Photo credited to Grounded Acres Organic Farm.
Member Profile: Mel Sylvestre of Grounded Acres Organic Farm
BCESC Member since: the first day!
Tell us about your farm:
Grounded Acres Organic Farm is a 5 acre farm located on unceded Sḵwx̱wú7mesh territory in Gibsons BC. We moved here on the winter solstice of 2020 and opened ground spring 2021. We had been looking to put down roots for many years on the Sunshine Coast and we are so happy to finally be here. We grow mixed vegetables for the southern Sunshine Coast and have 100 laying hens. We plan to expand and include more seed production once our annual crop system is well-established.
How did you get into farming?
By accident, being a jobless sound technician in Montreal back in 2003, I ended up touring children on an organic farm on the west side of Montreal. I got curious about the growing happening in the field and found myself on another organic farm the following year working in the production field. I never looked back and never touched a sound board again after that!
What inspired you to start saving seeds?
The lack of access to locally grown seeds in the quantity needed by commercial producers. Once I realized where most of our seeds came from (all over the world), and found out that we could be growing some of them well in our region, I committed to learning as much as I could about seeds. I ultimately wanted to produce large quantities so that other small-scale growers like me could access locally grown seeds too.
Why is seed saving important to you?
It is a vital and essential part of our food system. It is one of the first things that happens in order to have food on our tables. Seed production is not just another crop we grow, it is also a political statement. The majority of the seeds needed to grow food on the planet, mainly grains, are highly controlled. Vegetable seeds might not be as controlled but they fall within a system that has so much power over our food system. Saving seeds should be a right not a privilege.
Tell us about your current seed operation:
Given that this is our first year on this land, we had to strategically reduce our seed saving practices to focus on building infrastructure and growing only the crops we knew would do well. That said, I cannot live a year without some seed saving of some sorts and there are many breeding projects I have been working on for a few years that I didn’t want to skip a year on. This year we have golden-chioggia cross beets going to seed. Those roots came from UBC Farm where I used to be. We also have a planting of Melaton leek (first year), and six different breeding lines of beans.
What is the most unusual/special/unique seed you've saved?
Not to be cheesy but every seed is unique. There are many seeds that are very unique in terms of their shape or texture, and others that are unique in terms of their growth habit. If I had to pick one I would say tomatillo. I just love how the seeds, if left to their own devices, will remain in the husk of the fruit like a natural seed packet waiting to be blown to their new home the following year. I’m also surprised at how well they fare through our winter and how easily they would become a weed wherever they have been grown.
Favourite seed to save?
I’m tempted to pick my favorite based on how easy they are to clean! Brassica Oleraceae is a winner in that category. Their pods are so easy to break and winnow away and the seeds, being perfectly round, are easy and fast to clean.
What is the best part of seed saving? Most challenging?
The best part is the discovery and the learning. Each crop has its unique way to produce seeds and it is always an exciting journey to learn the ways to work with it and learn how to grow and process it well. This can also be the most challenging part of seed saving as many crops are tricky to clean or even collect in time!
What seed saving projects are you inspired by right now?
The Sustainable Seed System Lab at Washington State University has recently launched into a buckwheat breeding program. This might not sound super exciting for most people but I am a big fan of buckwheat and got very excited knowing there’s some intention to improve the common buckwheat variety that we all work with. Common buckwheat is a work horse on many fronts but like many crops, I don’t think it has been maintained to its best agronomic traits and I believe the crop has potential beyond what we can get on the current market.
What is your favourite/most used/well loved seed saving tool?
I had the pleasure to work with a small winnower at UBC Farm for many years. It was brought to Canada by Mojave Kaplan from the Planting Seeds Project. I believe she imports them from Japan. It is a simple metal box with a hand cranked paddle fan. It does the same work as a box fan but allows more precision. I loved how versatile, adaptable, light, and easy it is to set up. I wish I could have taken it with me!
Why did you decide to join the BC Eco Seed Coop?
As a founding member, the co-op was a dream come true to me. Since I started saving seeds I always wanted to have my seeds available and accessible to other farmers, in quantities needed by farmers. This intention is what keeps me interested in the co-op’s activities and sets us apart from many other small local seed companies. I also appreciate greatly being so closely connected with other fellow seed producers and the feeling of community.
What is your favourite seed saving or starting resource/book/mentor?
I have learned a lot over the years via various in-person workshops, field tours, conferences and online resources put out by the Organic Seed Alliance. We are so lucky to have access to this organization based in the Pacific Northwest. I highly recommend their website resource centre as well as attending any events put on by them. Although they are in the US, many of their resources have been developed in the Pacific Northwest which is close enough to BC to make the information very relevant.
Any tips or lessons you could share with a home gardener or new seed saver to help them succeed?
Never stop trying and don’t forget to observe all stages of the plant's growth. People often forget that seeds carry the genetic material that will make the future plants and the only way to know if what you are saving is good is by observing the plants before the seeds come. A strong plant makes good food and good seeds!
How has covid-19 affected the work you do? Have you had to make any interesting changes to your farm or business as a result? What have you learned from it?
I felt affected by COVID-19 in 2020 when it first started back when I was still at UBC Farm. There were lots of uncertainties and unknowns. In the end, we went through the season as usual with just a few less students and volunteers. This year, on our new land, I can’t tell what would be different or not given it is our first year. One thing I know is that farmers are some of the most adaptable humans I know and I witness incredible innovations in the farming business just to get the food to customers.
Learn more about the farmers who grow your seeds through the interviews in this series.