Sowing seeds to save societies 

Mohawk red bread corn (Hudson Valley Farm Hub)

Without it, the world’s an empty, barren place. It’s what gave us our physical life at the moment of our conception, and it’s what sustains us in our journey through that life. There is no life without seed – and if you don’t believe me, ask Ken Greene. He’ll tell you so with a soft-spoken authority that radiates with passion and knowledge.

Ombre beans (Ken Green | Seedshed)

Greene is the co-founder – call him a progenitor – of the Hudson Valley Seed Company, located on a small organic farm in Accord, in the Rondout Valley between the Catskills and the Shawangunk Ridge. He and co-founder Doug Muller established the company in 2008. Initially, Greene’s interest was the preservation and proliferation of heirloom seeds that time and the onslaught of corporate agribusiness were destroying. He and a small band of fellow farmers and activists cultivate acres of production and trial gardens, producing hundreds of pounds of seed each year while undertaking breeding projects in the traditional methods of plant breeders.

Since its earlier days, the Hudson Valley Seed Company has grown and flowered into a company that is striving to be more than a successful business: “A big part of the reason I got into seed and caring about seeds and wanting to share seeds was very social and cultural impulses. I’ve continued that work all along with the development of the seed company, when we decided it was time to really see if activism and education could have its own…roots.”

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Seeds, as Greene sees it, are connected to issues of social and environmental justice. To that end, Greene and fellow seed enthusiast Shanyn Siegel created Seedshed last year: a not-for-profit sponsored by the Open Space Institute as part of its Citizen Action Program. Seedshed is an effort to raise what Greene calls “seed awareness,” in the hopes of “creating a culture of seed where people have an appreciation of – and maybe even a little awe for – the role of seeds in their lives.”

Rowen White, a seedkeeper from the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne, at the Native American Seed Sanctuary, where Native American varieties of corn, beans, squash and sunflowers are being cultivated. (Hudson Valley Farm Hub)

As part of that effort, Seedshed created the Native American Seed Sanctuary at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub property, with the critical support of Rowen White, a seedkeeper from the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne.

Greene describes White as “someone who keeps me hopeful about what we’re doing.” She collects vanishing seeds and the stories they contain and reflect from Iroquois and Mohawk communities. “It’s not just the seeds that could disappear; it’s the ceremonies, rites of passage and language that are all connected to these seeds. So when we lose the seed, we also lose those cultural practices,” Greene says.

His belief in the interconnectedness of those social and cultural needs is currently manifesting in rows of Native American varieties of corn, beans, squash and sunflowers. The project’s purpose is more than simply agricultural; it aims to provide education and, perhaps most crucially, help preserve the rich agricultural and cultural heritage of the Native American people. Once harvested, the sacred seeds of the St. Regis Mohawk/Akwesasne Tribe of northern New York will be rematriated to their home communities to keep these varieties and their stories alive.

The idea, he says, is to figure out a way to create solutions through working with seeds. It’s rewarding work, Greene says, and very challenging: “It’s been a deeply emotional experience for me and everyone who’s been involved – not only to be working with these sacred seeds and entrusted with the responsibility of caring for them, but also to see the cross-cultural relationships that have developed, as well as the cross-cultural healing that’s really happened through this collaboration.” The project forged strong bonds, he says, among the Akwesasne community, Mexican farmworkers, youth from the Bronx, staff at the Farm Hub and many volunteers in the community.

The key participants of the project will gather at the end of October to share their stories about how the Sanctuary came to be, why they’re doing it and to explain ways the public can become involved in the effort. Rowen White will be among those people recounting their experiences.

The threat that Greene and his fellow seedkeepers feel isn’t abstract or metaphorical; it’s real. He quotes a Mohawk seedkeeper: “Planting corn keeps us connected to our spirit, our community. We have to do it; we can’t just stop, or we will cease to be.”

Finally, preserving and planting such seeds becomes a way of preserving history and nourishing future generations: “From the perspective of the people involved, seeds are their ancestors. And seeds are also the future; seeds are the children. It’s the only way to continue their culture.”

Seedshed will present “Planting Sacred Seeds in a Modern World: Restoring Indigenous Seed Sovereignty with Rowen White” and guests from the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe at 7 p.m. on Thursday, October 26 at the Marbletown Community Center, located at 3564 Main Street in Stone Ridge. The evening of sacred seed stories is free and open to the public.

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