Heirloom garden seeds on the Eel River; preserving seeds that produce well in Northern California.

By Susan Grimes

A new heirloom seed company, Sustainable Seed Co. along with a crew of eight, moved to Covelo, the remote little town in the corner of Mendocino County, over the 2011 winter holidays. As the crow flies, or river flows, Covelo is fairly close to Garberville and Redway.

When we follow the Eel River south we come to the small town of Dos Rios, the point where the Eel River and the Middle fork merge. From Dos Rios we can journey east on the middle fork for just 14 miles and dock in Covelo, the home of Sustainable Seed Co.

The intrigue of having Sustainable Seed Co. just down the river from us is that this company is absolutely committed to keeping a vast variety of heirloom seeds in existence.

The owner, Farmer John Fendley, started Sustainable Seed Co. in Petaluma in 2009 because he was passionate about bringing back some delicious and productive lost varieties of seeds. Fendley had discovered through a book, The Garden Seed Inventory by Ken Whealy, that not long ago over 60 varieties of broccoli were available and, at the time of Fendley’s reading, only four or five were available. This sprung Farmer John into action and, with the help and skills of his close friend Theo Bill, an heirloom seed company, Sustainable Seed Co. was born.

In 2009, Fendley began focusing on his goal of bringing back some of the long lost varieties of vegetables, herbs, melons, tomatoes, and grains. One of his missions was to bring back heirloom varieties that were disease and pest resistant and also to bring back the unique flavors of these foods. Once he realized that not many companies were selling seeds that were open-pollinated, he became tenaciously determined to preserve heirloom varieties.

Sustainable Seed Co. puts a great deal of emphasis on preserving seeds that produce well in Northern California. Fendley dug deeply into the roots of Luther Burbank’s teachings and after obtaining a few Burbank hulless barley seeds from 1933 he planted and propagated more seeds saving these Burbank barley seeds from extinction. The Burbank barley thrives in California partly because it takes very little water to grow. Fendley is also bringing back other Luther Burbank crops that have not been available in over 80 years.

As a longtime Dos Rios resident I spent several days this past winter getting to know the folks at Sustainable Seed Co. I was in awe of all the tomato and pepper varieties - they have over 1,000 varieties of seeds and over 200 of these are tomatoes.

For those of us putting an emphasis on eating locally grown foods, it makes sense that we would plant and grow foods that do well in our region. Most of the tomatoes at Sustainable Seed Co. are said to do well in California, especially in coastal regions where the nights or mornings tend to be foggy or, alternately, in the Central Valley where the summers are hot and dry. Fendley and his crew are also producing over 750 vegetable varieties, many of which he will grow for seed on his 15 acre farm in Covelo.

Farmer John told me, "So many of us in California ask where our food is coming from, but not many of us are asking where our seeds are coming from or if those seeds are grown sustainably."

Originally, farmers and gardeners chose which plants to grow and which seeds to save based on specific traits that made certain plants desirable for each small village or community. And the great news is Sustainable Seed Co. has been growing hundreds of their own varieties for seed and, of the seeds they buy, 90 percent of those come from California.

Farmer John does not import seeds from other countries because he wants to sell heirlooms that he knows are well adapted to Northern California. He also wants to follow in the tradition of Americans and American farmers who bought locally - not just their food but their seeds as well.

They have exquisite photos and a ton of information on their website, sustainableseedco.com, but for ecological and environmental purposes don’t have a paper catalog - and the company is so green that they are operating primarily on solar and wind power.

Besides all the product information at sustainableseedco.com, there are inspirational stories, classic photos, the company Seed Pledge as well as the dream. On their webpage in the section on the dream, it’s very easy to see how much heart the owners of Sustainable Seed Co. have. They want to build communities, preserve land, keep land in the hands of farmers, help people grow food, and inspire people to save seed. Mostly, they want to be sure that people everywhere have high quality healthy delicious food to eat.

And Farmer John is such a collector - old catalogs, photos, and especially seeds. If you happen to have some heirloom seeds that you would like to see propagated, consider sending them over to Farmer John along with their history. Most likely he will take on the task of preserving that heirloom crop in the hopes of sharing the seeds with other gardeners.

Farmer John doesn’t have kids of his own but it’s like he’s a seed saving daddy. His hope and mission is to help us all preserve heirloom crops in our own gardens so we can pass down to our children the habit and tradition of seed saving. And oh - by the way, Grimes says with a smile, "If a rafting trip south on the Eel isn’t in your plans, simply surf on the web and find Sustainable Seed Co. at sustainableseedco.com."

Susan Grimes is a resident of Dos Rios.

photo caption:

Farmer John Fendley from the Sustainable Seed Company in Covelo with some of his Burbank barley.

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