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Seedsman on a Mission

In 1979, a 25-year-old college freshman from Idaho stood over a bare garden plot in the backyard of his newly purchased home in Missoula, Montana, and asked himself, “Now where am I going to get seeds that will grow here?”

Bill McDorman smiles as he stands in his corn patch

Bill McDorman, shown in his corn patch in September 2018, has pursued a lifelong career of nurturing regionally adapted seed varieties and encouraging the people who save them.

Answering this question would lead author, speaker and educator Bill McDorman on a lifelong career of nurturing regionally adapted seed varieties and encouraging the people who save them. His quest to re-normalize seed saving motivated him to co-found the Down Home Project, Garden City Seeds, Seeds Trust, High Altitude Gardens, the Sawtooth Botanical Gardens, Seed School and the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance (RMSA), as well as to serve as the executive director of Native Seeds/SEARCH and to author the book Basic Seed Saving.

Known by many in the seed saving community as a mentor, McDorman has personally trained over 1,000 seed savers through his Seed School (created by McDorman and his wife/RMSA Deputy Director and cofounder Belle Starr), including 13 students who went on to start bioregional seed companies.

McDorman is a refreshing advocate for the benefits of seed saving — not because growing seed was easy throughout his life in the Rocky Mountain West, but precisely because it was hard. The difficult climate and soil conditions led McDorman toward an ethos of seed saving that goes beyond the basic idea of finding and using open-pollinated seed varieties. He goes a step further to illuminate the values of local, regionally adapted seeds that will perform better in their unique bioregion.

At a time when seed saving has all but disappeared in modern agriculture, McDorman is on a mission to see 1 million new people saving seeds. “At this point there are 150 million gardeners in America, and the vast majority of those gardeners get their seed by buying them. That’s all they know how to do.”

McDorman is offering back to farmers and gardeners a skill that not only allows them to save a little money year after year but that is also the key to their food security, the code to achieving hardier plants and better yields and a way to live a more independent, empowered life.

McDorman doesn’t hesitate to remind the world that seeds are a resource farmers owned and controlled for millennia. He finds that even many conventionally minded farmers are open to the idea of saving their own seed, but “they have just totally forgotten that it is a possibility.” It’s a moment of triumph for McDorman when he watches a spark light up in the eyes of a fifth-generation farmer who attends one of his Seed School courses. “They get to thinking about it and they say, ‘You know, my grandfather used to have a can for an old variety of wheat or a cover crop. I wonder where those seeds went!’ That’s the fun part of doing this work — getting them to hook back into the resources in their own area, because really we’re just trying to recreate what they had.”

From Seed Saver to Seed Educator

“I got started because I was trying to find seeds for my own garden,” said McDorman. “I was at the University of Montana, and I had a chance to plant my own garden for the very first time. This awesome responsibility descended on me to find the very best seeds for what I was trying to do.”

As a land-grant university in the early ’80s, the University of Montana was humming with ideas about disappearing biodiversity in agriculture, but philosophy student McDorman caught wind of this trend in his own neighborhood. A neighbor whose Italian railroad-working family had for generations tended a garden in Missoula let McDorman in on the secret to a successful garden: locally adapted seeds.

“Through my discussions with Uncle Vic, as we called him, and the reading I was doing in school, I decided that I needed to find seed varieties that were adapted and local — seeds that would actually work in my climate. But most of those had disappeared. Even Uncle Vic said the varieties he grew up with were hard to find; they just weren’t in catalogs anymore and the neighbors didn’t have them. They were gone.”

McDorman and his college housemates weren’t deterred by the daunting task of finding seeds that would grow successfully in Western Montana. They instead turned their search into a crusade that would develop into a small local seed company called Garden City Seeds. “Garden City Seeds still exists today, and some of the same descriptions my friends and I wrote in 1981 about our seed varieties are in the current catalog.”

After three years in Montana, McDorman moved back to his hometown of Ketchum, Idaho. The recent graduate built on his experience starting Garden City Seeds and launched a new company called High Altitude Gardens. “The idea was to focus on people who lived in really high, cold places. If you looked at the national seed catalogs at the time, there was hardly anything for people that lived in the extremes. So I started a company to do that.”

