Nick Maravell: Seed Saving in the City

Nick Maravell: Seed Saving in the City

Nick Maravell has been farming organically since 1979. He is a founding member of the Maryland Organic Food and Farming Association (MOFFA) the Maryland Small Farm Cooperative, and Future Harvest-Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture (Future Harvest-CASA).

Nick has also worked closely with other farmers and scientists at the Organic Farming Research Foundation to publish the National Organic Research Agenda. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack appointed Nick to a 5 year term as a member of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) starting in January 2011. Nick has also been recognized for his efforts to advance organic farming, receiving most recently the “Spirit of Organic Award,” from Natural Foods Merchandiser magazine and the Organic Farming Research Foundation for 30 years of service and advocacy on behalf of organic agriculture.

Following is an edited transcript of an oral interview he graciously conducted for Open Sesame: The Story of Seeds. Any errors in the text are the fault of the transcription, not of Nick Maravell.

Open Sesame: How important is seed to farmers?

Nick Maravell: For farmers seed is really a birth right, something that you can’t take away. Something that all farmers should have access to, public domain should be the rule for seeds. That all started to change back in the 1980s and going forward and now seed is patentable. Farmers can’t save their seeds. Seed is less available in terms of non-GMO seed.

I have people contacting me all the time saying “I want to plant corn or I want to plant soya beans. I don’t want GMO’s in it. I can’t find it anywhere.”

So, we’re ending up with fewer choices in what we’re able to plant. That’s not good. That gives the consumer fewer choices and also it leads to consolidation in the seed industry. There are fewer and fewer companies producing most of the majors staple seeds corn, soya beans, wheat, cotton, potatoes etc. So, farmers are not happy with this situation, at least not organic and sustainable farmers. We would like to have real choices in our seed, have seed that’s been adapted to our specific local areas and our growing conditions and our farming systems and that’s not the type of seed that is being offered.

Open Sesame: Your seed farm is unique in that it’s in a suburban location far from other farmer’s fields. What potential does this type of location have for seed growing?

Nick Maravell: I would say the potential is great for the urban fringe. That’s where you can find plots of land where you can undertake seed saving which is a high-value crop you don’t need hundreds of acres to save seed on and you can keep it separate from large operations that are using genetically engineered crops. So I would say the potential is great all across the country.

Doing farming on the urban fringe holds just so much potential for seed saving and for the purity of our seed and the diversity of our seed and for getting new people interested who want to participate in preserving our biological diversity.

People ask me, Nick Maravell farmers are just getting older and older where the new farmers are going to come from? It’s real simple they are going to come from the cities and you know why, it’s the only place they can come from and I think we just have a tremendous opportunity and we should let that opportunity blossom.

Open Sesame: How is a seed farm different from a regular farm?

Nick Maravell: A seed farm is different in the sense that you have with equipment, procedures, you know objective, goals, that really make you go through the season differently. For example if you’re growing lettuce, you normally don’t want your lettuce to bolt and go to seed. If you are a seed saver you do and not only that but you want to then save not necessarily every single seed that that lettuce makes or that corn or that soy bean. You may want to select out certain plants. Do some selective breeding as you are doing it. It requires you to go through the field and look at it from a different perspective.

You may be looking at the characteristics that you want to reinforce like how well does the stalk stand up? Or how thick is the stalk? If you’re looking to add more organic matter back to the soil. What is the shape of the ear and the thickness of the base of the ear because that may determine ultimately how much yield you can get even if it’s a vey poor year. You can tell well this type of plant would allow in a good year more kernels to develop whereas this plant over here that has a different shape on the ear won’t allow as much to develop. So you go through and you look for different characteristics.

It’s an art as much as it is a science and that’s another unfortunate consequence of genetically engineering our biotechnology and genetic engineering. With regard to seed, a lot of the seed breeders and seed savers are passing on knowledge that is… what should I say, which is not documented. Once you let that knowledge go, let those seed varieties disappear and literally there are seed varieties that have been thrown out because the seed breeders when they retire. People go in and clean out their collections and they say “well, we are not using these types of seed anymore. We all use biotech now” and they’ll just clear those things out but you are destroying a heritage.

