Establishing Local Seed Sources

Gardeners and Farmers alike will have their favorite seed catalogues they order from each year. But often those seeds are coming from far away and from plants that have grown up in alongside different pests and environments than here in northwest Montana. A seed school coming to Missoula next week will look take farmers through the process of cultivating their own seeds.

The goal is to not only offer farmers an opportunity to better their business, but to provide a more sustainable agricultural model.

The Lake County Community Development organization is in Ronan, south of Flathead Lake and surrounded by the farm and grazing fields of the Mission Valley. The Organization has a business development division, community projects, and the Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center.            Karl Sutton heads this last division. He says through it they’ve set up a cooperative business development center which had a hand in starting the Western Montana Growers Co-op, are working on the Montana Poultry Growers Co-op, and the initial stages for the North Missoula Food Co-op, and now they’re working with a group to form a seed co-op.

“Our focus at our center, our organization here is to bring value to the agricultural products on the farms. And we do that a number of ways. One of them, as I said, with cooperative business development where these small farmers can bring their products together, aggregate them, like the Western Montana Growers Co-op, and then sell them to local markets,” Sutton said.

They also have a food processing facility.

The center partnered with Native Seed SEARCH out of Tuscon, Arizona.

Sutton says farming members of the organization were looking to better save the seeds from their own crops.

“Typically, years ago farmers would save their seed, and so that was, that skill was passed down from generation to generation, and they’ve seen that there’s a gap today, in part, because we have a lot less small, diversified farmers than we used to, and with the seed industry as it is, they- farmer’s typically buy their seed rather than save it,” Sutton said they see the seed production as another way to add value to local products and act as an economic driver, “the seed production is one aspect of this entire value train that we see as being able to retain Montana dollars in Montana.”

Native Seed SEARCH is coming to northwest Montana to host a seed school next week. For Executive Director Bill McDorman, it’s a homecoming of sorts, “because that’s where I got started on this whole adventure. I thought it would take three or four years to scurry around western Montana that were left, you know, the varieties that were disappearing from this industrial storm, as we call it here, and then I would go about my life, which, my original plan was to go to law school in Missoula.”

30 years later McDorman’s still collecting seeds and storing them. He describes Native Seed SEARCH as a non-profit, conservation organization. McDorman says beginning in the late 19-70’s efforts to find and preserve native and local seeds sprang up.

“The strength of any ecosystem is its diversity, and that’s especially true for our agricultural ecosystem,” McDorman said there are seed banks or gene banks in different parts of the world “and they’re repositories of genetic material in case industrial agriculture has problems with pests, and it always does, they can go back in and find some diversity, look through the diversity and find something that is resistant, bring it out and breed it back into our modern variety so that we can go on with our agriculture,” McDorman said Native Seed SEARCH in Arizona operates a little differently, “what we’re really interested in doing is recreating and regenerating a sustainable, regional agriculture.” McDorman said this seed school in Missoula is part of an effort to help people develop regional seed stores.

“There’s so much excitement, not only in western Montana, and in Missoula in particular, and around the United States for a new urban agriculture and a new regional agriculture, and especially a sustainable agriculture. But, what we point out, and what we’ll teach is that it won’t be sustainable unless each region has its own seed source,” McDorman said.

As part of the effort they will be starting up a new seed library in Missoula for people to bring seeds they’ve cultivated, and borrow seeds others have cultivated.

The University of Montana’s Environmental Studies Program also partnered with the Lake County Community Development organization to bring in the Seed School.

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