved with the supply of a small number of commodity crops, with a large amount of essential micro-nutrients being grown by peasant farmers.
For the people of Chiapas, seed, land, culture, and community are very closely related. As one Mayan farmer from the Chiapas highlands put to local sociologist Carol Hernández Rodríguez, “This union between human and seed is sacred; it is something that must be respected, a right to life, a principle of our own existence in freedom. That is why it is unacceptable that corporations seek to appropriate the seeds of the world.”
From Chiapas to Doncaster
Here at Bentley Urban Farm, a community agroecology project in the North of Doncaster, South Yorkshire, we believe that the relationships between seed, land, culture, and community are just as important in Northern England as in Southern Mexico—and that we have a lot to learn from the communities of Chiapas. In 2021, we were involved with other collectives and communities from around the UK in organizing a visit from representatives of the Zapatistas to Wales, Scotland, Ireland and England. Peasant activists from Chiapas met with local land workers, unions and social movements to compare politics, agriculture and activism in Mexico and the UK.
Learning about land rights and food sovereignty in Chiapas encouraged us to think about land access, food and community resources where we live. This forced us to question many things that we previously took for granted.Why and how is access to land so limited in the UK?
Bentley Urban Farm is on an acre of land at the edge of an ex-mining village, surrounded by intensively farmed agricultural land (though known more for mining and industry, Doncaster is 60% agricultural). The site used to be a council nursery and horticultural training centre, and before that a petting farm. Both were a hangover from a time when local authorities invested heavily in farming and market gardens, something we can only dream of today. But if we go back even further than that, Ordnance Survey Maps show us that the farm, which is open to all and aims to support biodiversity and community access to healthy food and outdoor space, sits on the corner of what was, until the 19th century, a huge area of common land called Bentley Commons. These commons were there for community use, just like the (much smaller) urban farm, and just like the community land that is widespread in Mexico. Why did we lose these common rights, and what does this loss mean for communities, biodiversity, and food sovereignty?
Historic maps show a surprising amount of common land in North Doncaster (and throughout the UK) was still accessible to the public less than two hundred years ago: our own attempt to create a community agricultural resource seems tiny in comparison. Knowing all the good that access to land, community and real food can bring, it’s not hard to imagine what a hugely beneficial resource these commons would provide to communities all over the UK. Access to the commons seems almost anachronistic in 21st century Britain, like something from another time, but the case of Mexico — where most land is still held in common — shows that it doesn’t have to be this way.
What might seed sovereignty look like in a place where people have meaningful access to land commons, as well as the commons of home-grown seeds? Chiapas — where seed saving is so strong — presents a clue to the possibilities of widespread land access in the UK for seed-saving. And for those of us interested in food sovereignty, we think it’s important to situate questions about crops in the wider aspects of community, culture and access to land. It is one thing to have seeds and dreams, it is another thing to have somewhere — and somebody — to plant them.
Perhaps more than any other region, the north has the highest proportion of urban food growers. Whilst many have access to gardens, allotments and community growing spaces, our small scale yard and container gardeners have a valuable contribution to make, not just in providing the green backdrop to our most densely populated areas, but also in terms of food production itself, with perhaps the shortest supply chain of all – sometimes a matter of a few metres!
Mark Ridsdill-Smith, aka the Vertical Veg Gardener, is based in Newcastle and champions the potential of urban food growers, something he explains here. He is the author of ‘The Vertical Veg Guide to Container Gardening’
Can you tell us a little more about what you do and how you found yourself in the heart of one of our beautiful northern cities?!
I started growing food on my balcony when I lived in London – it was my only option as I wanted an allotment but could get one! After discovering that I could actually grow quite a lot of food on the balcony – and enjoy all the other benefits of gardening – I started Vertical Veg to spread the word and support other people in cities who don’t have gardens to grow food in containers. When my wife got a job at Newcastle University ten years ago, I switched from balcony to backyard growing – and now I grow in the concrete front yard of a typical 1930s house.
You’re a passionate advocate and spokesperson for container growing. What is it about this that really excites you?
It’s the ability to garden almost anywhere – and transform lifeless, sometimes ugly, concrete spaces into lush, green spaces that add beauty, support wildlife, give joy AND provide delicious and nutritious fresh food to eat. I also love how it offers opportunities, even in a flat, to recycle our food in a wormery and connect with others in our local community. Seed saving is possibly not always people’s focus for container growing, but it it’s absolutely a possibility.
What do you think are the benefits for seed saving for container gardeners?
For those of us living in the middle of the city, perhaps the most significant benefit is the opportunity to reconnect with the full seed to seed cycle, practised by our ancestors for thousands of years. Additionally, of course, it’s rewarding, it saves money, and it’s lovely to have a supply of seeds to swap with others – particularly if you can get hold of interesting or unusual varieties. This is in turn provides the opportunity to meet and exchange seeds (and advice) with others in the same area.