You are destroying the part of what made our culture the way it is really. Seed holds a human history and the seed breeders, you know if you see them getting around the coffee table, you know talking, they are talking about things most people wouldn’t even bother to think about but are actually fascinating and that knowledge needs to be passed on and that breeding techniques that they use by going through the filed and seeing what’s going on in the ground, seeing what the impact is between the climate, the weather, the disease and that variety and putting that together in their mind and choosing that seed that they think that the farmers will most benefit by is a distinct difference than sitting in the lab and splicing in genes and spraying a chemical on and seeing what happens. And what we’re talking about is working with what is what you find in nature and using that to advance your agricultural interests or your agriculture goals and we’re not talking about altering life forms. We are not talking about patenting life forms. We are not talking about doing things that could never occur in nature.

The Seed Farm (one of several tracts of land he uses or has used in the past)

Open Sesame: You mentioned that you have at least two soya bean seed varieties that don’t grow anywhere else except right here.

Nick Maravell: Right, I’ve got some locally adapted soya bean varieties here that are food grade soya beans. I’ve never heard anybody else in the world growing these two varieties. They pull through and think and thin, whatever the season throws at me these beans come through. That’s because they’ve been adapted to this local area and they were produced prior to GMO technology and they don’t have to be pampered and they continue to be very productive for me.

Open Sesame: Some people might say, you know… ‘Who cares if we lose two varieties of soya bean seeds. Don’t we have plenty already?’ How would you respond?

Nick Maravell: Well you might find that in those (lost) varieties, you’ve got some genes that are going to help you with lot of other soya bean varieties when you cross the varieties. So you know if you go out and look at my fields, my soya bean fields, I may have a dozen soya bean varieties growing out there. They are all different. They respond differently to the drought. They respond differently to the insects and you can see those differences and those are unique and valuable and it’s because of that diversity that we can maintain a resilient safe food supply. We don’t want to have just one or two varieties of beans, put all of our eggs in one basket so to speak.

Open Sesame: What makes you passionate about seeds and seed saving?

Nick Maravell: It’s so basic to farming. Some people have said it’s in your genes. I don’t know it’s just very important, very basic and very satisfying and something I can share.

Nick Maravell as a Young Farmer

Open Sesame: Are you optimistic about the future of seeds?

Nick Maravell: Yes I am. I’m more than optimistic. I work on it I mean that’s part of what I do and I work on it on the national level and I work on it here at the local level and we’re not going to go away. We are going to preserve our seed supply.

Open Sesame:  There is often a sentiment in the biotech industry that organic farming is a niche market or that the organic movement is anti-science. How do you respond?

Nick Maravell: I get this all the time in the newspapers and I just wrote a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, former Secretary of Agriculture John Block, basically he was ridiculing organic agricultural. He was very concerned that it was just a step backward. A lot of the biotech community responded against my letter saying, you don’t understand biotechnology, organics could never feed the world.

Actually studies have shown that organic agricultural can feed the world and if you ask me it’s our only hope for feeding the world but yes you get that reaction and many people who are not scientists are very well meaning in their thinking that biotechnology is an advance in our scientific knowledge, that it’s got to be a good thing. Well the knowledge is very good. It’s the application that we have to be careful of and I tell them that you know we’ve been down these roads before.

We learned an awful lot about nuclear technology. I remember when I was young we were told “Too cheap to meter”. That was the mantra for the nuclear power generation. Well that didn’t turned out to be what it was sold as. And then we heard that we are going to cure world hunger through the introduction of DDT and other similar chemicals. Well that didn’t turn out the same way either. So all we’re really saying here is we like the knowledge. We like the science. We like the understanding.

But we need to do is to put it to proper use and that’s where I question genetic engineering as whether or not we have put it to proper use. It’s been out there for almost 30 years now and you know it’s been sold as again the same thing, ending world hunger you know, hasn’t made that difference and reducing reliance on chemicals. Actually chemical use has increased since the introduction of genetically engineered seed. So all we’re saying here is let’s look at this realistically. Let’s look at the facts. Let us pursue the knowledge but let us apply that knowledge in a way that makes sense.

You can learn more about Nick by visiting his website.