Island Grown Schools hosts experts at Seed Summit

Recently, IGS has devoted more time to exploring ways that our community can address seed biodiversity issues. Sunday's potluck is a brainstorming session for all. — Photo by Elizabeth Cecil

Island Grown Schools (IGS) will host leaders in the field of seed conservation, and interested community members, for a potluck and “Seed School” starting Sunday.

With interest in local food production increasing every year along with accelerated concerns about genetically modified foods and threats to our food supply due to droughts and other adverse conditions, a lot of the focus on sustainability has turned towards seeds and seed diversity.

Recognizing the importance of maintaining a rich variety of seeds and preserving species especially adapted to the Island’s conditions, IGS has devoted more time and effort recently to exploring ways that those in the Martha’s Vineyard community can address biodiversity issues.

The Seed Summit kicks off with a community potluck dinner. “We hope many people will come and help us envision what sort of community seed initiative we should focus on here on Martha’s Vineyard,” said Emily Duncker, IGS’s Preschool Coordinator and Program Administrator.

Educators from a Tucson-based seed conservation organization called Native Seeds/SEARCH will lead the workshops and also be on hand to aid in the “visionary” process at the potluck.

According to the Native Seeds/SEARCH website, “With the unsustainable practices of industrial farming on the rise and our precious crop diversity disappearing, a new paradigm of seed growing, saving, and sharing is necessary. We envision a vast network of thousands of small, bioregional seed companies and community-owned seed collections replacing the disempowering and ecologically destructive industrial system. By taking ownership over our seeds once again and rejoining the ritual of seed saving, we are replenishing our dwindling seed diversity, building up beneficial crop adaptations, and strengthening food security where we live. This is the way to true sustainability — and to healthier, better-tasting food!”

The nonprofit organization brings an initiative they call Seed School to communities around the nation. IGS has secured a group of Native Seeds educators to host a condensed version of their weeklong Seed School to the Island. The three-day series has limited space and is sold out, but the potluck dinner is free and open to all.

Ms. Duncker hopes to attract people from many sectors of community to the potluck in order to get a dialogue started. “The idea is to brainstorm around seeds and find out what’s most important to the community and find ways we can all work together to create a resilient seed system.”

Some of the ideas that Ms. Duncker would like to explore are seed coops, the practice of seed saving, and the possibility of maintaining seed banks at local libraries.

Seed saving is an initiative based on ancient practices going back more than 10,000 years. Instead of purchasing new seeds every year, Ms. Duncker explained the advantages of collecting seeds and reintroducing plants year after year: “When you plant something in a certain environment the plant is now adapted to a specific soil and climate. Information in its genetic code its adapted to growing in that area. Next season you get even better kale or better tomatoes.”

More and more communities are now introducing publicly accessible seed banks. Local seeds saved from existing plants, along with excess seeds that people have left over from seed purchases, can be “checked out” from libraries. Ms. Duncker said that there is interest in a similar program here, and she has already spoken to people at the West Tisbury Library.

Starting last year, IGS started exploring seed issues and ways to raise public awareness. “Island Grown Schools is committed to working with students and families to encourage healthy eating, learn to grow food, and connect with local farms,” Ms. Duncker said.

Last summer, the organization forged a relationship with Glenn Roberts from Anson Mills, a company dedicated to the conservation of unique grain varieties. He donated a number of heirloom grain seeds. “We started planting the grains in the fall,” Ms. Duncker said. “That morphed into general interest in seeds in the community.”

In November, IGS arranged for a visit from Gary Nabhan, a nature writer, food and farming activist, and pioneer in the local food movement and seed saving community. Mr. Nabhan helped found Native Seeds/Search, an organization dedicated to protecting and saving varieties that are becoming extinct. “He talked to us about the importance of biodiversity and creating strong local food systems,” Ms. Duncker said. “People have seeds that they’ve saved for generations that are specific to their family or region. These varieties could potentially be lost forever. Gary’s mission is to go around the world collecting seeds with the goal of increasing our biodiversity.”

IGS also co-sponsored (with Slow Food M.V.) a visit by documentarian JD McClelland, who is working on a project to highlight communities across the country committed to growing and processing locally adapted heirloom grains.

“The seed project and grain project are related in that they are both initiatives to promote locally supported, sustainable agriculture,” Ms. Duncker said. “As we face any food crisis caused by climate change, loss of biodiversity, and increased degradation of agricultural land, we will have to work together in our communities to create an alternative system.

“We hope people will come to the Sunday night potluck to connect about important seed issues in our community and identify a collaborative project.”

Seed Summit Potluck, Sunday, April 27, 4:30–8 pm, West Tisbury Library. Free. Seed Summit continues April 28–30, but is sold out. For more information, visit