Story and Photography by Emily Beck
In the United States, it’s illegal for a citizen to walk across the street, ring a neighbor’s doorbell and empty a cupped handful of seeds into that neighbor’s hand.
Everywhere except Minnesota and Nebraska.
It wasn’t always this way—for centuries, seed sharing is exactly how farmers were able to keep growing crops year after year while keeping a rich diversity of varieties. But now the seed industry rules agriculture, and since the 20th century, farmers have begun to rely on it instead of their own expertise.
Methods and knowledge passed down have been lost, along with their importance. Today, lower numbers of farmers save seeds than 100 years ago. And the Seed Law prevents the free, non-commercial sharing of seeds.
Betsy Goodman, a 28-year-old, fifth-generation Omahan, doesn’t think this makes much sense. So she decided to do something about it.
It’s that golden hour before sunset on Bloomsorganic Farm in Honey Creek, Iowa, where Betsy lives and works. The sun bathes each leaf and stem and seed in its generous glow. “We aren’t really concerned with looking manicured around here,” she tells me, referring to the somewhat unruly layout of the farm, but I would argue that Bloomsorganic’s appearance is far better than the miles of uniform-looking corn surrounding it. A Sunday evening storm moves slowly over the plains. Piled-up clouds look like distant gray mountains but are void of menace. They don’t come near us, so we get every ounce of light until the sun retreats behind the hills.
I’m following Betsy down the uneven rows of vegetables and herbs and trying not to crush the cilantro she’s clipping for seed harvesting. As we walk she points out the various varieties of vegetables she’s growing, turns to tell me with serious eyes the importance for these to continue existing. For 12,000 years, she says, farmers have cultivated hundreds of different types of crops by saving seeds each year. For 12,000 years farmers have worked to preserve the food system we still have. But within the last century, many of these varieties have been lost as a
result of the failure to continue this practice that Betsy considers sacred.
She shows me a breeding project she’s been working on for about five years: chicory, which has medicinal properties. It takes 11 years for a variety to become stable, she says.
“Seeds have remembrance,” Betsy says. “Genetic strands are like ladders, and they evolve through time with us. And so every year, as I’m harvesting the same seed, it recognizes me. It’s in my hands. Seed theorists say that if you put the seed in your mouth, your genetic saliva will infuse with its, and it will remember you. I don’t put my seeds in my mouth … but I do feel that my seed has adapted to me because I’m selecting it and I’m touching it and I’m taking care of it. I’m its mother, in a way.”
She demonstrates the process of harvesting seed, beginning by placing the cilantro she just cut on a table to dry. In her kitchen, piles of various clippings rest atop tables, a box fan blowing on them. She waits for the seed pods to become nice and crunchy, in order to extract the seeds efficiently. This can take several days, so she selects a pile of already dried radish to show me the next step, which involves stomping.
Days earlier she clipped the radish stems gingerly, placing them on a white bedsheet before gathering it up to bring inside. Now we take the bundle, which consists of crispy radish seedpods and leftover brown twigs, outside to stomp on. By now they’re dry enough to break and release the seeds within.
“Usually I put on some bluegrass music,” she laughs, jumping up and down and all around on the bundle of sheet and seed. But instead she explains to me the Nebraska Seed Law, and how she went about changing it.
The Seed Law
According to Betsy, the Seed Law is in place to protect farmers purchasing or otherwise receiving seed from companies, other farmers or individuals. Essentially, it prohibits the sale (or barter, or trade or exchange) of seed, unless it has gone through testing so it can be appropriately labeled. The law has been developed this way, Betsy says, so people can’t cheat the system, can’t say the seeds they’re exchanging are, for example, lettuce when they’re actually corn. The problem: It costs about $15,000—a price far too high for a farmer to pay simply to give a handful of seeds to a neighbor.
“When we want to purchase seed we want to make sure that the seed we purchase is exactly what it says it is,” Betsy says. “And that seed doesn’t have any noxious weeds in it, and that it has a certain germination percentage, and that it will come true to type. So there’s all these things the law is upholding for us, which is good.”
The bad, however, lies in the fact that this law makes it hard to keep the wealth of plant varieties alive. Farmers may save seed, but most don’t—they can’t afford to legally share it with others, and the process takes a lot of time and energy. It’s easier to purchase seed every year from big distributors who can afford the regulatory fees. But as this conclusion was reached by more and more farmers, the seed industry grew bigger. And more varieties disappeared, giving way to the hybrids the industry developed. “Those seeds are preferred—that’s what you see in the grocery store. They’re uniform and vigorous and they have a lot of good qualities for producing,” Betsy says.
But “It’s our responsibility to uphold our food system,” she argues. “We can’t put it in the hands of anyone else. Because the moment we hand it over, we lose our power…. I believe it’s each individual’s responsibility to uphold the food system.”
That’s why she started the seed library.