During the 28 years McDorman ran High Altitude Gardens, he supplemented his experience-based learning with the example of another small seed company owner in Belgrade, Montana: Ken Fisher of Fisher’s Garden Seeds. “I woke up in 2010 after having had High Altitude Gardens for many years and realized that I had become Ken Fisher. I realized at that moment that I could help young people start seed companies and be the resource for them that Ken didn’

t have the time or energy to be for me. That was the kernel of the idea that became Seed School. I feel that it’s lucky to have lived long enough to realize you’re the person you needed 30 years earlier.”

Group photo of students at Bill McDorman's Seed School at Onsen Farm in Idaho

Seed School has become the crux of what Bill McDorman does as a seed saver and educator. He is pictured here with students at Onsen Farm in Buhl, Idaho.

Eight years and over 1,000 Seed School students later, seed saving education has become the center of McDorman’s career. After bringing Seed School to his role as executive director at Native Seed/SEARCH in Tucson, Arizona, McDorman was recruited to start a regionally based native seed search organization that eventually became the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance. While serving in these roles, McDorman continued to expand the Seed School, putting on seed saving courses for universities, local organizations, farmers, social justice advocates and gardeners alike.

“It was a huge circle for me,” McDorman says. “I had bioregional seed customers all over the Rocky Mountain West, and now I was going to get paid not to sell them seeds but just to help them. I get to give away all my information, lectures and materials now because there’s no business attached to it. It has been really fun for me the last four years, being able to reconnect with so many people that I’ve met over the decades and to kick-start this idea of getting a million people to start saving seeds.”

Regionally Adapted Seeds Matter

The Mountain West’s challenging soil and climate aren’t the only reasons to intentionally seek out locally adapted varieties of seed and save them year after year. McDorman explains that regionally adapted seed can provide critical advantages to farmers and gardeners.

“They can actually work better: they need fewer inputs and, year-to-year, given your climatic changes and variations, they can actually yield more.”

McDorman packs each Seed School session with techniques for selecting and harvesting seeds from the most robust, healthy plants that have successfully matured where they were planted, which in effect is what plant breeders do year after year to get the strongest seeds.

“Active seed savers are actually seed breeders,” he says. “That process has far more advantages and offers far more opportunities for local farmers than the seeds you can buy.”

Purchasing seed year after year from a different climate zone won’t offer the ever-improving resiliency of seed that humans select from the conditions of their own backyards.

Regionally adapted seeds can provide not only a tastier, more plentiful product but also a unique type of item that can help farmers differentiate themselves from other sellers. “Nash Huber, who is a farmer up in Seattle, comes to the Seattle Farmers’ Market — where there are a bunch of other farmers now, though it wasn’t that way when he started — and they’re all selling carrots. But Nash Huber doesn’t sell carrots anymore; he sells ‘Nash Huber’s Carrots’ from a variety that he’s adapted to his farm. Now people line up to get Nash Huber’s Carrots!” McDorman says customers today are hungry for produce that has a meaningful local connection. Farmers can even build on that competitive edge by selling the seeds too.

Regionally adapted seed can also help humans face climate challenges such as the recent droughts in California. McDorman describes a fascinating experience in a conservation meeting at the David Brower Center in Berkeley, California, to discuss a billion-dollar soil-health initiative led by Governor Jerry Brown to combat drought conditions. McDorman says, “I raised my hand at this meeting and said, ‘Hey, did you ever think about spending a million dollars to teach farmers to save their own seeds from the varieties that actually do better in droughts?’” McDorman explained to the delegation how improving seed for the region’s parched conditions could drastically improve crop outcomes. This has been proven time and time again in other drought-prone areas around the world. “They had never thought about that,” he said.

Ultimately, regional adaptation is the primary reason Bill McDorman wants to see the seed saving movement take root, no matter whether the seeds are treasures from the past or are recently conditioned varieties that thrive in a specific bioregion. “We’re not just talking market value. We’re talking a valuable resource that can benefit the whole valley. A resource you can pass to your kids.”

Seed Saving is Inherently Political

While the act of saving seeds may seem as innocuous a garden ritual as weeding or watering, it has today become a subversive act. With 90 percent of the world’s seeds controlled by three biotech companies; the introduction of hybridized, dead-end seeds in the 1930s; and the Supreme Court decision in 1980 to allow the patenting of seed genetics, the traditional act of saving a regionally adapted plant variety has never been so culturally radical — or blatantly attacked by biotech companies.

