This time of year the farm is dark and dormant, like that of a new moon sky. During these winter months, all that is dark and seemingly void of life secretly carries the story of spring and another farm season. The new farm season, like a new moon, has its presence concealed by darkness. The brown limbs of the orchard trees, barren of leaves and verve, clutch rich life in their buds. Grab a handful of darkened rain-soaked earth, and find it alive with worms, microscopic life too, breaking down the season that was tilled-in, and small seeds that still call it night. These seeds hold all they need within themselves, stories of the past and future. They lie dormant, their knowledge an ancestral heirloom that echoes, “Wait for the warmth of a sun reaching higher in the sky, the spring-warmed soil around you, the enlivened drops of spring showers, before reaching with your roots and sprouting onto land.” With the days dominated by cold and dark, much of my working hours are now spent inside, where the fire keeps us warm and the kettle works overtime.
The months of winter offer up drastically different work from the hot long days of summer. The business farm woman wakes up and steps into glowing fields of Excel documents, bookkeeping, Organic Certification paperwork, seed germination tables, website development and maintenance. Weeding through and nurturing these elements of the digital farm harken to the rewards and challenges of crops outside in the field. Hands remain cleaner yet still busy with typing, and head remains perpetually full with tasks to complete. One of the aspects that keeps me the busiest during the off-season is that of growing the business of Homeward Bounty Seeds. Ever since moving home to Grenada, pursuing my vision of farming, and providing organic food for this community, have I been wanting to be able to offer up regionally adapted seed. For the last five growing seasons, I have grown seeds on contract with small seed companies, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Virginia and Siskiyou Seeds in southern Oregon. With contract growing, farmers collaborate with the seed companies to see which crops need to be grown-out for that season. Farmers select contracts biased on their growing region and experience. I’ve always enjoyed growing flowers, lettuce, brassicas, beans, onions, and tomatoes for contract. In 2016, with funding from the Jefferson Economic Development Institute in Mount Shasta and graphic design work from Bridget Shaw Designs, I was able to create artistic and unique Homeward Bounty Seed packets. I was able to offer up twenty-five varieties this past season online and at our local farmers’ market. This upcoming season I hope to add another fifteen varieties to the list of open pollinated varieties we sell.
There are a lot of moving parts to operating a small seed business. The warmer fall months are spent cleaning seeds, breaking them down from tarps of heaping seed heads to smaller bins of perfectly cleaned seed. This work is done before the cooler temperatures arrive and moisture is heavier in the air. The next step is to run a germination test on every lot. This year I am using specific germination paper that holds water evenly to create a uniform environment for germinating seeds. Each paper square will get 100 count of seeds and be labeled with the lot number and name. The papers are then rolled up and put in a plastic bag and placed in the germination chamber, a mini fridge equipped with a light bulb and a temperature gauge. Depending on the species of seed, there is a range of optimal temperature for maximum germination. I have the gauge set to 77 degrees, which is a temperature that most garden varieties will happily germinate in. The light bulb is triggered on or off, depending on the need for more or less heat. In ten days to two weeks, most of the seeds have sent out roots into the paper. I gently roll them out and count each one, in order to come up with a percentage of successful germination. There are California state standards for germination rates for seed sales. Often times, my own germination rates are higher than the state requires. I weigh the seeds that meet or exceed state standards and organize them on a shelf in the office, ready to pack up into packets. I often pack to order and have shipped seeds to many different states. I’m hoping that the map of their travel expands even further this winter, with gardeners searching online for unique heritage seeds.
Just as with farming, seed growing can be a political and revolutionary act. Seeds belong to the people, they’re a part of the commons and it’s our responsibility to keep a diversity of varieties alive and available for the next generation. Every time you buy from small seed companies that offer up heirloom, open pollinated seed, you’re voting with your dollar and valuing the work being done to keep unique and productive varieties around. According to National Geographic, in an article that was written addressing diminishing food varieties, a 1983 study taken by the Rural Advancement Foundation International conducted compared USDA listing of sixty-six commercially available seed crops from 1903 to 1983 and found that 93% of the varieties available in 1903 were no longer available in 1983. In the last 100 years, there’s been a constant trend of larger seed companies buying up smaller companies and consolidating.
