From Switzerland we traveled back north up to Germany for a visit with Ulla Grall of Bio-Saatgut. The name of her company says it all: “Organic Seeds”. Ulla offers through her catalog seeds that she produces herself and those grown by several small contract growers, as well as seeds from Sativa Rheinau and a French seed company called Ferme de Sainte Marthe. Ulla told us she wants to grow more of her own seed herself, but also takes pride in the fact that she offers seeds from two other countries. Because of the EU seed laws it is difficult for many people to order seeds from other countries, or they simply don’t think of it as an option. Through her seed company, Ulla offers many varieties that would otherwise be unavailable to German gardeners.
R to L: On the streets of Armsheim, Ulla grall in her garden, more of her gardens.
Ulla became involved in seeds initially as a translator and marketer for Ferme de Sainte Marthe in Germany more than a decade ago when the company was trying to expand into the German market. After Ferme abandoned this project, Ulla took on selling some of their varieties personally. What began as a small mail order resale company has since blossomed into one of the only independent organically certified seed companies in Germany.
Pro Specie Rara (PSR) is Switzerland’s seed savers exchange. Unlike the American Seed Savers Exchange, PSR focuses solely on Swiss heirloom varieties: in order for a seed to be accepted into the PSR collection, it should have been grown in Switzerland for at least thirty years. For this reason, there are PSR listed Swiss heirloom Chioggia beets and many types of “French beans.” Traditional Swiss agriculture (and gardening) was heavily influenced by its neighboring countries (Germany, Austria, Italy, and France), as was the language, so the Pro Specie Rara inventory is quite varied. In addition to the vegetable varieties, PSR also promotes the stewardship of traditional animals and fruits. To date, 25 breeds of rare animals and dozens of fruits are promoted through the organization.
Right to left: PSR; Marianna Serena Seeds project leader; The Seed Vault
Pro Specie Rara is 25 years old in 2007, and at the peak of their acquisitions they obtained hundreds of heirloom varieties each year — seven or eight years ago they acquired 100 – 200 new sorts per year. The past few years, though, fewer and fewer varieties have been submitted, and in 2006 they only received 20 new accessions. Marianna Serena, who manages the seed collection, said she feels good about the quantity of seeds they have, adding that the organization is about at the limit of what they can care for. Pro Specie Rara doesn’t have its own gardens like some other Seed Savers organizations — they are more of a networking and marketing hub for old varieties.
After another pre-dawn start, we left the company of the kind folks at Bingenheimer and headed south towards Nuremberg and beyond. Our next stop: Gerhard Bohl’s home and gardens in the hamlet of Rednitzenbach. Gerhard and his wife Susanne are the brains, braun, and brilliance behind Das Sortenbuch (= the variety handbook), a mail-order catalog collection of more than 2,000 tomatoes, 380 peppers, 700 beans, and hundreds of other rare and unusual vegetables (written in German).
The crew: Susanne, Peter and Gerhard; Filderkraut – the ultimate Sauerkraut cabbage; Jelly melon slightly useful cucurbit.
Gerhard trades straight across with gardeners and fellow “collectioners” to the tune of some 20,000 seed packs per year. He distributes another 30,000 seed packs per year through other venues, mostly through his mail-order catalog with gardeners in other parts of Germany. Gardeners must write him by post and send five Euro for a copy of the Sortenbuch. If they decide that they want something from the buch, (how can they not?), they write again and send one Euro for every seed pack that they order, or if they are seed savers they can send in seeds from something they have grown in lieu of the cash. To encourage his customers to participate in the exchange and the stewardship of varieties, the Sortenbuch has several pages in the beginning that instruct people how to save seeds. This information is an important part of Gerhard’s work, as German-language editions of seed saving books are not common.
We left Greifswald for Bingenheimer Saatgut AG, the largest biodynamic seed company in Germany, Leaving super extra early on Tuesday morning, we traveled via “Mitfahrgelegenheit” through Berlin and on down to a small town northeast of Frankfurt. “Mitfahrgelegenheit” is the musical word for ‘organized rideshare’, and there are several websites that one can use to post rides wanted or rides offered. People in the US use Craigslist for this purpose, but in Germany the practice is more widespread and therefore more effective. Mitfahrgelegenheit costs about half as much as a train and can get you there twice as fast, and it is a good way to meet people. Since we traveled so far, we pieced together two rides and had a few hours to hang out in Berlin. We were delivered to the door of Bingenheimer, 13 hours after the start of our journey – not really twice as fast as the train but still half the cost!