What kind of adaptations need to be made for saving seed from small spaces?
In terms of adaptations, probably the main thing is focussing mostly on the self pollinating crops, like tomatoes and peas, that don’t require large populations to save healthy seed. Of course, when our rocket and orache plants go to seed, we can still save these, too – but more for our own use than to share as a named variety with others. I save a lot of orache and nasturtium seeds to grow as microgreens – as the seeds are expensive to buy.
How easy is it actually?!
As long as you focus on the easy crops – like chillies, tomatoes, peas, lettuce and French beans – and know a few basic rules, like only saving from healthy plants, it’s easy and straight forward to at least start saving some seeds. There is, of course, always more to learn.
And your own Desert Island seed?!
Almost any food is improved with chilli in my view – so I’d take some Alberto locato chilli seeds, my favourite chilli variety!
The Seed Sovereignty Programme’s Northern Network gathered last autumn for a Beanfeast – a celebration of growing, sharing and eating pulses. The day included workshops and talks, films and swaps, and was ‘documented’ with the help of Nell Catchpole – musician, sound artist and broad bean enthusiast! Listen below (it’s best with headphones!), then read about how the sound art was created.
Tricky first question! Nell, can you explain what’s meant by a ‘sound artist?’
I work with sound as a medium of expression – a bit like a sculptor works with clay. But I also invite people to listen attentively – differently to the everyday. There are lots of more complicated answers I could give!
Much of your work is centred around specific places and spaces, the outdoors, nature… What draws you to these environments?
I first began exploring sound-making in my childhood landscape of East Suffolk. As I developed this artistic practice, I was drawn by my deep connection with nature, the materials and living organisms in the environment. Working collaboratively in and with a place brings me closer to it: I feel I’m honouring the space and the beings in it as well. The sound-making process is also a way of enquiring into my relationship with the environment and the more-than-human world. It has a feel of ritual.
We know you’re a grower, and a fellow seed saver: What inspired you to accept the Beanfeast commission?
I was intrigued: I’d never been to a gathering like this before. My understanding about saving seeds is very limited, but I was certain that I would feel a sense of affinity with people who grow and share seeds. I was curious to see how people’s knowledge of growing and their seeds could be communicated through sound.
How did you collect material for the Beanfeast piece? What did this involve?
I have a responsive way of working, depending on the context. I brought a couple of sound recorders, leaving one in place whilst moving around with another, but I have to be selective about which recordings I make or I’d have hours of material to edit! Using careful listening and interviews, I tried to focus on what had brought each person to growing. There were key themes which seemed to resonate. Each person was invited to make sounds with their beans. You can learn a lot from the way people touch and handle and move seeds – their knowledge and their sense of care. We also did one group bean-shaking which was really fun!
The northern seed savers are a pretty mixed bunch. You mentioned key themes…?
I’m a novice so I really enjoyed hearing people’s growing challenges – especially in relation to our different northern microclimates. There was interesting dialogue about the life of seeds and how they’ve travelled across continents over time. And people spoke about the ‘old ways’ and the really ‘old ways’: How some of the traditional vegetable growing we may have encountered as we grew up has its drawbacks and some of the older knowledges are being rediscovered and brought back into practice.
Have to ask this: favourite sound on the day?!
I hope listeners will really enjoy the different sounds of people moving and shaking their seeds. I think it’s beautiful. But it was the hubbub of different accents and ages, of stories being told whilst seeds were being swapped, that I thought was special.
What’s the role of artists such as yourself, and your work, in the seed sovereignty movement and the wider ambitions of more earth-centred living?
This is very close to my heart and on my mind. The Arts can communicate things that can’t be expressed in other ways – a vital ingredient in moving towards more careful and sustainable ways of living. As artists, we can create a space or experience by which people can process their feelings, empathise with and be curious about their relationship with the Earth. But I also aim to be useful and practical: I can demystify the tools of my trade – such as my recording equipment – so they can be used by others in whatever way they might find helps. Artists need to be ready to respond to what is needed in that more practical way, taking the role of a facilitator, supporting others to develop their own ideas. Since I work a lot with sound recording, there are so many possible uses of the equipment to document and tell stories in all kinds of ways.
I think as a sound artist the idea of amplifying the sounds and voices that wouldn’t otherwise get heard is a useful and powerful contribution. Maybe most importantly, singing and music-making us a way of togetherness and celebration is something we all need more of, and again, we could look to those societies where food production and community are more intertwined. Maybe we need a big sing-along at the next Beanfeast: I like the idea of inventing new traditions!
Dionysios (Dennis) arrived in the UK from Greece 15 years ago. He is the main grower and FarmStart trainer at The Plot, an organic market garden south of Lancaster which trains new entrants to commercial organic horticulture, a member of The Lancaster Seed Library and a researcher at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University.
