Saturday, 22 March 2008
Take up thy seeds and sow
Association Kokopelli is in trouble. And it breaks my heart to see it. Their French website says "ON A PERDU!" in capital letters.
For those of you who don't know Kokopelli, they're a French-based seedsaver organisation who maintain 2500 varieties of rare and endangered vegetables and run several charitable initiatives in developing countries. Their work is vital and indefatiguable. Unfortunately it's also illegal, due to the preposterously backward seed laws in Europe, and this has now resulted in them being clobbered with a €35,000 fine. The gist of it is that Kokopelli were hounded through the courts by a commercial seed company, Baumaux (shame and damnation on them) because their catalogue of thousands of unique heirloom vegetables gave them an "unfair trading advantage". I won't subject you to the language that came spouting out of me when I read that but it's a truly insidious example of what happens when big business gets waaaaaay too much control of our garden seeds and our food chain. And it sounds a danger signal for the future of biodiversity in Europe.
Where else but Association Kokopelli can you get Venus' Nipple tomatoes? Seen here with Speckled Roman, Des Andes, Peacevine, Caro Rich and others.
Now, a few weeks ago I was honoured with this "E for Excellent" award by Jeremy from Agricultural Biodiversity and was too busy to do anything about it at the time. It's just an informal fun thing but I'm very appreciative of the endorsement, not least because Jeremy is the author of a much respected seed saving book and a long-time champion of heritage vegetables, so I consider it a great compliment that he reads my blog at all, let alone considers it worthy of mention. The deal is that I'm supposed to nominate 10 other blogs for Excellence, but as this one has already been doing the rounds for a bit, a great many of my favourite blogs have already been awarded it. So here's what I'm going to do instead. I'm presenting my "E for Excellent" award to one of my greatest gardening heroes. And the hero of the moment for me is Association Kokopelli's Dominique Guillet.
Back in the 1980s, Dominique Guillet was an entrepreneur making products for the Bach Flower Remedy company. What frustrated him though was that there wasn't much point in people taking remedies when the food they were eating was rubbish. So he sold up and spent the money on a plot of land in the Auvergne, where he set about growing organic vegetables and collecting rare and unusual heirloom varieties from all over the planet. Some came from botanical gardens, some from organic growers, and many from individuals who had created and maintained their own varieties. He set up a non-profit organisation called Terre de Semences to produce and sell a huge range of these seeds, enthusiastically taken up by garden centres all over France.
Disaster struck in 1997 in the form of the French Ministry of Agriculture, who started getting heavy-handed over Terre de Semences' distribution of "illegal" seeds. They were faced with an obligation to pay a £45 registration fee for each of their 2000 varieties, or face enforced closure by the French fraud squad. Unavoidably, the organisation ceased trading.
Undeterred, Dominique bounced back with the foundation of Association Kokopelli. In addition to producing and selling organic heirloom seeds, the Association set up numerous charitable projects in countries across Asia, Africa and South America. These include educational foundations to teach local people to produce their own vegetables and also the large-scale distribution of free seed packets to the poor, including 50,000 packets given away in Afghanistan. All the seeds Kokopelli supply are open-pollinated (non-hybrid) varieties so that people can save their own seed from year to year and not be locked into a cycle of debt by big seed corporations.
Dominique's book The Seeds of Kokopelli is my joint-favourite gardening book ever (along with Carol Deppe's book on vegetable breeding). It's a very large chunky 440-page hardback book and contains a descriptive catalogue of 2500 vegetable varieties (the majority of which are available from Association Kokopelli if you want to try them) ... 600 tomatoes, 370 peppers, 200 squash, 130 lettuces, 40 melons, 50 aubergines and a whole load of things I'd never heard of. It has sections of colour plates with the kind of pictures I never tire of drooling over with childlike wonder. There's a historical and nutritional section for each type of veg, and cultivation instructions, including cross-pollination issues, seed saving methods and sometimes instructions for how to create new varieties. For tomatoes, for example, there's a detailed explanation of how different genes create different colour combinations. There is truly no other gardening book like it.
Not only is it one of the most inspiring vegetable gardening books ever written but its sale directly supports Association Kokopelli's charity work. In the UK it costs £24 including postage and comes with three free packets of tomato seed! (If you're in the US or Canada, you can get it here.)
I dunno what to do to help Association Kokopelli other than to support them by buying their seeds and encouraging all you heritage veg lovers out there to do the same. They need all the income they can get at the moment, and there's also the unmentionable possibility that these heirloom treasures may become unavailable if Kokopelli can't ride out this storm. They have a UK branch run by Chris Baur, an organic farmer in Kent, and a slightly scaled-down American presence. The online UK catalogue lists over 1000 varieties of wonderful stuff, much of which isn't available anywhere else, and if you buy more than five packets they send freebies. Sometimes the seed packets are in French but it's not difficult to work out what "fruits en forme de banane" are or that you need to plant out tomatoes "après les dernières gelées". Unlike most seed packets they tell you who grew the seed, and when.
The diversity of European seeds is under more threat now than it's ever been (with even more backward legislation on its way in for 2009) so it's never been more important for all of us as individuals to save and maintain non-mainstream varieties. Sow your heirloom seeds with pride and raise two fingers to the EU seed legislation and the big bloated corporations who feed off it.
I don't know what the future holds for Dominique Guillet and his team but he's an absolute inspiration to me and I wish him the very best of fortune and every ounce of strength to fight back.