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Authors Posts by Annie Spiegelman

Annie Spiegelman

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Finding seed love via the Global Seed Network

These days, farmers, home gardeners and nonprofits can connect with other seed savers through the Global Seed Network. Photo courtesy of the Petaluma Seed Bank.

By Annie Spiegelman, the Dirt Diva

What’s my favorite thing to do in my spare time? Admire my mammoth, multi-branching sunflowers, share their proud and prolific seeds and find ways to stick-it-to-the-Man. Yup. Don’t judge. Just follow. Your summer garden will be glad that you did. My latest defiance? Bringing back old-school seeds. In April of 2017, on International Seeds Day, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) launched a seed-sharing initiative called the Global Seed Network to help bring back some of the 75 percent of seed varieties that have disappeared since the beginning of the 20th century.

“The Center for Food Safety has been working to protect our food, farms and environment for 20 years and seeds are an intrinsic part of that,” says Erin Austin, CFS program and development associate. “CFS has been challenging the corporate control of our seed supply for many years and during this work, the need for an independent and open-sourced seed supply became clear. CFS leadership created the Global Seed Network to be a free, online platform accessible to everyone with the goal of connecting individuals across the country, and ultimately the world, to share their seeds and take back control of our food supply. Seed diversity is inseparable from food security, food sovereignty, adapting to a changing climate and preserving cultural and ancestral knowledge.”

Now, farmers, home gardeners, nonprofit organizations and the general public can connect with other seed savers globally. Here you can trade uncommon, non-GMO, disease-resistant, heirloom varieties that are tailored to your individual soil and climate conditions. It’s like a social network or the “Match.com” of seeds.

“Similar to Match.com, Global Seed Network users create a profile and can ‘match’ with other seed savers to share seeds,” Austin explains. “Users upload seeds they have to share and can then search for other users’ seeds. When you find seeds you like, you can ‘request’ the seed from another user and then the Global Seed Network connects the two users to coordinate over email.”

It’s simple and it’s free. No worries if you haven’t saved seeds before. You’ll be able to view in-depth seed profiles showing water requirements, and light and soil conditions, as well as the location where the plant was cultivated. It’s super fun, especially for us garden nerds. Currently the site has more than 700 members and thousands of visitors. To make the site a success, more folks will have to share and post their seeds. So, soon I will post my mixed sunflower seeds that originally came from the Petaluma Seed Bank.

Why join the seed swap? Most ‘food eaters’ (my brilliant friends and family included) are too busy or too worn down to stay updated on topics such as pollinator decline, the illegalization of seed saving and the deluge of toxic pesticides sprayed onto our local farms or injected into seeds created by global biotech corporations. Since the adoption of genetically engineered crops in the 1990s, the use of herbicides (weed killers) has increased. The same companies also sell the herbicides; funny how that works. These giant agrochemical corporations have actually prosecuted family farmers for alleged patent infringement. They want to own seeds. As far as I remember, seeds were a free, renewable resource from nature, not a privatized commodity. Just Google “Monsanto sues farmers over seeds” and you’ll lose your appetite.

“Beginning in the 1980s, large agrichemical corporations like Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Dow and Bayer acquired scores of seed companies, buying up some of the highest-quality germplasm in the world,” Austin says. “Those five companies now own more than 60 percent of the world’s seed supply, and they’ve turned seeds into a corporate commodity. They are rapidly genetically engineering, patenting and controlling seeds, often to the detriment of farmers’ economic security, food safety and environmental sustainability. We hope the Global Seed Network will connect seed savers and help to create greater awareness about why saving seeds is so important and how seeds are integral to promoting a safe, regenerative food and farming system.”

For more information, visit the Global Seed Network website at globalseednetwork.org.

Fairfax Backyard Farmer invites everyone to be a farmer

The Fairfax Backyard Farmer offers advice to anyone who wants to learn how to keep bees or chickens, craft their own beer or make kombucha. Photo courtesy of Fairfax Backyard Farmer.

By Annie Spiegelman, the Dirt Diva

“I’d rather be on my farm than be emperor of the world.”—George Washington

My dad, a diehard New Yorker, enjoys telling me that “kale tastes like dirt.” This is usually after I force him to taste my morning green smoothie or wander around my backyard picking homegrown lacinato kale. So I remind him of the stories that he told me about his aunts who grew their own backyard edible gardens and didn’t brunch at Dunkin’ Donuts on 34th Street, like he does most mornings. In fact, as part of the war effort in the early 1940s, the U.S. government turned to its citizens and in the spirit of patriotism, encouraged all Americans to plant edible gardens in private yards, on public land and in vacant lots. Between 1941 and 1943 the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that more than 20 million Victory Gardens were planted in the United States and 40 percent of our total food was produced by those gardens.

