Who’s growing food? These Hawaii seeds are for Hawaii needs

Poha berry, soybean, tomatoes, corn, greens made for growing in Hawaii: Local Seeds has them

Perhaps, when the pandemic hit, you turned to local produce and meats. And perhaps you even started a garden of your own. But where did you buy your seeds? The UH Seed Lab and the Hawai‘i Seed Growers Network “are the only sources of seed growing from Hawai‘i and for Hawai‘i,” says Jay Bost, a seed grower and Waimānalo “farm coach” with GoFarm, an ag training program.

Perhaps it sounds like such a small thing, caring whether your seeds came from Hawai‘i or Home Depot. But a seed always contains something bigger than itself.

There is Love Lies Bleeding and there is Love in a Mist. There is Rainbow x Seminole Squash and Lady Finger Okra. There is Karinata Kale, thought to have been domesticated 6,000 years ago. There is ashwagandha, used for more than 3,000 years in India as a medicinal plant and today touted as a stress reliever. There is love and sustenance and medicine to be cultivated from the Hawai‘i Seed Growers Network’s marketplace of “local seeds for local needs.”

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local seeds
— Photo by Augusto Decastro

Local seeds can save you some grief. “We have fairly unique growing conditions out here,” Bost says. “Pest and disease and heat issues. People who don’t know about all the issues and they just buy something off the rack at the grocery store or the hardware store, depending on where you are, there’s a 50% to 90% chance you’re going to fail. There are viruses here that they don’t have on the Mainland.” On the Hawai‘i Seed Growers Network online marketplace, “we offer varieties that have adapted to here and proven to work well here.” Among them, cherry tomatoes, sweet peppers, multiple varieties of cilantro and lettuce.

Bost is like an ancestry.com for seeds, reciting a lineage of pole beans (Lualualei Wonder, crossed with Kentucky Wonder, begat Hawaiian Wonder, which crossed with Alabama No. 1, begat Manoa Wonder). He’s also worried about losing the history in seeds. The Hawai‘i Seed Growers Network formed in 2014 to help preserve Hawai‘i’s seed biodiversity; according to the Hawai‘i Public Seed Initiative, more than 90% of the fruit and vegetable varieties offered by seed companies in the United States in 1900 are no longer available today. We are losing genetic diversity. And if the pandemic has taught us anything about our food supply, it’s that diversification leads to resiliency.

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Right now, Bost is growing to seed some sweet corn varieties developed by James Brewbaker, a plant geneticist and breeder. Bost says, “If we don’t grow it and people aren’t planting it, that’s 50 years of breeding work for stuff that does specifically well to Hawai‘i that’s going to be lost—which seems like it’s going to be a pity.”

Growing seeds also allows farmers to diversify economically. Or, as Glenn Teves, part of the Hawai‘i Seed Growers Network and farmer on Moloka‘i, wrote in the Moloka‘i Native Hawaiian Beginning Farmers Quarterly: “It’s called empowerment; we cannot wait for the next sugar daddy to come along and save us because they’re not coming here to save us; they’re coming here to expand THEIR portfolio! The only ones who are worrying about us are US!”