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Hand-painted signs hang throughout The Outback farm. // Photo by Claire Ott

By Cierra Coppock

The AS Outback Farm maintains an entirely organic system of agriculture. This process starts with the seeds. 

Where The Outback acquires its seeds used to grow its variety of crops is not a detail most consider. By participating in sustainable seed practices, The Outback workers are creating a community built around sovereignty and agency for farmers.

John Tuxill, an ethnobotany professor at Western, said most large-scale industrial farms buy seeds that have been genetically modified to produce desirable traits, often hybrids of two plants that have beneficial traits to the farmer. 

While this might sound advantageous, it poses a problem, Tuxill said. The seeds produced by the hybrid plants are infertile, which prevents farmers from gathering seeds for the following year and forcing them to return to the seed provider. 

To combat this problem, The Outback uses open-pollinated seeds that have the ability to reproduce and be replanted the following year. Terri Kempton, manager of The Outback, said this act empowers farmers and allows them to be entirely independent from companies who provide seeds. 

Kempton is implementing an intentional seed saving project. The project lets plants grow past their prime harvesting phase, so farmers can gather and save the seeds. 

Kempton said once the seeds are harvested, they must be cleaned, separated from dead plant debris, counted and packaged to maintain their safety while stored.  

This allows the farm to utilize the previous year’s seeds and participate in seed swaps. Seed swaps occur every January in Bellingham; congregating farmers and gardeners from Whatcom and surrounding counties share their favorite open-pollinated seeds. 

“Along with the seeds is the exchange of knowledge: how to plant them, how to grow them, how to tend the plants,” Kempton said. “Any time you’re getting people to talk about what they are passionate about, you’re building community. Creating that community around food and food resourcefulness is really important, especially as we face an uncertain climate future.”

Reinforcing seed sovereignty is more important now than ever before, Tuxill said. Large scale agriculture is becoming increasingly reliant on hybrid seeds from corporate providers such as Monsanto.

However, this dynamic of exchanging seeds did not begin with malintent. It began with seed patenting: the act of obtaining ownership over the genetic makeup of seeds, Tuxill said. If a farmer developed a new color of rose, they would want to claim ownership over this variety of plant, which encourages competition and invention in the agricultural market. 

Around 1960, Tuxill said seed companies saw the economic advantages of this concept, and began to patent varieties of hybrid seeds. 

There are many reasons people may choose to continue buying hybrid seeds, such as a guarantee of top quality seeds that will yield better crops, and also the convenience of simply purchasing seeds rather than going through the labor of harvesting them, Tuxill said.

Despite these advantages, the precisely formulated genetic makeup of hybrid seeds does not allow for necessary biodiversity and adaptations tailored to the specific climate of the Pacific Northwest, Kempton said. 

Edward Johnson, AS Forest Garden & Native Habitats assistant coordinator for The Outback, attended this year’s seed swap. 

“Keeping your seed sovereignty local gives resilience and agency to farmers. The plants adapt to the climate here and are able to thrive,” Johnson said. “We’re getting into the planting season now, so it’s a good time to start learning about them.” 

That being said, Bellingham is lucky to have very sustainable seed providers such as Uprising Seeds and Resilient Seeds, Kempton said. Due to the fact that these companies produce seeds in the area, they provide local adaptation as well. 

“[There is a lot of significance in] learning about seeds and acquiring the skills to sustain ourselves through food sovereignty. Growing and saving seeds is part of being human. We’ve been doing this almost since the dawn of humanity. It’s in our nature,” Kempton said. “People need to learn how to grow their own food, and having open-pollinated seeds is definitely a way to sustain themselves.”  

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