One hundred years ago, one in four Americans worked on farms. Today, it’s closer to one in 50. Jim Normandi and his crafty crew of family members are looking to change that. Wishing to blend modern lives with a rural-retro farming arts experience, he opened the Fairfax Backyard Farmer just a few months ago.

“Like the family farms of yesteryear our shop is also family-built, owned and operated,” Normandi says. “One hundred years ago, in 1917, my great-great-grandfather Riziero Traversi, an immigrant from Switzerland, operated a dairy on Old Adobe Road in Petaluma. His California dairy license from that year, along with his portrait, hangs on the wall behind the counter at our modest shop, a reminder of our family legacy.”

After closing down the family wholesale electronics shop during the Great Recession, Normandi returned to the interests of his youth and undergraduate education in environmental studies and horticulture. He set out to create the backyard farming vision he had been focusing on for a few years prior.

When we tend backyard chickens or bees, or make beer, sauerkraut or yogurt, or grow sprouts or mushrooms on our kitchen counters, we are practicing the ancient art of backyard farming,” he says.

Family, friends and even strangers enthusiastically joined in with support and encouragement.

“My 85-year-old father picked up his toolbelt and lent 50 years of retail experience and advice,” Normandi says of Jimmy Sierra, the retired, renowned treasure-hunter, metal detective expert and author.

“My daughter, Maya, an undergraduate in environmental studies at the U.C. in Santa Barbara and a graphic artist extraordinaire, designed all the logos and store artwork including the custom wall mural,” he continues. “The front room of our warehouse was transformed into a ranch-style showroom with hand-painted murals and custom-built shelving.”

Normandi’s wife, Carol Normandi, a licensed psychotherapist, and cofounder of the nonprofit Beyond Hunger, and his 22-year-old son Traver, sought out products and designed an inventory system. His mom, watercolor artist Win Normandi, and youngest daughter, Iona, created rustic, handmade notecards and jewelry. Various friends built walls and stocked shelves while local residents regularly poked their heads in the front door to applaud and approve of what was emerging inside his bucolic magic shop.

“The community itself really has claimed the store,” Normandi says. “A lot of people come in to visit and are immediately offered help, advice and encouragement not just by me, but by other customers as well. We offer a safe place and environment where people can share their knowledge with the greater community.”

Inside, customers find do-it-yourself kits, agricultural projects, puzzles and innovative ideas for everything

Jim Normandi, owner of the Fairfax Backyard Farmer, explains the bee smoker to a customer from O’Donnells Fairfax Nursery.

“farmy:” Beekeeping, fermenting, sprouting, kombucha crafting, beer brewing, raising chickens—you name it, and Normandi’s got it. And if he doesn’t have it, he knows where to find it.

“You don’t need to own 100 acres and a tractor to reclaim your farming roots,” Normandi says. “You can practice farming on your kitchen counter or in your own backyard. So much of our modern life is dominated by our role as consumers. When we are able to change hats and become a producer even in a very small way, the satisfaction is tremendous.”

Award-winning author and farmer Wendell Berry asks us to not just be passive consumers who accept the cost and quality of food, but to ask, “How fresh is it? How far was it transported? What kind of farm was it grown on?” Once we choose to be informed food consumers, we gain appreciation for our local farmers. Once we understand the farm-to-table food cycle, we may also choose to become a small-scale food producer at home. A successfully grown, sunny, window-box full of cooking herbs is enough to get you hooked on growing and gardening. Before you know it you’ll be a full-fledged hortiholic like yours truly, drooling over the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalogue, roses and succulents. Fairfax Backyard Farmer and I welcome you with open arms and dirty hands.

If you’re not quite ready to plant a vegetable garden, maybe the 7 Bridges Easy Brew Organic Beer Kit is more your style? Or the starter pack for making your own kombucha. Both kits have everything you need to start home brewing, including step-by-step directions, tips and ingredients to brew your first batch. Just like your high school chemistry teacher, Normandi is on hand, full of knowledge, sitting you down and thoroughly explaining each step of the process to you before you leave his shop.

“I believe that the microbrewery explosion, the rise in popular culture of kombucha, hard cider, kefir and even the probiotics of sauerkraut are not separate, unrelated trends and fads but perhaps an unconscious recognition of our farmer roots,” he says. “When we view ourselves as farmers we allow ourselves for a moment to be part of, rather than outside, the cycles of the natural world.”

