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.
From Gerhard and Susanne’s we traveled by train south to Sativa Rheinau, a biodynamic seed company in Switzerland near the border town of Schaffhausen, home to the largest waterfall in Europe. Set in a seventeenth century monastery on an island in the Rheine, Sativa is blessed with being one of the most beautiful places we have happened across in our travels. The seed company at Sativa is part of a larger Biodynamic farm project that integrates 25 handicapped people into the work with animals (dairy and meat), fruits, vineyard, grains, and seed growing and processing tasks.
falls on the Rhine, Sativa HQ, seed room
Sativa’s main vegetable seed customers are home gardeners, and they work closely with Pro Specie Rara (PSR) to distribute heirloom Swiss varieties. (More about PSR, the Swiss seed savers group, in a later posting). Sativa’s main work with farmers is in their work with seed potatoes and grains, and they sell large quantities of rye, spelt, and wheat to farmers there. Because Switzerland is not part of the EU, they do not have the restrictions of most other countries in regards to the Common Catalog. But this does not mean that they do not have to deal with limitations; as is the case in the US, high quality open-pollinated varieties for market gardeners are either nonexistent or are hard to come by.
Rhine, monastery, garden, gate
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).