Seeds are where it all begins. They promise the start of things. They're "the very basis of our food and agriculture," says Theresa Podoll of Prairie Road Organic Farm. That's why the seeds Podoll and her family grow are organic.
That means seed grown with care and without chemicals, naturally able to adapt to the environment rather than muscle in by means of genetic modification. "Not all seed is equal," she says. "People are making the connection between health and food, food and the food system and the agriculture system that's producing it. You want high-quality certified organic seed."
Organic is not how Podoll was raised. She grew up on a conventional North Dakota farm back in the '80s when organic was a dirty word. "It flew in the face of the norm. Organic agriculture was different. Any time you do something different, it's suspect." Then a college course in ecology changed everything. "I was completely taken with the idea you could farm without having a poison shed on your farm."
Podoll became an organic acolyte and married into an organic farming family. Their farm, Prairie Road Organic, grows grains like millet and rye but the organic seeds they've been raising since 1997 has become her true calling.
As Interim Manager of the Family Farmer Seed Cooperative, Podoll spreads the way of organic seed far beyond her family's 480-acre farm. Launched in 2008, the cooperative began as a tight network of small family farms devoted to keeping organic seeds in the hands of farmers, increase organic seed production and "produce high-quality seed that is disease-resistant and true to type." Now with 14 members "the co-op allows us to band together and raise the bar of organic seed at the national level."
Podoll, who serves on the board of directors of the Organic Farming Research Foundation understands if organic farming is to succeed, sustainability alone isn't going to sell it. It has to have a working business model. Because like it or not, that's what farming has become.
The so-called Green Revolution of 1970, which pushed for commercial farming, the very thing Podoll grew up with, created a "shift in culture from family farm being a way of life to it being a business," she says. "It played a huge role in changing the psyche from a family-friendly vocation to being a business and adopting the latest technology, the latest seed technology, all of that. You had the Department of Agriculture and the USDA saying, 'Get big or get out.'"
Before then, though, breeding seeds wasn't imposed by big ag or left in the hands of biotechs from land grant universities, it was what farmers did. They worked together, "making crosses and breeding varieties and selecting varieties that would be reliable," then saved the seeds from the best crops to plant next season. There was less need for the chemical fertilizers or insecticides that over time degrade soil. Instead, farmers relied on crop rotation and cover crops to enrich the soil. Naturally. That's still the way the Podolls and the organic farmers in their collective operate.
Organic farming is not a matter of one size, one seed fits all. Rather, the approach is almost Darwinian. "There's a real place for that sort of mentality in adapting seed to our climate," says Podoll. What they raise "has a resilience. It needs to. We don't irrigate anything. It's got to make it on its own or it doesn't make it."
Resilient crops and the seeds they come from matter more than ever when we're facing global food scarcity. "We can't have food security and community security if we don't have seed security, if we don't have public access to seed, if farmers are not allowed to be seed savers," she says.
Climate change, the risk of monoculture, the control biotech companies have over our seeds, our crops -- "The challenges we face as a society are huge," admits Podoll, but seed by organic seed, she sees reason for hope. "I can think of no other vocation where you can witness the work of your hand prospering as you can with working with seed. Take a single seed and know someone will plant it in their garden and produce pounds of food with it -- there's nothing more gratifying than that."
Turkish Millet With Garden-Fresh Greens
If millet to you means bird seed, you're missing out. It's an excellent whole grain with a toasty flavor that cooks quickly, and is rich in nutritional goodies including protein, B vitamins, calcium, iron and potassium. This recipe is a bit more complicated than many I provide for Meatless Monday, but it's a flavor party in your mouth, and you can cook the millet a few days in advance.
1 cup millet
2-1/2 cups water or vegetable broth
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, sliced thin
1-2 teaspoons red pepper flakes (or 1 or 2 dried red peppers, crumbled)
1 big bunch greens (kale, chard, whatever's green and fresh), washed, drained and chopped
1/3 cup fresh dill, chopped fine
3/4 cup walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup pomegranate molasses *
1 teaspoon coriander
sea salt and pepper
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
Bring broth or water to boil in a large saucepan. Add millet. Cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 20 minutes, or until millet absorbs all the liquid.
Fluff millet with a fork and set aside to cool. Millet may be cooked a day or two in advance. Cover and refrigerate millet).
Heat oil over medium-high heat in a large pot. Add chopped onions, sliced garlic and red pepper. Stir for about 8 minutes, or until vegetables are softened and fragrant.
Add chopped greens and dill. Stir until greens are wilted, another 3 to 5 minutes.
Add chopped walnuts, millet and canned tomatoes, stirring gently to keep the millet light. Work in tomato paste and pomegranate molasses. Add coriander and season with salt and pepper.
Recipe may be made ahead two days ahead at this point and heated through just before serving.
Stir in fresh cilantro before serving.
Serves 6 to 8.