The store has plenty of fun gifts for upcoming Mother’s Day and Father’s Day—the Shiitake Mushroom Mini-Farm by Far West Fungi, the handcrafted cobalt-colored brown glass nectar feeder, the 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall puzzle and the rooster-print apron with pockets for eggs. The Fairfax Backyard Farmer also offers regular educational Farm Arts classes and workshops, in groups of up to 10 students, presented by local experts.

“We invite you to reclaim your roots and call yourself a farmer again,” Normandi says. He and his wife attend the workshops as well, so they can share farming tips with their customers and the community.

Just last month, the store hosted its first Backyard Farmer Festival. The theme centered around how to reclaim your farmer roots in your kitchen, garden and backyard, and had a prestigious group of expert speakers. Novella Carpenter, author of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, discussed urban farming, while author and professor Gretchen Lebuhn spoke about pollinators and how to become involved with the “Great Sunflower Project.” Author and the San Francisco Chronicle’s garden columnist, Pam Peirce, addressed climate change in the garden, and Karen Wang Diggs, classically trained chef and author of Happy Foods, explored the human microbiome.

“Even the word ‘farm’ itself has a deep history,” Normandi says. “The ancient European roots of the word translate to ‘breath, wind and spirit,’ reminding us that to farm is to engage directly with the original life force. Dig deep enough and everyone’s family would at one point be found on the farm. Our farming roots are calling to us.”

Fairfax Backyard Farmer, 135 Bolinas Road, Fairfax; 415/342-5092; fairfaxbackyardfarmer.com.

Stand up for facts on Earth Day

This Earth Day, Saturday, April 22, the scientific community—and its supporters—will hit the streets to break the silence.

By Annie Spiegelman, the Dirt Diva

Out of the swamp and smack into a cesspool. It seems every day is alt-day with the new, wildcard administration in the White House. Policymakers and an assortment of fake, farcical and fanatical news organizations keep spewing alternative facts on a plethora of important issues but they’re hitting especially hard on science. You know, that class in high school you never showed up for? Seems like evidence seekers, critical thinkers and fact-checkers are so yesterday!

When scientists continue to be doubted, disregarded, insulted and silenced, it’s impossible to remain silent or apolitical any longer. Vital scientific research is under attack by wealthy extremists who have made their fortunes in industries that continue to poison humanity, pollute our environment and squander our natural resources. Pick your poison: Oil, coal, fracking, chemical pesticides, factory farming. It’s all fine with Trump. Funding for basic scientific research, environmental protections and public health are all in jeopardy while the EPA’s authority is deteriorating as fast as the Arctic ice cap.

Am I freaking out? Well, yes. Where are my people!? The ones that conclude, by scientific method, that my hypothesis “we’re all doomed,” is true or not.

This Earth Day, Saturday, April 22, 2017, the scientific community will march in Washington, D.C. and around the globe. There will be upward of 400 sister marches across the earth, including in San Francisco, where citizens from all walks of life, along with formal scientists, will march in support of science. Bill Nye, the Science Guy, will serve as honorary co-chair along with official partner The Planetary Society, a nonprofit organization with more than 50,000 members that promotes the exploration of space through education, advocacy and innovative projects.

“We march to celebrate science,” Nye says. “We unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policymakers to enact evidence-based policies in the public interest.”

Why is this march so essential? Scientific data shows 2016 as being the warmest year on record since modern record-keeping began in 1880. In 2012, Trump tweeted, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Last month, the president invited a group of coal miners and coal industry executives to be present at the signing of a sweeping executive order to curb climate regulations at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He said that this order will be “putting American jobs above addressing climate change,” and “putting an end to the war on coal.” He also said, “We are going to put our coal miners back to work.” Due to the growth of natural gas, renewable power, outside suppliers and mine mechanization, coal mining jobs have gone from 250,000 in 1980 to 53,000 today.

Could it get any worse? Why, yes it can. Last month Trump’s “terrific” new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, reversed the Obama administration’s effort to ban a pesticide linked to nervous system damage in kids. Chlorpyrifos, manufactured by Dow Chemical (trade name Lorsban) has been banned from consumer products and residential use nationwide but is still widely used on farms. A recent UC Berkeley study showed that 7-year-old children in the Salinas Valley who were exposed to high levels of the pesticide, while still in the womb, had slightly lower IQ scores than their classmates.

“EPA turned a blind-eye to extensive scientific evidence and peer reviews documenting serious harm to children and their developing brains, including increased risk of learning disabilities, reductions in IQ, developmental delay, autism, and ADHD,” said Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, senior scientist at the Natural Resource Defense Council in a Pesticide Action Network news release.

“Today’s decision means children across the country will continue to be exposed to unsafe pesticide residues in their food and drinking water.”

Tom Steyer, president of the Bay Area’s NexGen Climate, believes that these latest environmental actions are an assault on American values and “endanger the health, safety and prosperity of every American.”

