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Seed Saving and Chickens: Selecting for a Resilient Future

By Sarah Merfeld

Last week, we had the pleasure of attending two workshops: Seed Saving and Chickens. Ira Wallace of Southern Seed Exposure and Jason Myers-Benner are both experts in their respective fields and we were enthralled by what they had to teach us.

A common theme between these two broad topics -- seed saving and chickens -- is the importance of selective breeding for the present and future. Generally speaking, as our climate, soil, culture, etc. change, our plants and animals need to be adapting and evolving in conjunction with those changes.

Stagnation in the evolution of our crops and domesticated livestock limits genetic diversity and thus resilience for the future.

Let’s begin with seed saving. Since the development of agriculture, humans have been saving seed from their crops. It is through selective seed saving that humans were able to domesticate wild plants and, as a result, developed the crops that we eat today. By choosing desirable qualities such as higher yields, sweetness, bright colors, or pest resistance, human civilizations have manipulated the evolution of domesticated plants to serve our agricultural and dietary needs.

On a micro-scale, generations of farmers, homesteaders, and gardeners have saved most of their own seed up until the better part of the previous century. This allowed individual growers to select seed from the plants that were best adapted to their land or lifestyle. We define heirloom seeds as ones that have been handed down from generation to generation in a particular region, being selected for certain traits. From this seed saving culture birthed some of our favorite non-conformist fruits and vegetables, with vibrant colors, mismatched shapes, and phenomenal flavors.

Over the past century, large corporations have offered to save seeds for us. Unfortunately, this has led to a massive overall loss in the diversity of crops being cultivated. Sources vary on the specific percentages, but it seems conservative to say that we have lost at least 75% of the plant species we once grew.

This loss of genetic diversity comes with a loss of resilience. When considering climate change and the potential tolls it can take on agriculture, the more genetic diversity in the gene pool the better. Our crops will have a better chance to thrive and cope with the varying climate if we select for their adaption to their environmental conditions. On a softer side, the loss of crop diversity washes away the cultural stories and heritage embedded within those seeds.

So why not start saving some seed? It is easy -- our ancestors did it -- and fun! Starting off with a self-pollinator (a plant that pollinates itself and does not easily cross with other varieties) like a tomato is an easy way to get your foot in the door.

Steps to Saving Tomato Seeds:

1. Choose what qualities you want to select for. Begin by eliminating weak or failing plants (you do not want to save seed from a plant that was not successful) and have fun choosing to save seed from the fruits of your favorite plants!

2. Take your chosen tomatoes and squeeze the seeds into a jar. Some of the juices from the tomatoes will accompany the seeds in the jar.

3. Ferment the seeds for 2-3 days inside the jar. Tomato seeds are coated with a slimy germination inhibiting skin which the fermentation process helps to break down. Simply shake up your jar a few times a day and wait.

4. Wash and strain your seeds.

5. Spread the seeds out on a piece of newspaper and allow to dry completely.

6. Store in an airtight, dry, dark container, label and plant next spring!

Let’s briefly invite chickens into the conversation. I was pleased by the conjuncture of these two workshops on the topic of breeding.

Just as plants have been domesticated to fit societal needs, chickens have as well. Jason taught us that chickens have been domesticated for over 10,000 years. Modern chickens can trace their ancestry to wild jungle fowl found in Southeast Asia and then all the way back to the dinosaurs. Civilizations have lived with and bred chickens all over the world to suit their lifestyle needs. An amazing amount of diversity sprang from this domestication process.

As was true for plants, corporations have volunteered to shoulder the burden of raising chickens. The poultry industry has homogenized the breeding of chickens to be highly productive and much of the previous genetic diversity has been lost. This loss of diversity leaves the chicken to be highly susceptible to disease and evolutionary adaptation to their environment has been stunted.

Jason has made it a personal mission to breed new kinds of chickens, suitable for various environments. He bestowed upon us 20 chicks from one of his breeding projects. He has dubbed this new breed the “Alleghenies”. They are bred to thrive in the mountain ranges of western Virginia, as a homesteading dual purpose (both egg laying and meat production) bird.

We are so excited to watch these little chicks grow into maturity and thank Jason for including us in his breeding adventures!

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