You can catch him speaking about diaspora seeds at our Seed Gathering on Sunday 12thFebruary, and below he shares more about flying the flag for seeds sovereignty.
Based in Lancaster – can you explain how you found your way to the north west?!
I arrived in the UK as an economic migrant from Greece around 15 years ago, aiming to get more hands-on experience in different types of farming. This interest was sparked by my degree in organic agriculture and learning from my grandparents in Greece who were essentially small holder subsistence farmers. I spent time mussel farming in the West Highlands of Scotland, working in horticulture around Edinburgh, lived and worked on a biodynamic dairy farm in the North Yorkshire moors to name a few. But as every farmer is also a researcher, after a few years of working on farms I felt like I had more questions than answers and wanted to develop a deeper understanding of food growing, particularly of plants and horticulture. I already had a BSc in Organic Agriculture from Greece and to widen my knowledge I embarked into a fully-funded PhD in plant biology at Lancaster University – which initially brought me to the North West. I have pretty much stayed in the area since then.
Your life is pretty much focused around food growing, seeds and sharing. What kind of things are you getting up to?
My main passion now is The Plot, our organic market garden in Lancaster, that hosts North Lancashire’s FarmStart scheme and is part of a wider local food movement facilitated by FoodFutures. I am fascinated by the challenge of making a small organic market garden financially viable and resilient, and doing this within a wider food system that is dictated to fast-paced economies of scale and corporate interests. I also love the training element of FarmStart and seeing farmstarters on The Plot develop into commercial organic growers with a deep understanding of Agroecology as a movement.
This practical doing is really complemented by the research I do at Coventry University. I am currently working on a collaborative project with the Soil Association that is exploring key approaches of agencies that have successfully improved the health and sustainability of diets in communities.
I am also very intrigued to explore how to make on-farm seed saving work within a certified organic, commercial context as I currently rely on buying commercial organic seed and some organic F1 hybrids for specific crops. I have developed this interest and my seed saving skills through doing – being an active member of Lancaster Seed Library and by attending networking and training events hosted by the wider seed sovereignty movement.
Lancaster Seed Library is just one of your great initiatives. What inspired you to set up the project?
The Lancaster Seed Library was set up by the collaborative efforts of several amazing doers in Lancaster. It came out of Transition City Lancaster and it was inspired by a need – the local seed saving group had gone dormant and there was no one in the area running training or skill shares around seed saving. There were also no local producers of organically grown seed. And so an initial group set it up to fill this gap with the support of funding from Heritage Lottery Fund.
When I started to get involved, the emphasis of the project shifted more to using the seed library to start a conversation and get local growers excited and interested in saving seed. Now we continue to do this, but we are also interested in developing our seed saving skills further.
How does it operate?
Lancaster Seed Library seeks to be very low maintenance and is run by a small group of committed members. The project is made up of three key elements:
Where do your seeds come from? Do you have criteria for being included?
Our approach is pretty organic! They come with the people involved with the seed library and their interests. We also select a range of seeds to grow each year that support us in learning about and practicing a range of seed saving techniques. These are often bought initially from Real Seeds and then we use the seeds we have previous saved. We have also grown some varieties that we got from other seed swaps e.g. from a seed swap in Leeds.
Setting up a seed library is not without its challenges! What have you found has been difficult?
There is a permaculture saying that goes something like this: “We are all great in building composts toilets, but we still haven’t learned to listen to each other”.
We have never had issues with funding, lack of seed saving skills, lack of growing space or interest in taking seeds to grow. But people challenges have been the main challenge so far – from finding people committed for the whole growing season to support healthy plants and initially returning seeds not being of a high enough quality to swap, through to the forming of the initial group and being clear on the purpose of the project. We still work with these and have learnt to be patient in building a local seed saving movement. We have also learnt a range of tools and practices over the years to enable us to embrace them and cultivate an environment where people thrive e.g. dragon dreaming, sociocracy…
And the best bits?!
The best part is when we meet friends from around the country, and beyond and they show us – with a smiling face – a handful of seeds that they grew and saved from Lancaster Seed Library seeds. We have also come to love the winter seed cleaning and sorting session. We always hold this in our home, with shared food, and it’s a great way to catch up with people whilst admiring the beauty of the seeds that have been grown.
What are your plans for the future (library or otherwise?)
To keep doing what we are already doing but get more people involved! We are also in the process of setting up a polytunnel for growing and saving seed at Claver Hill community food growing project-to increase the amount we can grow, share and swap each year.And finally, we are part of a wonderful ‘Northern Seed Savers Network’ that is currently discussing setting up a local seed producing hub of some sort in the north of England. This is very exciting and after 8 years of running the seed library as a community group it feels like a great next step.
And, final question – Desert Island seed?!
A handful of big ‘Black Emperor’ runner beans!