Seedy Saturdays in Ester

January 26, 2017
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Snow is still on the ground, but gardeners all over Alaska are getting their seed catalogs. A sure sign that spring is on the way, and in Ester, Alaska, we celebrate with seed swaps! Sponsored by the John Trigg Ester Library’s Growing Ester’s Biodiversity Program, gardeners throughout the Fairbanks North Star Borough descend upon this tiny Interior village to exchange seeds and gardening tips.

The JTEL is a community library with a difference: besides the books and other materials one would expect to find, it also has donated seeds, from flowers, vegetables, fruits, and even trees, stored in an old library card catalog. Library members can “check out” seeds any time, while Seedy Saturdays are open to the public. 

Sharing seeds is a tradition as old as agriculture, one that has allowed farmers and gardeners to adapt cultivars to their locale and to create new ones. It is this open, cooperative giving that made the plant varieties we use today. Only in the last 150 years has the commercial seed industry developed in this country. In fact, the government used to distribute seeds for free to farmers and encourage immigrants to bring seeds from their countries of origin. The U.S. Patent and Trade Office and the U.S.D.A. recognized the importance of feeding an expanding young nation, and the diversification of foods was vital. Founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson participated in seed-exchange societies. By 1819 the U.S. Treasury routinely directed its overseas consultants and Navy explorers to collect plant materials. The land-grant universities were set up, like the University of Alaska, specifically to aid agriculture.

But in 1866 privatization set in, and with it, the one-size-fits-all mentality. Since then, the biodiversity of agricultural crops has plummeted. Hybrids and the so-called Green Revolution have actually reduced the ability of the small farmer or gardener to produce healthy food, and now saving seed is a political act.

The library will hold two consecutive Seedy Saturdays at Rollie Hartung Community Hall from 1–5 pm on, February 25 and March 4. Some containers and envelopes will be provided. This year, the library will do something a little different: each swap will feature a speaker who will give a short talk at 3 p.m. on agrobiodiversity, plant propagation, food justice or sovereignty, or sustainable farming. The JTEL will also hold an art show featuring your favorite vegetables!

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