Tibetan purple barley seeds in a container

Tibetan purple barley.

Seed advocates like McDorman describe the need for preserving “seed democracy:” keeping the control of crop genetics and seed resources in the hands of local farmers and gardeners. “We just went from six companies owning the world’s seeds to three, and left alone they’ll end up with one,” said McDorman. “That’s what monopoly capitalism does — it keeps merging, dominating and taking over markets until there’s only one company left. Along the way, they’re going to try and distort government, policy and education at every turn to try and get everyone to believe in their view.”

While consumer trends reveal vague suspicion of GMO crops, McDorman has noticed the rhetoric of the ideological battle shifting toward a straw man in which seed democracy advocates are typecast as “anti-science.”

“There is a $165 million fund that has been set up to set the world straight about genetically modified seeds, and we’re starting to see some really sophisticated editorials and articles being written about that.”

Despite this mounting attack, McDorman isn’t concerned about fighting back with words. “As an organization, we don’t have a lot of time, energy or money to fight those things; what we do is positive. There are enough people out there that want to do this, and once they grow and save their own seeds their lives are changed forever.”

McDorman is confident that once skeptics discover the rich diversity and the hardiness of regionally adapted seeds, they’ll be hooked. “What I’d like to see is instead of 500 seed libraries, let’s get 5,000 of them. Instead of 150,000 serious seed savers, let’s get 1 million of them.”

While dialogues may be heating up in media and university spheres, McDorman has been able to offer seed saving education to hundreds with little controversy. “We’re teaching a full-credit course over at Sterling College, and we got a SARE grant to teach seed school teacher training to extension agents and NRCS officials who work with farmers so that they can help farmers save their own seeds. We have yet to go to a major land-grant university, but that’s okay; we’ll go to places where people welcome us with open arms, and we’ll teach as many people as we can as quickly as we can, knowing that in the future there might be antagonism.”

McDorman’s positive approach inspires Seed School participants and empowers them to multiply the seed saving cause in a manner as organic as the practices themselves.

1 Million Seed Savers

Seed School has become the crux of what Bill McDorman does as a seed saver and educator. The program comes in week, weekend and daylong versions, welcoming anyone who wants to learn how to save seeds, grow seeds for seed companies, start their own seed company, breed plants, or simply learn more about seed conservation.

“We live in really exciting times,” says McDorman. “Since I started thinking about this in 1979, I’ve never seen so many people who really want to do this. There are a lot of people getting excited and signing up for courses right now — we’re overwhelmed with requests for people to join our seed schools.”

McDorman is thrilled to see his legacy of grassroots seed saving education replicated by the teachers he’s trained. “We’re really trying to pour our resources into teaching teachers at this point. Now we’ve trained 70 people to teach Seed School, and some of those people are coming back to help me teach.”

Through the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, McDorman is running teacher trainings on a consistent basis throughout the year. He invites Acres readers to consider becoming seed educators in their local communities.

“I want to encourage anybody who wants to be a social activist or anyone who has saved seeds, but feels unprepared to teach seed saving in their community, to come to a teacher training and learn how to teach seed savers. It usually takes a few classes before you start to feel confident, but we hold your hand and help you at every stage. The goal is to get millions of people doing this, and it’s based around a really important biological principle: this has to be a grassroots movement. There is no institution, no centralized power, no university — there’s nobody coming to help us recreate all the diversity we need to weather the coming storms facing agriculture unless we all get involved and start doing it again.”

By Allie Hymas. This article appeared in the January 2019 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Learn more about Bill McDorman, Seed School and Seed Teacher Training. The Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance offers an online version of McDorman’s Seed School. For in-person learning, attend the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance 2nd Mountain West Seed Summit: Reunion of the Radicals, February 21-23, 2019, at the New Mexico Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. For more information and to register for the event, visit Rocky Mountain Seeds.

Acres U.S.A. magazine is the national journal of sustainable agriculture, standing virtually alone with a real track record — over 45 years of continuous publication. Each issue is packed full of information eco-consultants regularly charge top dollar for. You’ll be kept up-to-date on all of the news that affects agriculture — regulations, discoveries, research updates, organic certification issues, and more.

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