Seeds and Beets: Growing, Saving and Sharing


My barter voyager beets

Moms usually ask for mommy alone time. Like getting a pedicure, or girls night out, or a warm bath. I’ve been really enjoying my ‘mommy away time’ . . . Mmmm, weeding! Since July, I’ve been spending a few hours every week at a local organic CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm, which is run by Joe and Carolyn, two young enthusiastic folks in their mid thirties. I look froward to my weeding day all week (ok, crazy!!) even when it involves tornadoes of mosquitoes, clouds of ragweed pollen and oppressive heat. Why, why you may ask. Why not sit in my cushiony air-conditioned office (ok, no couches, but still), pay $35 for the vegetables and just skip away. Because I like it and I think it is the right thing to do, to support our farmers. Carolyn and Joe are awesome, their stories are funny, I learn a ton, have great time getting my hands muddy, and bring home a bagful of all kinds of goodies. Like wrinkled crinkled crumpled cress. 🙂 Yes, that is the actual name, I learned.

Carolyn and Joe run a small 50-share CSA, rent a beautiful land plot in suburban Chicago, with the pond, geese, mulberry trees and bees, they reside on the land in a trailer, farm their land organically, by hand, try to salvage their sadly looking greenhouse, and they definitely are not doing this to get rich. I had been enjoying their vegetables and herbs just as much as I had been enjoying talking to Carolyn and Joe, and learning all about their adventures and about growing food. And they have stories to tell. Between the two of them, they have 15 years of farming experience, working on a variety of vegetable, seed, cheese and animal farms. This year we had a late cool spring and much rain, the weeds had been completely overwhelming and those folks did need some serious weeding help.

What I admire most about Carolyn and Joe is that they really do care, about the land, the plants, and the community. Every week, they write up this amazing 10-page long newsletter, which their share holders receive with the vegetable share. The newsletter in itself is a creation, it includes educational material and interesting facts about the vegetables they are growing, natural growing methods on the farm, detailed information on each crop in that week’s share, storage tips, and recipes.

And then there is the true sharing. Last week, the share included some apples, which they do not grow on the property, but secured through a share they get from their friends. A couple weeks ago, there was a beautiful story of the beets. Another organic farm, friends of Joe and Carolyn’s were flooded and lost much of their crop, including tomatoes. Carolyn and Joe, on the other hand has more than enough tomatoes this year, but their beets did not grow. So they did a barter: tomatoes for the beets. The beautiful baby beets traveled from one farm to another, and then to my table and eventually into our beet salad and borscht, no money exchanged in the whole beet voyage. I thought this completely money-free voyage of the beets from the people I do not even know, was pretty neat. Can’t ‘beat’ that!

Now we are weeding the fall crops, arugula, carrots, more radish, turnips, tons of greens. . . Carolyn gets so excited when she talks about plants. She pulls out weeds around the leeks, and says: now this guy can breathe easier! They must be so happy!  By accident, she pulls out a seedling while weeding, she apologizes, says, oh so sorry guy, and she separates the roots from the leaves, saying it pains her too much to see the plant slowly wither away, like you would not let an injured animal suffer. She weeds for hours and hours every day, yet she notices every cricket, a bug, every bird call, and points out any unusual weed to me. Carolyn researches every bug and caterpillar she finds in the fields. She goes out late in the evening to pick the Holy Basil for the CSA, after the bees had gathered the nectar. Her connection to the land, the plants and the creatures is admirable. As we weed, she leaves all milkweed plants intact, for the monarchs.

Carolyn jumps some rows down to pick some baby arugula and brings us some leaves to taste. They grow an amazing number of varieties, a total of 230 vegetables and herbs each year. This, Carolyn says, assures that the losses of some crops, which will always happen due to weather or pests, will not affect their ability to still provide good shares. Four or five arugula varieties, about fifteen tomato varieties, five basil varieties, there are yellow and red radishes, and radishes that look like little watermelons, few different turnips, various peppers, and an endless list of greens. I cannot even keep up with all they grow. For the first time, I got to taste Papalo , which I really like, as well as Zlata radish, and Malabar spinach, tomatoes of incredible colors, shapes and flavors, and the best arugula ever. Nothing bland about this farm. Most vegetables they picked for their intense flavor, and I have to say they did well.