We stayed, worked and learned with the kind folks at Bingenheimer for three work days, from Wednesday through Friday. This was our first visit with a seed company, and we learned a lot and had a really good time. Andrew was in heaven being surrounded by so many seeds, and the sense of community there really impressed me. But these are just two of the indicators that Bingenheimer Saatgut AG is not your average seed company. It is primarily Biodynamic. It is the hub for a network of 30 Biodynamic vegetable breeders in Germany. It was once part of and is still affiliated with the Lebensgemeinschaft Bingenheimer, a Camphill-esque community that fully integrates people with developmental disabilities into the tasks of daily life. As such, the Saatgut Werkstatt (seed workshop) is one of five workshops that employ disabled people in the community; they also rotate through candle making, woodworking, ceramics, and weaving workshops. Additionally, some of them work on the biodynamic dairy farm and others in the gardens, helping to grow food for the community and seed for the seed company.
The Vavilov Institute is located in two beautiful old buildings in the main part of St. Petersberg. We were told that the government does not believe the Institute needs to be located on such prime real estate (right next to the Hotel Astoria and other big-money hotels), and so they do not provide them with the funds to maintain the buildings.
Some of the space of at least one of the buildings is rented out to other businesses and this building, which houses the herbarium and some of the gene bank, as well as many offices, is in the course of renovation — the outside is complete but the inside has far to go. This is the building that we spent most of our time in — it houses Sergey’s office.
Left: Sergey Alexanian, our great host. Right: One of many Vavilov Statues.
We had the opportunity, though, to walk across a great traffic circle (the “backyard”) to the Institute’s building on the other side. This building was initially designed to be apartments for nobility (200+ years ago), and some of the interiors were reminiscent of the Hermitage, with gold plating on the walls and frescoes in the halls, and ornately carved ceilings throughout. This is where the Director of the Institute’s office lies, and also where the private Vavilov Museum is located. There are also two great halls capable of hosting at least 100 people for conferences and the like, and also many other offices that we did not see. Our tour of this building began with a walk around to see some of the more impressive rooms mentioned above.
Next we went to the private Vavilov Museum, which consists of several exhibits detailing the achievements of Vavilov as well as those of the Institute. There are maps depicting Vavilov’s Centers of Origin, and maps that show where he himself went on collecting missions over a 20-year period from the 19teens to 1940. The most impressive map, though, is the one that details all of the collecting missions that have been carried out by all staff of the Vavilov Institute over the past 100 years – this map is nearly all marked up, except for locations that are very far north. This is especially impressive when one considers the political situation with Russia for most of that time, and the financial situation now.
Photos from left to right: Sergey giving us the museum tour, books in Vavilov’s study, map of the institute’s collection missions, N.I. Vavilov.
On Wednesday we had the pleasure of taking a tour of parts of the Vavilov Institute. The first stop on our tour was the Herbarium. An herbarium is a collection of preserved samples of plants or plant parts, usually pressed on sheets of paper, for scientists and researchers to view. The herbarium at the Vavilov Institute is home to over 200,000 such samples, collected by Vavilov himself and other scientists on collection missions throughout the world. It was once one of the preeminent herbariums in the world, but now the largest herbariums in France and England house over seven million specimens!
We were very excited to see the herbarium, but also a bit surprised at its condition. Everything was very clean and well organized, but it seemed that funds were deemed to be more useful elsewhere, as the lights were off and the room was lit through the open curtains only (this could be better for the specimens). There was no climate control, and the cabinets and boxes used to store the specimens were quite antique looking. Many aspects of the Vavilov Institute seem to be straight from another time, and the herbarium was no exception.
Left: Preparing seeds to give to VIR. Right: The Vavilov Institute.
