There has been a dramatic decrease of genetic diversity in our food supply. The many small regional seed suppliers of the early 1900s sold open-pollinated varieties that were well adapted to the climate, pests, weeds, and diseases of their area. According to the Rural Advancement Foundation International, more than ninety percent of the thousands of varieties available to commercial growers in 1903 were lost by 1983. The nationalization of food distribution systems drives producers to grow food that is uniform, easily shipped long distances, and holds well in warehouse storage. A few huge agriculture companies sell most of the seed grown in the United States. Most of the seed sold is hybrid seed that is designed to work in tandem with the herbicides and pesticides sold by the same companies that sell the seed. This situation is neither biologically nor economically sustainable for small farmers in the South.
Small farmers need to work together to learn about alternative crops and markets that will diversify and increase income without destroying the natural fertility of the land. Such efforts require seed of varieties that are regionally adapted, naturally disease and pest resistant, conducive to seed saving, and sell well in alternative sales points (like farmer’s markets) where taste and uniqueness are as important as uniformity.
In the last decade, there has been a net increase in the number of open-pollinated vegetable varieties available as seed. This is entirely due to the work of a few seed companies. The Producer Grant allowed Acorn Farm, which is also the location of the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE), to provide information for the rebirth of regional seed companies. They helped to: 1.) provide small farmers with a source for the seed needed to successfully enter alternative markets and; 2.) help farmers to grow seed as a small but reliable and profitable alternative crop.
They sent out 400 mailings and now have a list of forty people who are willing to grow several varieties apiece for SESE next year. And as a result of the field day put on with the Producer Grant, they hired thirteen local growers to grow fifty varieties of seed for SESE.