Carolyn and Joe’s dream is to start seed farming. In the past, Carolyn worked at seed farms in Canada and California. She quit her day job, and decided to travel to Canada to intern on a farm. Few years later, here she is, running a CSA farm in suburban Chicago. Her stories about her apprenticeship and work there and her love for plants had inspired me to watch some documentaries about plant life. Last week, I watched two excellent documentaries on seeds, Seeds of Time and Open Sesame: The Story of Seeds, if you are interested in the topics, I highly recommend. Seeds of Time is a story of agriculture pioneer Cary Fowler’s global journey of 30 years to save the eroding foundation of our food supply. It portrays a personal journey of one man and inner workings of the seed banks and interrelation of climate change and growing practices. There is some interesting footage on Vavilov seed collection in Russia.

Open Sesame is a great positive film, a primer on open pollinated plants, hybrids, and GMOs, seed history and seed exchange movement. We know the alarming statistics. 93% of the known fruit and vegetable varieties had gone extinct from 1903 to 1983. Since the early 1900s, lettuce varieties shrank from 497 to 36, corn – from 307 varieties to 12, heritage wheat, from thousands to nearly extinct. Since the 1970s, 20,000 of seed companies got swollen by a few conglomerates. 82% of seeds are corporate owned. Plant characteristics that existed since times before humans, are being patented and owned, e.g. redness in lettuce, heat tolerance in broccoli, etc. Every 30 minutes, a farmer in India commits suicide. Statistics and facts are harrowing. But Open Sesame is an inspirational film, it follows some seed enthusiasts who are working hard, like my friends Carolyn and Joe here, to reverse those trends. There is quite a bit of footage on the Seed Exchange in IA, on Seed School in AZ, some small organic seed start ups.

My favorite story in the movie is that of Horace Pippin, an African American painter. Mr. Pippin was a WWI veteran, and avid seed collector, and lived next door to William Weaver, who kept bees. Pippin would visit Weaver to get some bee stings to take away the pain from war injuries. To repay Weaver for all those lost bees, Horace Pippin would bring him some interesting vegetable seeds, including the rare fish pepper, for what would become the Roughwood Seed Collection, run by Weaver’s grandson, William Woys Weaver. For the first time, the fish pepper was advertised to the public on a grand scale when William Woys Weaver offered the seeds in the 1995 Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook. At that time, he was the only person with a fish pepper seed.

So I am thankful for the stories, the survival stories of fish peppers, the survival stories of Joe and Carolyn’s greenhouse levelled down to the ground under Chicago snow and later magically popping back up to life. The sharing stories, stories of exchanging seeds, beets, bees, tomatoes. The stories of persistence, be it scientist Cary Fowler battling cancer and travelling to climate conferences to convince the world leaders we need to preserve wild food diversity, or farmer Joe, battling allergies and weeds out in the fields trying to grow organic food and educate the community.


And last, but not least, some fun. Thanks to DM from Heart to Heart, I found this great song for the season by Greg Brown (I love the story too!), so go ahead and taste a little of the summer before it is gone!



About BeeHappee

Where have all the bees gone? Where have all the flowers gone?
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20 Responses to Seeds and Beets: Growing, Saving and Sharing

  1. shoreacres says:

    Speaking of sharing, and of “what goes around, comes around,” on December 9, 2011, Al Cyone, who lives in New York, posted the Greg Brown “Canned Goods” song in a comment about my blog entry about home canning, among other things. I’m just sure I remember DM picking it up back then — or maybe I left it in his blog. In any event, it’s a wonderful example of how things travel through the world.

    • BeeHappee says:

      Thank you, Linda, yes for sure, what goes around, comes around. 🙂 Now it would be even better, if I canned some of my traveling beets and sent you some for Christmas. Sometimes packages come to me from Lithuania, with honey from my uncle, dried mushrooms from another uncle, and all kinds of good things that travel their way through barter and good thoughts from various people out there.
      I am off to read your recommended posts, on canning and that doctor’s blog.

