The Canberra Seed Savers Cooperative is a group that has set out to connect people with nature and each other, all while taking back control of the food system from big corporations. And it’s as simple as empowering gardeners to access what they call our ‘shared heritage of open-pollinated seeds’.
Founding member Arien McVeigh remembers how expensive starting out as a gardener on your own can be.
“I’d started growing food from seed and I was getting Diggers Club catalogues and getting seeds from other catalogues and I started realising I was going to go broke,” she tells Region Media.
So in 2006, Arien worked with Canberra City Farm to create the Canberra Seed Savers Cooperative. The small team of volunteers began meeting monthly to collect and process seeds over cups of tea with plenty of conversation. Alongside a growing library of seeds, Arien found a community of like-minded growers and the co-op blossomed from there.
“We’d go to markets and festivals and just try and engage more and more people,” she says.
“Gradually that has turned into just over one hundred members of the co-op and a much larger network of people who don’t necessarily join but just get involved from time to time.”
As a home gardener, I have occasionally fallen into the trap of ordering lots of expensive seeds with a mix of success and failure. Last year at the Canberra Food Co-op, I picked up a few packets of seeds from the Seed Savers, including one of climbing butter beans which have been one of my most successful crops.
Arien tells me that those seeds have actually been replanted and saved in Canberra since 1974 by co-operative member Richard, who initially started saving climbing butter bean seeds when his father realised that his local shop was no longer stocking them. So the seeds I planted contain decades of information about the climate and growing conditions which have contributed to their prolific growth in my garden.
“[Growing from seed is] a really, really fun way to engage with your garden and it’s really fascinating to see and understand what plants do and how they do it,” Arien explains.
“It’s really inspiring, it’s a great way for children in particular to learn about nature and the food system. And it means you can access heaps and heaps of variety that you’d never see otherwise and you can do it super cheap.”
Super cheap is right: Seed Savers sell packets for around $2 each, or swapped for free on a ‘one-in-one-out’ basis where people can take seeds when they make a donation to the seed library. This isn’t a future-proofed seed bank locked in a vault under an arctic mountain: it’s a ‘living library’ where actually growing seeds is just as important as saving them.
“For us it’s really, really important to get the seeds out there, growing as much as we can and to teach as many people as we can about seed saving, to inspire as many people as possible and to make it easy for them,” Arien says.
Seed saving books can occasionally make the process sound complicated or technical but Arien says it can be as easy as waiting for a lettuce to bolt and self-seed in the garden bed.
At the Seed Savers current home in the Canberra Environment Centre, Arien has a big bunch of silverbeet which she allowed to go to seed and is now drying out. Just a couple of plants have thousands of seeds on them which all have the potential to grow.
Our conversation has inspired me to leave a few of those fantastic climbing butter beans to dry out on the plant so I can save them for next season and share the extra with the cooperative.
Arien speaks passionately about the need for communities to be in control of their own food systems, rather than caught in the industrialisation of agriculture, which prioritises profitability over diversity.
At its heart, seed saving is about people growing their own food within their own community.
“Human beings also want connections with each other. We kind of think of it as people thriving when they’re connecting with nature and connecting with each other and seed saving does both of those things,” Arien says.
“Those ideas are really what drives me and lots of the people involved.”
Arien encourages anyone who is interested in learning more about seed saving and the other programs run by the cooperative to check out the resources on their website, or go along to a monthly ‘Seedy Saturday’ session to get involved and meet like-minded people in the community.