Safeguarding Seed Stock

Modern technology helps keep seed stock safe, but much simpler methods were used in the past

| December 2010

One of history’s most famous hunger catastrophes was the Irish potato famine of 1845-52. The famine caused the death of more than 1 million people; another million emigrated from Ireland during that time. At that time, only a few varieties of potatoes existed for planting and all were subject to potato blight. Today, most potato varieties are resistant to the disease and such famine could easily be prevented.

This and other historical famines are the main reason for establishment of the new “doomsday seed vaults” being built above the Arctic Circle to store millions of varieties of seed stock, both old and modern.

Before modern transportation methods made distribution of food easier, the U.S. government made an attempt to bridge the gap between surplus farm foodstuffs and needy city residents. The USDA started the first relief program on May 16, 1939, in Rochester, N.Y., issuing blue- and orange-colored stamps to the needy. The stamps could be redeemed for products like eggs, butter and dried beans. The original program ended in 1943 after serving some 20 million people. The surplus was then needed to supply the war effort.

Most old-timers who survived the Great Depression and Dust Bowl will tell you “our garden produce and home-canned food pulled us through.” Though few had money to spend, cellars and pantries with shelves of home-canned fruit, meat and vegetables kept hunger at bay.

Take a trip through small towns and rural communities today and you will see countless gardens growing food for families. Evidently garden seed is in great demand, as we hear gardeners complaining of lack of supplies to choose from and high prices. A small envelope containing a dozen seeds or more can cost several dollars.

This is a long way from the old days, when all gardeners selected seed from prize varieties to dry and store for the next spring’s planting. My grandparents kept seed in coffee cans, small glass jars and recycled paper envelopes, plainly labeled by seed type. A day or two before planting, the seeds were soaked in water with Garrett’s snuff added to prevent birds and worms from eating the seed after it was planted.