Integrated Community Seed Systems
We will re-center seeds as the foundation of food systems by integrating seed-stewardship in community programs.
Lead Applicant Organization Name
College of the Atlantic
Lead Applicant Organization Type
If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.
Fedco Seeds; local grade and high schools (Conners Emerson, the Community School, MDI High School), local passionate gardeners, local farmers, Island Institute, Crown of Maine (food distributor).
Website of Legally Registered Entity
How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?
Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?
Bar Harbor, Maine
Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?
United States of America
Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?
Downeast, Maine is a coastal region in northeast Maine including Washington and Hancock Counties, covering an area of 5,603 square miles.
What country is your selected Place located in?
United States of America
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
Suzanne Morse’s research includes plant physiological ecology and evolution, mechanisms of drought tolerance in plants, weed seed banks, effects of changing carbon dioxide concentrations and temperature on plant population dynamics, and the role of dietary fiber in the expression of type II diabetes. Suzanne joined the COA faculty in 1991, where she teaches a variety of courses in biology, botany, science and society, and agroecology. Within the local community, Suzanne has created many points of contact and exploration for collaborative science.
Heron Breen has spent 20+ years within the commercial seed industry, focused on R&D for Fedco Seeds of Clinton, Maine. Concurrent to being a seed professional, Heron has operated a private plant breeding and rare cultivar preservation business. His work highlights the rare heirlooms and uncommon commercial varieties that were once the workhorses of Northeastern US cooking and food commerce. The plant breeding undertaken reflects the modern tastes and pest pressures faced by today’s agriculture, while stewarding the vigor and adaption rooted in regional original germplasm. Both hybrid and open pollinated modalities are utilized. Heron also serves on the board of the Organic Seed Alliance, and implements participatory seed saving and farmer breeding programs for the non-profit Freed Seed Federation.
Lauren Brady, a student at COA halfway through her degree in Human Ecology, has farmed in Maine for five seasons on two educational small-scale farms and has spent summers getting to know the coast of Maine her whole life.
What we share:
- Live here, are committed to place and committed to seeds
- Developed wide-ranging networks of friends and colleagues
- Long-standing familiarity with place as both growers and consumers of food/seed and as engaged community members
- Desire to further that engagement in a way that recognizes the unique opportunities of coastal Maine.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
Our vision is designed for Mount Desert Island in Maine, a uniquely diverse and thriving island on the coast of Downeast, Maine. The island is home to Acadia National Park, the Jackson Lab, a diverse community of generational Mainers, traditional Wabanaki gathering sites, new Mainers who moved to the island for one of many reasons, College of the Atlantic students, seasonal workers, and summer residents. We have the quintessential rocky, hilly Maine coast line with many bays, coves and islands, often rich in woods and wildlife. Most people come here because of the beautiful landscape and stay here because the community is strong. Mainers’ livelihood exists at the intersection of community, environment, and economy. While the local towns are densely populated during the summer (for Maine), the island retains an identity of rurality: living with the land and depending on your neighbors. These are tight-knit, co-dependent communities. The fishers and farmers living in the acadia region depend on the land in a very immediate sense. When the environment is hurting, so are they; and when people are in trouble, their community will try to bail them out. This shows in the relative strength of the food system infrastructure on the island: the half a dozen diversified vegetable farms, 3 farmer’s markets, several food pantries, soup kitchens and other systems attempting to address the challenge of food insecurity. Unfortunately, the environment is hurting and so are the people. Fisheries have been hurt up and down the coast by corporate consolidation and over-fishing. Tourism – while beneficial in immediate terms – brings rising property taxes and development, pushing out those who live and work here year round and overburdening infrastructure. MDI experienced drought conditions in 2016, 2017, and 2018, then a wet year in 2019, perhaps a sign of the progressively difficult conditions that farmers will have to deal with in the future. Fortunately, the Acadia region is responding to these challenges in keeping with its character. Historically, islanders were engaged in a multitude of practices to keep their food systems alive throughout the year and to prevent any one aspect from being overburdened. To that end, many people keep gardens, you can see them from the roads as you wind your way around the island. During the growing season many people have contact and access to some form of local food, though food insecurity is still a significant problem in towns on the island and in Hancock County more generally. However, in the winter all of us are more or less reliant on the typical supermarket fare found across the U.S. and increasingly across the world. But because of its unique landscape and strong sense of place, Maine has long attracted people interested in confronting the problems of food systems; this presents an opportunity to work with the Downeast community that is already pioneering local, regenerative, integrated food systems.
What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
Seeds are the original biotechnology; they address diverse problems in one small magical little package. For millennia, seeds have been responding to environmental pressure to adapt to every imaginable situation. At the same time, since people began collecting seeds and fruits, they have been exerting selective pressures on those seeds for taste and nutrition and medicinal value. We want to focus on seeds because they are the foundation for food systems and they have unrecognized influence on food systems as they currently exist. In 2020, this region’s challenges are:
Erratic seasonal climate change (record warmth and droughty conditions from 2016 to 2018 and a wet and cold 2019)
Food insecurity in the region ranges from 13% to 15% representing moer than 10,000 people
Rising costs of property, inaccessible land
Ever increasing reliance on multinational corporations that have no incentive to provide seed appropriate to this place. Not only do they fail to do that but they also actively work against local seed production efforts by making their seed extremely cheap and co-opting the information generated by public research.
This means that farmers have lost access to certain important seed resources and varieties.
As society becomes dependent on the seeds of multinational corporations, we are alienated from an element that is foundational to most cultures. We begin to think of seeds as a dead thing, a commodity, instead of a living being we depend on.. The loss of connection with our seeds means a loss of connection with our family history, our community history and with a part of the living world around us.
