Safe Seeds

Photography by Lauren Lyon

April 28 2015

The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is an income sharing community and seed distribution network based in Mineral, Virginia. The SESE specializes in cultivating and preserving heirloom, organic, non-GMO seeds for gardening and farming.

Paul Blundell is building an office in the thick July heat of Mineral, Virginia. The overbearing Appalachian humidity clings to his skin as he navigates the building’s ebony timber framework, but he enjoys the hard labor. He could be in the kitchen all day, stuck inside cooking lunch and dinner for the thirty plus members of the Acorn community. Or picking seeds from stinking buckets of fermenting tomato crop. He’s not much of a farmer, he admits that, but even though he works for one of the South’s largest distribution networks of heirloom and open-pollinated garden seeds, it doesn’t seem to matter all that much.

Once completed, the building Paul is working on will serve as the front-end office for the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Located on a 72-acre farm, the SESE is owned and operated by the members of Acorn, an intentional egalitarian community that operates much like a commune. The workflow at Acorn can be described as fluid and non-bureaucratic; members are allowed to choose their daily tasks for which they all receive the same wages. Creative problem solving is emphasized, as well as participating in multiple roles throughout the day. “There’s a certain skill to being able to be productive in a non-structured work environment,” Blundell explains, “and figuring out how to make work quota, get things done…how to arrange my life.”

While the open lifestyle of the community is perhaps one of the biggest draws to living and working at Acorn, it all serves to work toward a larger set of common goals. The SESE specializes in producing and protecting ecologically grown, USDA certified organic, heirloom seeds. These heirloom seeds, strains saved by small family farmers, are the product of a lineage of seeds introduced prior to 1940 that can reproduce the same variety year after year.

Darla Eaton, another young Acorn member, describes the benefits of seed saving. “It’s a self sustaining cycle that’s building soil fertility. It’s healthy for the environment and it produces delicious food. We see a lot of work in democratizing the seed supply, and putting the power of the food supply back into the hands of the people and away from large multinational corporations.”

I mean, there's this bunch of total wackos living on some farm and they're doin' it! We're not killing each other. We're running this, like, giant dynamic business at the same time. Fuckin' no bosses, barely any structure, nobody assigning anybody any work. It just, like, fuckin' happens.

Paul Blundell, Resident/Employee SESE

Corporate interference is the biggest threat to the practices of open seed saving. The proliferation of patented, genetically modified (GMO) seeds and the ongoing effects of invasive cross-pollination of organic crops by GMO pollen has lead to a rash of legal disputes over ownership rights between independent farmers and major corporate entities. Independent farmers are facing legal action because their crops contain even trace amounts of patented genes, something they have no control over.

The SESE, along with 80 other plaintiffs, have been involved in an ongoing suit against these corporations. They hope to reduce corporate powers to sue small farmers over genetic contamination, revoke the patent on GMO seeds on the grounds that such resources have not been properly tested to ensure safe human consumption, and also to hinder the threat of corporate monopolization of the food industry. 

“A lot of people are becoming aware of food security and want to be more local and sustainable in their food consumption, “says Darla, “seed saving is closing the gap of self-sufficiency and autonomy in the food industry.”

I think that community living gives you an opportunity to try things that you might not otherwise be able to do if you had a 9-5 job, you know. I was a craftsperson for a living for a long time, and then I did herbs...On the outside, once you do something that's reasonably successful, you're tied to it for the rest of your life.

Ira Wells, Resident/Employee SESE

Despite the ongoing legal clashes, life rolls on at Acorn. It’s six o’clock and it’s time to cool down in the river before supper. A small group of community members relax by the smoke shack, a small shed decorated with art and anti-corporate signage, the only place on the farm where smoking is permitted. “I’m going to build this building. And when it’s done, I’m going to take a vacation. “Paul explains his plans. “We’re a popular destination for free spirits traveling around the country, going to awesome places…I’m holding down one of these awesome places…and someday I’d like to go and see the awesome things that other people are holding down.”