The Seed Co-operative

Our mission is to sow the seeds of a healthy and resilient organic food system that promotes diversity, democracy and a closer relationship with our food, and those who grow it.”

The Seed Co-operative

Sowing the seeds of a resilient food future

The Seed Co-operative is a Lincolnshire seed producer – growing, processing and selling organic, open pollinated seeds.

The seeds are adapted to the local climate and organic growing systems. Co-operatively owned and managed, the Seed Co-op plays a crucial role in the journey towards a healthy, resilient and democratic food future.

It is one of very few organic seed producers in the UK, at a time when there is greater need than ever for diverse and well-maintained organic seed.

I want you to visit and be inspired by the Seed Co-op, as I have: it is one of the most important treasures in our county.

However, due to the pandemic, there are no public Open Days currently scheduled, so I want to take you on a tour as best I can under the circumstances, and I hope you will be moved to take a few actions at the end…

A Farm Design for the Future

The whole 24 acres site, including 2.5 acres of glass houses, is organic and biodynamic – designed to be regenerative and resilient, carbon storing and sequestering, supporting health and biodiversity, and requiring low energy inputs.

The water supply for the farm is this reservoir, which is on the site. It keeps the water footprint of the whole operation incredibly low, with a clean water supply, free from the chemical drain off from nearby non-organic farms. That’s on top of the wildlife benefits.

Since buying the site in 2016, over 3500 trees have been planted, including alder and hazel, most of them around the border of the site to provide a windbreak, as well as for their multitude of benefits – wildlife, carbon sequestration, mitigation of both hot temperatures and flooding, not to mention their beauty! 

I visit on a windy, rainy day, and while this makes the conditions in the glasshouses absolutely idyllic for working, the fens are a wild and windswept landscape!

If you are in any doubt of the importance of wind protection, take a look at these spinach plants, grown in the middle of the field…compared to these spinach plants grown at the edge – the same variety, sown at the same time, but benefitting from the sheltered microclimate provided by a tall hedge at the edge of the field.

There are plans to plant more trees, including agroforestry into the design – combining trees with the crop growing spaces, increasing crop and soil protection, and biodiversity.

Regenerating the Soil

Back in 2016, the soil was badly depleted by previous high intensity farming methods – there was hardly a worm to be found! So Kate and David set about rebuilding fertility in the soil, using green manures, including deep-rooting chicory, clovers and cocksfoot, and also a small flock of sheep. 

Once the soil fertility and structure is re-established sufficiently to support food growing without artificial fertilisers, the outdoor growing spaces will be managed in 7-year rotation.

Green manures are also used within the glasshouses – this gorgeous purple flower, phacelia, has a design purpose beyond its beauty, of soil regeneration. The bees also love it! 

Phacelia – a green manure to improve the soil

Re-used, re-claimed, resourceful

Sweet peas growing up a reclaimed builders fence

Resourcefulness and minimising waste is in the DNA of the Seed Coop! Waste root vegetables are fed to the sheep. Reclaimed builders fencing comes in useful, from growing structures for peas, to suspended hangers for seed drying. 

Pictured below, is winter purslane, the first seed crop of the year, shedding its seeds through the filter of netting.

It will soon be followed by turnips. Have you ever seen a mature turnip plant? They are pretty spectacular – my eyes were on stalks when I saw them!

Root…
…to seed

Rotation Planning

The work of the Seed Co-op includes growing outdoors and under glass, and for some crops such as carrots and celeriac, both. The planning of the growing calendar is complex, due to considerations of cross pollination. 

For example, courgettes (insect pollinated) are growing in the glass house, so that the first fruit are pollinated before any outdoor courgettes (in neighbouring gardens) are flowering.  This way  they don’t cross pollinate with each other, but the early fruit need labeling and all later fruit removed so that only seed from the earliest fruit are saved. 

Carrot flowers

Just one variety of carrots can be harvested on the site each year, so that they aren’t at risk of cross pollinating. They are sown outdoors, roots are lifted and selected, overwintered indoors, and then planted out in the glasshouse, so that they flower and set seed undercover where rain can’t spoil the seed-head. Any seed from flowers coming later in the season won’t be retained in case they have crossed with the wild carrot. 

Crops that are self pollinated, such as lettuces, can be isolated by distance.

Maintaining Seed Quality 

Reproducing open source seed involves both multiplying the seed and selecting the best seed – the Seed Co-op pride themselves on well maintained seed quality. They are the registered maintainers of numerous varieties, including Autumn King carrots, James Scarlet Intermediate carrot, Blue Lake climbing french beans, and a summer Savoy cabbage called Rearguard Ormskirk,

However they do not and cannot grow all of the seeds that they sell: some are supplied by carefully selected and registered organic or biodynamic farmers, smallholders and market gardeners across the UK or abroad.

They are very careful about the provenance of their seeds, which is explicitly labelled in their seed catalogue.

“Even people who know about seed sovereignty don’t realise how little is grown in the UK,” David tells me.

“In organic systems we’re working with natural processes, but changes in the environment make it even more challenging. Harvests fail, summers are increasingly hot and dry, hailstorms can completely smash a crop.”

A Healthy Food System 

I ask David about where this fits into the wider challenges in the food system, such as food poverty.

“The problem with food poverty is nothing to do with food production; it is a problem of inequality – it’s a political issue,” David tells me. “Another big problem is access to land, and making small farms viable in a system that sidelines them.” 

In most of Europe farms under a certain size gain subsidies, in the UK it is the other way round – it has always been a UK decision to exclude small farmers, and that is set to continue with the new post-Brexit support systems. 

Also, entitlements to subsidies are not only attached to land – they’re tradable. So the Seed Co-op would have to buy entitlements to the system of farm subsidies, even though it is over 10 hectares in size.

David and Kate are modest, practical, and very busy getting on with the job – very ably supported by the hardworking team of staff and directors. But I feel I cannot overstate the importance and urgency of the work that the Seed Co-op is doing, and how very much I want you – us – to get involved at whatever level we can.

Three ways to support the Seed Co-op

Invest

Become a member of the Seed Co-op. You can buy shares in the co-op for £1 each. You have to purchase a minimum of 100 shares, and a maximum of 100 000. You won’t get interest or dividends – profits are all returned to the development of seed production, and you can’t trade them on the stock market. But this is one of the most genuine investments in our children’s future that I can think of. 

(Find out more and apply to become a member here)

Volunteer

If you can offer a regular time commitment, access to the farm in Gosberton and a willingness to learn, you would be welcomed as a volunteer on the site.

There is also need for pro bono roles on the board, they are currently recruiting for a Marketing & Communications Director and a Finance Director

Grow your own

The future of food is local!  

Grow the food that thrives in your region, save the seed, and then share it with others, building resilient seed communities. You might like to join an organisation like Lincolnshire Organic Gardeners Organisation (LOGO) – who are organisers of Seed Swap events, as well as a wonderful network of expertise. 

Learn more about seed sovereignty

There is lots of information about seed sovereignty online, both how to save seeds at home – for example Real Seeds and Garden Organic – and how to support the movement for food sovereignty. One of the up-sides of the pandemic is the increase in webinars and online events and opportunities to learn and connect. Follow these national organisations: CSA Network UK, the Seed Sovereignty Programme run by the Gaia Foundation, the Landworkers’ Alliance, and the Organic Growers Alliance 

Also – look out for next week’s blog, on seed sovereignty and how the Seed Co-op’s work addresses the ecological problems we face.

Let us keep you posted…


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