This consolidation has had a great impact on diversity in the market place. The focus of larger seed companies is to offer up a constant product to large farming operations. These companies’ breeding strategies value uniformity in shape and color, shipability, mechanical harvestability, and compatibility with chemicals (also owned by large seed conglomerates) as in the case with Genetically Engendered seed. Last year I attended a Seed Business 101 course at UC Davis on a scholarship from the Organic Seed Alliance. There were three of us included on scholarship, and it was the three of us alone who were farmers. The rest were breeders, lawyers, employees working in pathology, HR, and sales. At one point, the instructor presented the up and coming trend in vegetable breeding, “that of taste.” As if this whole time food wasn’t for eating! But large companies have not valued taste. On the other hand, small seed companies have for decades been aware of the importance of flavor in varieties, as well as fostering unique heirloom varieties on the merit of rare characteristics, environmental adaptations, yield, and their individual stories. Many seeds were brought over by immigrants as a way of bringing a piece of their home and culture with them.
As a passionate seed saver myself, it is a true honor to tend to the varieties that I’ve identified as successful in our unique and short growing season. Each season I select for varieties that mature in our arid, high elevation climate here in Siskiyou County, where the pendulum swings from cold to hot quickly and fruits have to mature hastily in response. It’s also very important to me to be to be offering up Certified Organic seeds to local and far away growers. It is just as important to buy organic seeds as it is to buy organic produce. Crops that are grown for seed are in the ground weeks to months longer than a crop that would be harvested at fresh eating stage. This means that the impacts of nutrient depleted soil and pests are felt longer. In conventional systems, this could mean twice as many applications of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides, greatly affecting the pollinator populations, soil, and surrounding watershed. Standing behind Homeward Bounty Seeds gives me a platform to speak passionately on behalf of seeds and how we can build our relationship with what we grow as a community. In agriculture, everything starts with a seed. It feels authentic then, to be growing seeds along with crops for market, and to be able to offer them together.
Winter mornings, I will check seed orders from the website and fill them, then walk down the driveway to place packages in the mailbox. As seed packets take their flight, so too do the song birds and raptors. The Shasta Valley is alive this time of year with the wide wings and crisp songs of birds. They truly become stars in the daytime sky as they fly together as constellations and shoot across the air hunting for mice in the fields. Their wings span the horizon, taking up effortless flight, finding density in air that is so thin and unsuspending to us.
I’ve been filled with deep gratitude for this avian company in the winter. Their shadows travel along the farm as they look for ground squirrels that may have been coaxed out by the spring-like light and warm afternoons. There’s a pair of bald eagles that can be found dancing about and will even perch in the tree right outside the kitchen window. The flickers streak their under-red, meadow larks their bright yellow bellies, and little brown chickadees bounce all about from orchard to lilac hedges, to junipers, then dot the elms. Maybe I notice the life overhead this time of year because there’s less distraction. Maybe too, because I see them on the ground pecking for seeds, work that mirrors my tasks inside. I’m learning to look close, to know names, personalities, and calls. My friend Jim came out a few seasons ago, to teach me how to identify wing patterns, flight, and song. It’s not an easy skill, but a worthy path to travel on and one that even deepens my connection with this land I feel so fortunate to steward.
Soon, we’ll honor the last of the dark new moons and the Celtic day of Imbolc, which recognizes the first signs of spring and falls between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox. With it the green will start, the cover crop will begin to reach up, the greenhouse will glow with young tender shoots of jeweled lettuce and spinach, and the dancing pair of eagles will build their nest and peacefully start their family, as Orion bends low in the horizon and the sun and farmer reach out for longer days.
Kate O’Brien-Mann fills most of her days with the tasks of running a farming business. When she’s not in the fields, she finds time for hiking, music concerts, and gatherings with friends. This is the second of a four-part series in which she brings readers through four seasons on her farm in Grenada, in Siskiyou County. Learn more about the farm and purchase Homeward Bounty’s organic seeds at homewardbountyfarm.com.
Tim McBroome is a creative portrait and commercial photographer based in Redding. The play of light and the spark of story guide Tim’s artistic eye, while meeting people and traveling feed his soul. rivetingimagery.com.