Seed, Story & Citizen: An Interview with Scott Chaskey
By Petra Page-Mann
Scott Chaskey has been well described as a working farmer, poet, and spiritual father of the community farming movement. Twenty five years ago he began Quail Hill Farm, one of the original CSAs in the country, as an innovative stewardship project with the Peconic Land Trust on Long Island. Currently serving 250 CSA members, local restaurants, food pantries and farmers markets, Scott has also nourished the world through the thoughtful training of well over one hundred apprentices.
I first heard Scott speak as NOFA-NY’s Farmer of the Year at the 2013 Winter Conference. The room was silent and electric, all attention rapt as the farmer-poet-sage brought us on a journey of soil and spirit, simultaneously grounding and uplifting us, renewing our passion for the good work and good world we call home.
As a seed farmer, breeder and founder of Fruition Seeds, I am particularly inspired by Scott’s rich, articulate commitment to sharing the significance of the seeds that form the foundation of our food system.
Scott’s recent book Seedtime celebrates the seed through story and scholarship, calling us to “renew our role as citizens of nature,” as Aldo Leopold implored, “not as conquerors of it.” We shared a conversation this fall and here are a few highlights.
Petra: Scott, what is a seed?
Scott: Each seed is a story, a story held in a state of rest. To grasp the whole story, we will have to look at the structure of a flower, how plants have evolved to attract pollinators, and how a flowering plant produces seed. Our entire food supply is a gift of the angiosperm revolution – the magnificent event that introduced flowering plants to the world 140 million years ago – and our health and food futures are entwined with the way in which we choose to nurture or manipulate the seeds of that natural revolution.
Petra: How has our relationship with seed developed over time?
Scott: Throughout most of the history of agriculture, each farmer was by definition a seedsman. In the fields, the strongest plants were selected, collected and saved the seeds to ensure another harvest. Seed companies eventually replaced farmers in the field as the keepers and purveyors of seed. As seed production became more centralized, on-farm breeding and seed selection diminished, and the indigenous wisdom of generations began to fade. How many of us can name the difference between an open-pollinated plant and a hybrid, let alone understand the implications of our present industrial systems for our food supply? If we retrace the story of seeds to the waters and soil of origin we will glimpse a shared identity. We are, after all, fellow travelers on this earth and dependent on each other.
Petra: How has your relationship with seed developed over time?
Scott: I was first welcomed to the world of plants by a garden in England in my late 20s, studying plants and poetry. I learned to turn the earth and to cultivate crops in the dark, fertile soil of the cliff meadows perched just above Merlin’s rock, where the interconnection between mineral, flowering plants and man – far from abstraction – could be immediately felt. Twenty five years ago we began Quail Hill Farm on Long Island, planting many thousands of seeds each year. Fifteen years ago we began to save seed from our fields and immediately noticed the signature of farmer-saved seed: better performance. Finally, I was inspired to write Seedtime in reverence to the miracle of creation as well as the need to communicate the story of seed with more people.
Petra: It’s a beautiful book Scott, thank you for writing it. What specific qualities do you see changing in the seed you’ve saved on your farm?
Scott: The first seeds we saved at Quail Hill were tomatoes. Increased productivity and earliness were notable, but perhaps the most significant experience came in 2009, the first year we experienced Late Blight. Though we eventually lost our entire crop, four varieties specifically stood out as resilient, producing fruit weeks after the rest. These four were each crops we had been saving seed of, adapting them to our conditions, to our needs. Some were varieties widely known for this resistance, such as Matt’s Wild Cherry. Others had no known resistance, such as Jaune Flammee. This resilience defies characterization and we continue to value seed selected on our farm as a result.
Petra: How does the term “citizen” relate to seeds and seed saving?
Scott: Functional societies cultivate citizens who find themselves and find their place, learn throughout their lives and contribute to the health of the whole. Of course, this is how seeds function. For us often ‘thinking’ gets in the way. I love a statement about the effectiveness of plants by Zen teacher Robert Aitken. It goes something like this: “Clover does not think about responsibility…its response to altered circumstances is to give nourishment.” When I first learned about the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model I thought, “now here is a way contribute to our culture in a way that deepens my relationship with the Earth and serves needs greater than my own.”
Petra: So true! Scott, where do you find hope these days?
Scott: In the passion of young people! The change of age and interest in farming is dramatic and invigorating. The NOFA-NY Winter Conference used to be about 200 people, many in their 40s and 50s; now it’s about 1500 people, 75% are in their 20s. Quail Hill was one of the first CSAs in the country; now there are more than 6000. We are ready to get back to our roots!
Petra: And what would you like us all to remember?
Scott: The health of our fields, the health of our plant communities and the future of our food supply will depend on whether, as a global culture, we can learn to respect the whole of the biological community and to accept our role as citizens of it. Our culture, our habitation in this time on Earth, is in need of transformation, some say in the shape of a new story. Transformation comes from within, and seeds have mastered the art.
Petra Page-Mann co-founded Fruition Seeds, customizing organic seed to thrive in the Northeast. Growing, developing, sharing and inspiring regionally adapted seed networks is her passion! Find over 200 organic, regionally-adapted varieties on her website, fruitionseeds.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.