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Seeds, Hunger and Planting Ideas

martin bartels

Even this late in the northern Virginia growing season, I’m clipping the last of my herbs from our modest little home garden. I loved my garden this year, for its sanctuary, for its relative abundance (don’t ask about the bell peppers), and for its economy. Those vegetables and herbs saved me much needed money at the grocery store.

In fact, a lot of people seem to have taken that route to being both economically and environmentally conscious. Plenty of statistics show that home food gardening is on the rise. According to the Garden Writers Assn. Foundation, more than 41 million U.S. households grew a vegetable garden in 2009, a significant increase over past years. The National Gardening Assn. supports that increase in their 2010 report, indicating a 19 percent increase in home food gardening.

Unexpectedly, this trend makes my day job a bit difficult. As president and CEO of Seed Programs International, I work to help ensure that impoverished and undernourished people around the world have access to quality seed.

SPI works with organizations like the Peace Corps, UMCOR, the Watson Children’s Foundation, and other humanitarian groups, to create family, community and school gardens. The goal is to combat world hunger with a long-term solution — teaching people to farm and sustain themselves — rather than crisis-driven food aid. Since its founding in 1999, SPI has distributed almost 13 million packets of vegetable seed in 72 countries.

But when the U.S. economy lags and home gardening increases, good seed becomes more difficult to get from the major seed producers. There’s simply less seed to go around, particularly from the more popular crops (not coincidentally, the crops that are easiest to grow and that produce most abundantly).

While not quite crisis proportions, the increased demand for seeds in the U.S. puts significant pressure on us to find appropriate seeds for the climates and conditions in the many places to which we send assistance.

As a small nonprofit that spends less than 5 percent of our revenues on general management, our energies must shift from serving the end-user of the seed to creating new partnerships to acquire the seed. Most of our seeds are donated, so we gratefully take what we can get. Additional cash donations from individuals, corporations and foundations will help us develop grant programs so we can more easily obtain the appropriate seeds for the people who need them most.

What you or I might pay for a package or two of seeds represents an entire month’s income to some impoverished families. And, even if they have access to seed locally, there’s no guarantee it will grow. At SPI we test seed to make sure that nothing is shipped with a germination rate of less than 80 percent (and usually much higher).

Seeds are sensitive things. They need to be cared for with much the same diligence we pay to the plants they’ll produce. We face challenges in many countries where hot, humid weather prevails, simply ensuring that the seeds will be stored properly prior to planting.

But there are many, many success stories. Just imagine for a moment how many millions of vegetables have been harvested from 13 million packages of seed.

The group leader at a small cabbage farm in Kalonge (DR Congo) holds two robust heads of cabbage heads harvested from seeds provided by Seed Programs International.One of our most enduring partners is the Lucress Watson and Dick Watson Children’s Foundation, with whom we’ve worked on projects in Haiti, Nicaragua, Liberia, Cote D’Ivorie, DR Congo, Uganda, Madagascar, and the Central African Republic. Since 2006, our combined organizations have distributed almost 1 million packets of seed, including about 250,000 packets in 2010 alone.

In 2007 and 2008, SPI shipped more than 40,000 packets of seed to Liberia. There, the benefits were not only nutritional, there were economic and social successes, as well.  Local families were able to produce modest additional income by selling vegetables they grew. People there learned to save some seeds, reproducing the successes in following years.

Perhaps most amazing, the status of women in the community improved as they were empowered to work together toward common goals and were then able bring home extra income for their families.

Early last spring, as I dug my fingers into the rich Virginia soil of my yard to plant the first of this year’s crops, I admit to a momentary pang of guilt. Maybe I was taking something away from the very people I had signed on to help.

But something dawned on me, something I hope home gardeners will remember when they sow their spring beds. Each seed is a reminder of the challenges of feeding the many millions of hungry people around the world.  Each seed also represents the  potential in each of us to cultivate a world without hunger.

If I can simply plant that idea in other people’s minds.

Martin A. Bartels is president & CEO of Seed Programs International,  (which distributes quality seed to impoverished and undernourished people around the world, an avid home gardener, and recognized leader in nonprofit transformation.

Martin A. Bartels
The group leader at a small cabbage farm in Kalonge (DR Congo) holds two robust heads of cabbage heads harvested from seeds provided by Seed Programs International.
Credit: Seed Programs International