There were a few people working in the room, examining specimens at their leisure. The coordinator took a few minutes to show us some samples that are kept out as examples of the layout of different types of plants. We viewed samples of a grass and a tree, and observed how they were filed according to species in boxes stacked in row after row of tall wood cherry wood cabinets. One of the samples had the signiture of Vavilov on it — this was a sample that he had actually collected! After sufficient oohs and aahs, we walked down to the office of one of the scientists.
Left: Sergey showing us the the Herbarium collection. Right: A specimen collected by N.I. Vavilov in the 1920′s.
We were quite happy to meet the Director of Legumes, Dr. Margarita Vishnyakova. In her office we found petrie dishes with examples of the different species of beans and peas, and a large case filled with different fava bean (Vicia faba) varieties. On her wall were two mosaics made from beans, and on shelves around were giant pods from leguminous trees and branches from different leguminous plants.
In 1939 Winston Churchill said “Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” and coincidently a short time before we entered the country there was a magazine title story that was called something like, “Russia — Understanding the Enigma” sitting in the window of a German book store. More than 65 years later Churchill’s description is still applicable.
Most of us have some sort of preconceived notions about Russia, and we must admit that we had ours. Our stay in Saint Petersburg was really only enough to add to those a priori assumptions, and as with most countries (and most things in general), we left feeling like we had learned just enough to realize that we haven’t a clue about the country, let alone the city that we called home for eight days.
Photos from right to left: Frozen crust on the River Moyka, The Hermitage, The first tourist pose in a long time, The “Church on Spilled Blood” used as a root cellar but the Soviets.
Our interest in visiting Russia was inspired by the renowned Vavilov Institute (VIR), which is known for housing one of the world’s largest and oldest gene banks. In planning our trip to Europe, the VIR was at the top of the list of places we wanted to go, and after more than a little effort, Nick was able to secure an invitation for us.
We had the unique circumstance of arranging a visit to Russia that bridged the first two weeks of the New Year, with an arrival of January 4 and a departure of January 12. In arranging our trip, Sergey Alexanian, a Vice Director and the Foreign Relations specialist at the Vavilov Institute, had mentioned “the holidays,” but I assumed he was referring only to the couple of days on either side of the weekend of January 6-7, the Eastern Orthodox Christmas. Like with many assumptions, I was very wrong.
Portrait of N.I Vavilov
When we got off the bus in Copenhagen it was very cold and seemed as though nothing was open. We decided to walk towards the center of town, past Tivoli Gardens and the wax museum to the main square. When we got to the town square it was full of life. We were surprised to see so many people awake so early — until we realized it wasn’t early for them, it was late. The bars were still open and they were still out from the night before. Once we had this realization it became obvious that every person that passed us was quite drunk, and so we had an amusing time sitting on a bench in the square watching the show.
Eventually it was late enough to call Søren Holt, a member of the Danish Seed Savers Association (Frøsamlerne) who would be our ride to Ødense for the Seed Cleaning Workshop later that day. We had a bit of difficulty with the pay phone, until a kind and compassionate (and very drunk) young man offered to make the call for us. After our pick-up was arranged, our new friend asked us what we were doing in Denmark. When we told him, he laughed and said, “You guys are very big nerds. I thought I was a big nerd when I play online video games, but you are even more nerds. You are like bionic nerds, made up of many pieces of smaller nerds stuck together!” I thanked him for the complement and the phone call, and we parted ways.
It was early enough that we were able to go back to Søren’s house before driving the 2.5 hours to Ødense. He served us toast and coffee and finally, Ikea made sense to me! We took a quick tour of his garden and were off.
The seed cleaning workshop in Ødense was attended by about 18 people, all members of the Frøsamlerne. The presenter, Jeppe Dalsgaard, has worked for seed companies in Scandinavia long enough that he had a great amount of knowledge to share: He knows the magic of cleaning seeds by hand (without fans!). Jeppe gave thorough demonstrations on cleaning spinach, kale, and carrot seeds using only three different sized screens, a shallow metal drum that looked something like a large cheese cake pan with a very fine wire mesh at the bottom, two trays and a muslin sack. He also gave the mathematical equations for how dry a seed can get at a certain temperature with a certain atmospheric humidity. He explained the finer details of “priming” parsley seed so it germinates quicker, and taught about the difference between seed vigor (speed with which seeds sprout) and germination rate (total percentage of sprouted seeds after a given period of time).