After most of the pods have burst, Betsy retrieves screens to sift out all the extra pieces of radish plant. “This is separating really nicely,” she says, and when finished she has a neat layer of brownish-red seeds with only a little plant debris left over. I follow her back inside, where she pours these seeds in a glass jar, labels and seals it. Betsy teaches classes on seed saving at the Benson branch of the Omaha Public Library, where the Common Soil Seed Library started.
The Seed Library
Common Soil began in 2013 with the help of both Betsy and library employee Naomi Solomon. Now, the Omaha Public Library runs the seed catalog (which operates just like the library’s normal catalog) and offers classes and other resources for gardening. Rachel Steiner, the Benson branch manager, has had a large hand in the success of Common Soil as well, according to Betsy. Five branches now exist around Omaha. Anyone can borrow seeds, plant them, collect the plant or vegetable’s seeds when they’re ready and return them to a branch. Common Soil’s goal is to create a “resilient and self-reliant seed source for the community” while exposing people to the joys of gardening and the importance of growing one’s own food. Betsy says over 5,000 packets were checked out from January to May 2015.
“That’s how all of our food has been made over time, and they can’t take that away, because that’s taking away our personal freedom,” she says. “And once they take that away, once we don’t have the right to exchange seeds from person to person, then we do not have the ability to really perpetuate a food system that’s for the people. It’s something that someone else is going to control and pick for us.”
Because of the Seed Law, seed libraries are technically illegal in 49 states. That’s why Betsy thought it important to fight for the law to be amended. When she first testified, a Seed Control Official came to Common Soil and advised them to shut down. But a friend put her in contact with a lawyer from the Sustainable Economics Law Institute in southern California, which drafted the law she suggested—a feat that normally would have cost thousands of dollars. “I haven’t been doing this completely alone,” she says. “There’s other people nationally who have been helping me, as well as locally.”
How LB175 Passed
“It’s a miracle that law got passed,” Betsy says. And then she told me how it all went down.
It began with Senator Burke Harr, who asked members of the Metro Omaha Food Policy Council and the Community Garden Network Group—Betsy belongs to both—to testify for a law he was trying to pass concerning doing a study on community gardens. She figured that, although seed sharing wasn’t exactly related to the issue, she would testify anyway. “I testified,” she says, “and they decided to write it into their law, which became LB175.”
As the law gained momentum, Betsy traveled to Lincoln to testify again. “We had a lot of cool people testify,” she says, including representatives from Community CROPS, Gifford Park Community Garden, Nebraskans for Peace, the Nebraska Farm Bureau and the Sierra Club. Everyone was on the same page, she says, except for one woman’s protest. So it was scrapped.
Betsy wrote a letter to Governor Pete Ricketts. As a result, what Betsy refers to as her law was “tagged onto this pork conglomerate law, because that’s what happens in politics.” LB175 became a number of things—its passing would mean adopting the Livestock Growth Act (which “create[s] a revolving loan fund to provide counties with loans to assist with increased infrastructure costs arising from any improvements needed due to new livestock development,” according to WeVote Project) and the Community Gardens Act, and changing both the
Nebraska Advantage Rural Development Act and the Nebraska Seed Law.
“We are the second state in the country to amend our seed law to include the non-commercial sharing of seeds,” Betsy says. “That basically means the word ‘sale’ is separate from me handing you seeds, or a library or public institution handing the community seeds.”
After attending the American Association of Seed Control’s official meeting in July, Betsy has joined a panel with the executives of a lot of “big” corporations like Monsanto and Burpee. Together, they’re working to change all the state laws.
Betsy says she has learned a lot about power and change. “As one person who is taking my time and energy and passion to really stand up for something I really, truly believe in … I am making change. I already changed the Nebraska law, and I’m about to change the national law,” she says. “It feels really good to have that support from these large-scale institutions.”
When the seed jar has been put away, Betsy finally sits down with me outside in the deepening dusk. The sun’s warmth hasn’t left yet, although as we talk it gets darker and darker, until we can’t see each other’s faces. Nighttime is usually the quietest time for her.
“Welcome to my chaotic life,” she laughs. And it is—she works about 80 hours a week between her position at Bloomsorganic and other jobs and volunteering, not to mention her own personal seed saving and political advocacy. She’s a youth adviser at Beth-El Synagogue, a manager at the Main Street Farmers Market in Council Bluffs, the secretary for the Metro
Omaha Food Policy Council … she says she doesn’t have much time for herself. She tries to go out dancing once a week, because she loves live music, preferably outdoors.
Betsy still counts her pennies, despite her numerous jobs. But for now, she doesn’t mind. She said she’s happy to be doing this work rather than the high-paying job she turned down after college. “I don’t know what I would do with all that money,” she says. “It couldn’t give me the nourishment I give myself by doing this work. I don’t think any dollar could really make me want to compromise the work I’m doing.”
She says she wants to someday raise a family, a duty she considers to be her ultimate purpose. But for now, she intends to keep trying to be an advocate for Mother Earth.