In 2050, we expect the challenges to have shifted and expanded.
Unpredictable climate trending toward wetter growing seasons. Growing produce will be more of a challenge in ways that many have talked about, but it will also make seed production, harvest, and storage much more variable and complicated. Growers will have to adapt to more frequent loss of crop viability due to drought at the wrong time in the flower’s development, or rains and humidity coming at the end of a seed’s development when it needs to dry out.
If we don’t make changes, we expect the cultural, economic, and policy challenges to be more exacerbated and detrimental than they already are. A majority of the population are already unfamiliar with seeds, but in 2050 we might expect only a few academic and corporate researchers to be familiar with seeds in any meaningful way while those who currently have a direct relationship to their seeds, (like farmers and gardeners across the country) may be so generationally and economically distanced from their seed that they see their crops purely as commodities and are not at all engaged in knowing where their seed was sourced. Seed becoming a-historical and a-cultural is not a tenable alternative.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
Local seed stewardship seeks to restore local control of natural resources to a place where global commercial systems are the primary means for making a livelihood. Communities throughout New England and the country have shown that a seed library garners members not just from gardeners in the community, but from people with many different levels of experience with plants. It provides a platform for learning and discovering a food system that is experimental, hands on, delightful, and generates powerfully productive results for the individual and the community. Global seed systems have been developed unethically; re-localization in a way designed to serve a community is one step in restoring the ethic of our food systems. Global seed trade is perhaps not inherently problematic, but when it is based on exploiting cultural knowledge and public information, taking seeds out of their place and community so as to gain control over them, basing the seed economy on profit and monopolizing seed production is deeply unethical. In this context it is important to create an alternative where the system responds to the needs and voices of the people.
Our vision re-centers seeds at the foundation of our food, agriculture, and cultural systems. To do this we envision seeds becoming a site of societal engagement by growers and community members with one another and connecting children (the next generation) with current seed savers. We also envision a more resilient economy by introducing seed production as an economic alternative and supplement to growers in the area who currently become unemployed during the winter months. Re-introducing and re-creating an integrated local seed system will enable the seed to become a part of the region’s history and legacy once again, which will improve social resilience in the face of economic and climate crisis. Seeds are humans’ long-standing partners in evolving and embracing change, and can uncover our creative ability to respond and adapt to future challenges.
A global seed and food system fails to address local nutritional needs and environmental factors. A local system by contrast adapts to local conditions by necessity. The plants producing the best seed have survived and thrived through a season despite, or because of, the challenges they faced and are selected by the people in their community because that plant fills some need – nutritional, ecological, or cultural – specific to its place. Seeds fit within local economic cycles because they can be processed when local residents are most likely to be unemployed. And by integrating seed stewardship into existing community structures and locations, such as schools, libraries, churches, and farmer’s markets, and creating new community activities, such as a grower’s cooperative or a seed swap, this vision looks to build on and regenerate community engagement, solidarity and strength.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
Acadia will have a thriving year round community of people, the majority of whom will have strong and diverse relationships to the land, not only because of its beauty or because it’s the site of their economic activity but because individuals have discovered more about their connection to and dependence on the land and their communities. People will know more about their food systems and have a stronger voice in the direction needed for their food systems and community. Each island will have a school program that involves gardens grown for food and seed where the next generation of food producers can begin their relationship with seeds regardless of their family’s access to land. Students will have more tools and pathways for growing academically, socially, and emotionally by caring for plants through the full cycle of lives and seasons. They will also have a tool for contributing to their community by growing food, saving seed, and having the confidence and understanding to speak up on policy affecting their food systems. The public library’s gardening section will include information about seed saving, breeding, and stewardship. And the acadia region will have a federation of farmers and gardeners who are breeding and producing seed for their communities and the region who can share information and materials, supporting each other socially, politically and economically. Farmer’s markets will include foods that take advantage of local conditions, ripening sooner, requiring fewer inputs, and ripening better. The gardens you see in front yards as you traverse the island will consist of plants that were parented in the neighbor’s garden creating greater communication and appreciation within a community. Food in restaurants will be more truly organic and local if they come from local organic seed, increasing the value and terroir of farm-to-table restaurants.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
We envision an integrated local seed system that is visible and accessible as the center of the Acadia Regions food system. It begins with a small exploratory effort on MDI, to implement two programs, which can then be replicated and adapted to other communities on MDI and the surrounding islands. The first program involves an educational seed curriculum which can initially be implemented at a public and private K-8, Conners Emerson and the Community School respectively, where there are already gardens, invested faculty and a relationship to College of the Atlantic. These programs would be geared toward familiarizing students with the full lifecycle of plants, and potentially further concepts in age-appropriate ways that could be integrated into the standard classes that students engage in daily. The curricula would be collaboratively created by the teachers and COA students or faculty, local seed experts, and from existing materials in other programs around the country. Any curricula developed and adapted would be kept publicly accessible to anyone else trying to start a similar program and would be intended to be flexible, based on the individual needs of a teacher and their class, developed from the bottom up. The second program would be created by a community growers in the area who are interested in supporting, developing and contributing to a local seed stewardship organization. Basic components would be creating documents to outline the organizing structure of the group, creating or obtaining the physical infrastructure necessary for seed production and saving, identifying needs/wants of the community and the extent to which the growers would be producing for themselves or for others, and communicating to coordinate production of desired crops and varieties. People interested in the organization but living in other communities would be welcome to join and contribute until they had the resources and ability to split off with other members of their community and become a sister organization say on one of the outer islands. In that way we would develop a federation of seed stewards working to produce seed for their community and developing other auxiliary programs that address specific needs of their town or region.
How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?