If you want to understand a free market, you can look at a stilted institution like the New York Stock Exchange, or you can look at something that’s got more roots, like the http://www.seedsavers.org/Seed Savers Exchange. The Seed Savers Exchange is an organization with stock that is thousands of years old – as old as agriculture itself. Members of the Seed Savers Exchange grow and harvest seed from heirloom varieties of vegetables, herbs, flowers and other useful plants.
You may think that the autumn is the wrong time of year to be thinking about seeds, but that’s only if you’re not collecting them. Huge numbers of annual plants are now setting seed, including a large number of vegetable varieties that you’ve never heard of. You see, the world of vegetables is much more diverse and tasty than what you’ll find in a supermarket these days. That’s because most of the vegetables out there come from just a few varieties. The same is true even if you grow your own plants from commercially-sold seed.
It didn’t used to be this way. It used to be that farmers and gardeners themselves saved seeds from their own plants, to replant the next year. The best plants gave the best seeds, and so a huge number of varieties developed, each one suited to its particular region and to the palates of the people nearby. The seeds for these successful varieties were passed down from generation to generation.
Now, we’re in the precarious position of having lost a great deal of those varieties. Over the last few generations, 75 percent of the genetic diversity of the world’s food crops has been lost. We’re almost all eating the same green bean – and what if that green bean is vulnerable to a new disease? Well, then, we’re fresh out of green beans.
The Seed Savers Exchange is working to stave off such a catastrophe, by keeping as many heirloom varieties as possible alive. Members of the Seed Savers grow and trade heirloom varieties of seed – just as you can if you start growing heirloom plants yourself. It’s an alternative kind of economy to what we have now, but it’s traditional and quite normal when the larger scope of human history is considered.
Don’t worry, though, you don’t have to join a commune and drink your water out of used yogurt containers to get involved. The Seed Savers Exchange also presents a catalog of some of its varieties to the public at large. In particular, I suggest starting with garlic. It’s easy to grow, so long as you amend your soil to make it rich in organic matter, and the “seeds” are easy to collect. You just take the few biggest bulbs that you’ve grown, and replant the cloves in the autumn, after you have harvested the rest for your use. It’s a mark of the integrity of the Seed Savers Exchange that they offer heirlooms to buy and then encourage you to save the seed for yourself so that you’ll never need to buy them again.
Heck, after a year or two, you can start giving away some of your seeds to friends and neighbors. That way, your whole town can begin taking part in the ancient stock exchange that the Seed Savers are working so hard to preserve.