Imagine for a moment that the remarkable and immensely energy dependent utility and transportation system we rely on each day were to suddenly stop. Where would your water come from? Where would your food come from? What if the system recovers very slowly or never recovers?
Many of us take precautions against emergencies. We store a bit of food, we have an emergency generator out in the garage, we keep a flashlight in our bed table, and we own a solar emergency radio. For short-term emergencies there are a wide range of preparations that we would be wise to make. Long-term emergencies, however, require a substantially different yet complimentary approach, one that is based on knowledge of our most basic needs. Could you find and purify your own water? Could you grow your own food? Could you build your own shelter?
For those of you who feel certain you could grow your own food, have you ever considered where those seeds will come from? The vast majority of the viable fruit and vegetable seeds on our planet are controlled by just a handful of companies. As such, the seeds themselves are not widely distributed. Despite what you may believe, the plants out in your garden right now (or those growing at local farms) are unlikely to produce a seed you will be able to plant next year.
First off, when you buy a pack of seeds at your local garden store or department store you are most likely purchasing what is referred to as an F1 Hybrid. What that means is that the seed in that packet is the genetic offspring of two different plants. Imagine you breed a horse and a donkey. What do you get? You get a mule, and a mule can be a pretty useful creature to have around, but unfortunately, it will not reproduce for you. In other words, through the process of hybridization, plant breeders can produce some pretty remarkable and vigorous plant varieties, but they may well produce sterile seeds. As an aside, this is different than genetic modification, which has been used to actually engineer sterile seeds.
In some other cases, those plants out in your garden will produce viable seeds, but they won’t produce a plant you would recognize. Have you ever tried to plant a pumpkin seed from your carved pumpkin? If you do you will be surprised at the strange white, green or even blue gourds the plant from your seed will produce. While some of these squash (though not all) will be edible, you will find that the seeds you save out in your garden won’t end up looking like the plants you are expecting.
Still other plants such as fruit trees are unlikely to grow well enough in your region to produce fruit. When you buy an apple, pear, peach or plum tree and plant it, you are actually planting the root of a very different plant that has been “grafted” onto the bottom of your fruit tree. The root stock you are planting will grow fine in your climate, but if you go to try to plant the seed of one of your fruits, you will find it simply cannot survive.
For those concerned about emergency preparedness, your goal should be what is called seed sovereignty. From a political, sociological and even environmental perspective, seed sovereignty is about corporate control over seeds, genetic modification, lack of distribution and buying power. Individually, for those of you reading my blog, it is about whether you have any control over the seeds that you will need to save your life in an emergency.
If you are not storing seeds and learning a bit about how to grow them, you are turning control over your food supply to distant corporations unlikely to come to your rescue in an emergency. You simply must consider including seeds as a part of your emergency preparedness toolkit. It really isn’t that difficult.
First, you should look to purchase and save seeds for an emergency. Seeds can be purchased online or locally. I recommend purchasing from a seed company directly for the best germination rates. For the sake of a long-term emergency, you should be looking for “open pollinated” or “heirloom” seeds. For the sake of this blog, both of those terms mean the seed is not an F1 hybrid, and is therefore going to produce a viable seed genetically similar to the plant you just grew. Seed companies selling open-pollinated and heirloom varieties include Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange, Seeds of Change and many others.
Once you have your seeds, you will need to store them in a dark, cool and dry environment. Some of us keep our seeds in an airtight plastic bag in our basement. This works great if you are planning to grow out your seeds on a regular basis. If you are planning to store these seeds for a long time you should consider storing them in a chest freezer. If you do, pack them tightly in an airtight plastic bag that you have sealed in a canning jar. The seeds will remain viable longer if kept frozen, but must not be exposed to moisture. In the event of an emergency, your freezer is unlikely to be of any further use, but your seeds will have been preserved and are now ready for planting.
How many seeds and of what varieties depends on the size of your family, your personal interests and the climate where you live. Your local extension agent can likely point you in the direction of recommended plant varieties, a planting calendar and even how many plants you will need per person for a growing season. This guide from the University of Missouri extension includes all of the data I just mentioned in one short publication.
Second, you will need to know something about how to grow those seeds and then save seeds for yet another year. A wide range of resources are available for learning both. Seed saving resources can be found all over the internet, but I would suggest you glance at the resource database at Seed Savers Exchange. All in all it is really quite simple. You put the seed in the dirt, water it, eat most of it and keep the seed of what you didn’t eat for the next year. Keep in mind that some vegetables such as carrots are biennials, meaning it will take two years to produce a seed. That means you need to save enough seeds for two years of carrots rather than just one as you will not be able to harvest seeds until the end of your second year.
Emergencies and unexpected events do happen. Some of those emergencies require us to have 72 hours of canned food and water packed up and ready to move with us. Other emergencies may require a bit more of us. I hope you consider preparing for both.
Vincent M. Smith – PhD
Vincent M. Smith is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies at Southern Oregon University, the co-owner of Silent Springs, and the author of the Organic Times Blog.
Seed Image Credit: marekuliasz @ istockphoto