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.


Anonymous said...

Greetings from Minnesota, USA

Thank you so much for writing about this in so much detail. It makes me so angry that corporations such as Baumaux get by with this stuff!! (and there are seed companies just like them here in the US, trying to do the same thing).

I bought the book, thanks to your link. I can't wait for it to come so I can purchase some seeds...not that I need anymore for this year. But it is for such a good cause.

Again, thanks for so much detail and for your good example.


Rebsie Fairholm said...

Thanks for supporting Kokopelli, Deborah. I really hope you enjoy the book as much as I do! Though I wouldn't endorse it if I didn't genuinely love it.

I do hear a lot of bad things about US seed companies trying to squeeze out the heirloom market. Sadly in Europe there is no heirloom market, because the sale of all unregistered seeds is against the law. The range of tomatoes available in the UK is miniscule compared to what you can get from specialist suppliers in the US. Loss of garden biodiversity is a worldwide problem, but in Europe it's really dire. So when people like you are willing to grow rare European varieties in the US, it's helpful and greatly appreciated. :)

Misshathorn said...

I'm with you, news like this makes me alternately infuriated and woe begone. I get most of my seed from Chris/Kokopelli and have done for the past 10 years. Their book is my bible. I have signed the petition and bought another book for my sister but feel quite helpless about making any meaningful contribution to this constant battle with corporate-run EU. I'm glad that you are sounding the rallying call, perhaps we bloggers could generate some funds to help their cause.

Rebsie Fairholm said...

Good idea Miss Hathorn, I'd love to be able to do something constructive rather than just sitting here fuming about it. Maybe we could have a multi-blog seed swap ... collect up whatever seeds we have spare and "give" them to people in exchange for a couple of quid donation to Kokopelli.

Jeremy said...

Nice post, which I'm giving a bit more space to over at our place.

I wish I had the time and space -- mental and physical -- to do more about the problems in Europe. There just seems to be absolutely no hope of progress. I've been saying for years that massive civil disobedience is the only way, Maybe that day is quietly approaching.

Anonymous said...

Interesting to hear about Kokopelli- thanks

Rebsie Fairholm said...

Thanks Jeremy, and thanks for the complementary post. I agree civil disobedience is looking like the only way forward on this, but the difficulty is in making people care enough about it. The majority of gardeners in Europe are not even aware of the laws which restrict the seeds they buy, let alone why it matters. Hopefully that will change.

Celia Hart said...

Thanks for bringing this to our attention! I've been speechless with outrage since reading it!!!!!
I've just ordered the book (I read about Kokopelli on misshathorn's blog last summer). "unfair trading advantage" ... just how can this be justified, it's a bully spoiling what they know is unique and irreplaceable.
There will be a link to this on my next blog post.


PS I'm happy to join in the seed swap

Rebsie Fairholm said...

Thanks Celia! You're so right about the corporate bullies. I think raising the profile and getting the message out there is the most constructive thing we can do at the moment.

Henry Björklid said...

I live, or lived in Finland, but have now emigrated to Greece and work as a volunteer in a seed saver group.
I thank you for your article and I also have a question about re-publish it in Finnish (and maybe Greek if I get it translated to Grrek as I can not do that by myself) and also (the text) in English. I will naturally put all the links to your site etc.
But to tell the whole story; I would need an e-mail-address.
My is

- In Greece a group has begun (2002) to plant every year a lot of plants and giving them free to the people. Last year some 16.000 plants.
The group is a part of
- I am alitlle bit radical, so I see the situation as a war from the corporation (laywers), so my opinion is that we should plant in every park and explain to people that they can take for free whatever they want, when the veggies are ripe.
And we should have public courses (as we already have to some extent) and teach them to take the seed and dry them and how to saw/plant them in any place - also on balconies etc.
I can also send you copylefted photos about our activities in Greece. (I am the photographer, so I give you all rights you need.)
Unfortunately I am now in Finland, fixing and jumping through the last hoops, so I can not take pics of this years spring-activities (two days) in the center of the town Komotini, but if you need more photos, I can ask the guys to send you.
And I will write more about this if you like to have some stories about the nowaday-struggle in Greece.
P.S. I put my old site-address for you (about building with natural materials). I will open a new site when I get back to Greece.

Henry Björklid