“Trump is deliberately destroying programs that create jobs and safeguards that protect our air and water, all for the sake of allowing corporate polluters to profit at our expense,” Steyer said in a statement.

This is why we all need to stop playing mind-numbing games on the internet and become informed citizens of science. If we want clean air, water and food, we have to fight powerful biotech, pesticide companies and now—the head of the EPA, who has sued the EPA 14 times in the past. Yes, it’s disgraceful and shameful, but it’s just the way it is. This is why we need to march.

March for Science, Saturday, April 22; marchforsciencesf.com.

'SEED: The Untold Story' a call the arms

Independent farmers challenging chemical companies
'SEED: The Untold Story' tells the story of independent farmers who are challenging chemical companies.

By Annie Spiegelman, the Dirt Diva

When I first heard about the idea of patenting a seed, or any kind of plant, I was absolutely horrified and I thought, surely that’ll never be allowed. You can’t own nature.”—Jane Goodall

While recently attending Grass Valley’s fabulous Wild & Scenic Film Festival (January 12-16), I had the chance to see the latest documentary from Collective Eye Films entitled SEED: The Untold Story. This is another visually gorgeous and informative film directed and produced by Taggart Siegel and Jon Betz, the Emmy-nominated, award-winning team that produced Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us? and The Real Dirt on Farmer John. SEED tells the story of independent farmers globally who are fighting the immense political and corporate power of chemical companies that now control the majority of our food.

Here’s the scoop: Twelve thousand years ago humans discovered agriculture by doing something as simple as saving seeds. A vast variety of seeds were passed down and propagated from generation to generation, farmer to farmer, garden geek to garden geek. These heirloom seeds were open-pollinated so they could be saved and planted year after year, producing new generations of plants.

Today, there are seeds created in biotech labs and patented by multinational corporations who believe they have the right to own agriculture. Often these genetically modified seeds are treated with pesticides and herbicides. They cannot be saved and replanted. National Geographic reports that up to 96 percent of the vegetable seeds that were available in 1903 have disappeared. In less than a century of industrial agriculture, our once abundant seed diversity from family farms and gardens has plummeted to a group of mass-produced varieties created by 10 agrichemical companies (with Syngenta, Bayer and Monsanto being at the top of my evildoer list).

SEED explores the history of agriculture and how today’s farmers are struggling to keep seed diversity alive. Throughout the film you’ll be introduced to seed savers, scientists, botanists, farmers and indigenous communities who are fighting battles against large chemical companies that now control the majority of food. Our ancestors worshipped and treasured the magic of seeds since the dawn of humankind. A seed is a tiny time capsule holding genetic data from our past. It was planted, saved and passed on to the next generation for food. A tiny seed may appear insignificant, but its downstream potential is truly profound. Maintaining diversity in our seed stock is crucial to our survival.

Despite the film’s occasionally dour message, it’s filled with a cast of colorful characters, chock full of scientific statistics, philosophical anecdotes and remarkable farming stories. Joseph Simcox, The Botanical Explorer and his motley crew, who resemble roadies-gone-wild-in-the-woods, will have you smiling as they travel around the world identifying food plant resources focusing on underutilized crops and wild species “for all the crazy people like me who sit there at night and look at bags of beans: It leaves us a mystery … ,” says Simcox, with the genuine awe of a kindergartner.

Vandana Shiva, founder of Navdanya, her nonprofit farm organization that campaigns for biodiversity and against corporate control of food, believes it is not an investment if it is destroying the planet. “The desire to save seeds comes from an ethical urge to defend life’s evolution,” Shiva says. “Two-hundred-fifty thousand farmers in India have committed suicide in areas where seed has been destroyed … where they have to buy the seed every year from Monsanto at a very high cost.” Shiva and her team have created 40 seed banks in India. They now take the seeds they have saved and bring them to the areas where farmers have given up.

The filmmakers weave various styles of animation to explain the evolution of seeds and the growth of agribusiness, as well as breathtaking time-lapse segments showing the transformation of seeds to seedlings. “Seeds are so crafty,” Goodall says. “There is a power. To me it’s magic. Its life force is so strong. There are seeds that rely on fire. There are seeds that tangle up in the hair of an animal that get carried for miles. There are seeds that can’t germinate unless they pass through the gut of an animal.”

Close-ups of stunning varieties of corn in New Mexico fields and spotted, polka-dotted beans in many colors look more like jewels than something edible. For hortiholics like me, it is a visual feast of seeds, soil and plants.

Ready to stick it to the chemical man? Get in touch with the filmmakers to bring a screening to your town at seedthemovie.com.

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