  2. Tejaswi says:

    Well said!! and I might add, well written 🙂

  3. Walking My Path: Mindful Wanderings in Nature says:

    Wonderful post. I look forward to building some raised beds and trading seeds with people. We have a major gopher population, and it will have to be surrounded by high fence to keep deer, elk, bunnies, squirrels, etc out. I also want to get one of those garden towers that some people post about.

    • BeeHappee says:

      Thank you, Mary. Seed collecting is so exciting. I remember taking out and cleaning tomato seeds for my mom, making the little paper packages and the labels. 🙂 We did save most of the seeds ourselves. My dad, when he was here, he was snatching all the flower seeds for saving. Now we are enjoying it with kids, they love taking out and saving and replanting seeds. Somehow that love is coded in the human genes.
      As far as wildlife, it was a funny story about the sweet corn on Joe and Carolyn’s land. I asked them one day, when I heard farmer Bill talking abur racoons in his corn: is your corn safe from racoons? They asured me that racoons never gotten their corn. That very same night, most of the corn was gone. . . Now I mentioned Mexican bean beetle to them. They said, if I say another pest word, I am not welcome on their land anymore. 🙂
      What is a garden tower?
      Actually makes me think of rooftop gardening. 🙂 I am in Chicago on the 24th floor right now, and looking out the window I see a green garden on the rooftop of the building nextdoor.

      • Walking My Path: Mindful Wanderings in Nature says:

        Hahaha! That’s funny about the corn. The garden tower is a tall structure with lots of layers with slot like shelves with soil. You plug it in and it self waters. I’m not explaining it very well. My friend Nikki sells them on her site. .I’m not explaining well and I’m not even sure I have her address right, but if you google 2fuelyourbody you could probably find her. She grows big plants in it like beets and chard, etc. Really nice.

        • BeeHappee says:

          Oh, ok, I know what you mean now. I think deer will eat off the tower just as well as off the ground. 🙂 For a second I thought of a garden tower as a hunting tower, where you sit with the shotgun up high and look out for the deer. 🙂
          We found celeriac roots chewed off by voles or mice or maybe gophers. But all in all, it really does help to grow a variety, like the Three Plaid Farmers do. Their corn was taken by racoons, their melons succumbed to mildew, beets did not grow, arugula had too much rain in the spring, some sweet potatoes were attacked by deer, some pepper plants – by tomato hornworms, but with say 230 varieties, even with some failures, you come out with decent harvest.
          Good luck with your gardening!

  4. smilecalm says:

    waters positive seeds
    in me!
    i’ll look for the seed films, also 🙂

  5. DM says:

    we share a love for growing things….. and reading your words about Carolyn and Joe and their not doing it for the money, encouraged me…I too grow and sell apples, and it is also definitely not to get rich…but you can’t put a price on the smiles I receive from young and old, when I interact with them, and have multiple opportunities to encourage them, whether it’s selling my surplus @ a really good price, or sending home free samples, or just taking a picture for a young family while they pick apples with their kids. I totally get it when you say, you look forward to that time outside weeding. DM

    • BeeHappee says:

      Thank you. Yes, smiles are definitely worth more than dollars. 🙂
      We do spend so much time in the woods, hiking, but we’ve done so much hiking and playing outside, that often I have a need to do something useful with some tangible results. Especially if you can eat up those results. Thank you for sharing your stories and apples.

  6. Pingback: Seeds and Beets: Growing, Saving and Sharing | Bee Happee Now | WORLD ORGANIC NEWS

  7. blazeburgess says:

    I genuinely didn’t know there was so much of interest about seeds. Stunning that any office would allow a patent on redness.

    It’s some comfort to see how passionate and vibrant the farming community seems to be. (I’ve weeded before and I’m happy to admit you’re a better person than me to get to the place where you enjoy it.)

    Also, I’m ashamed I never heard that song before. It’s the type of music I like and all. Thanks for sharing.

    • BeeHappee says:

      Yes, not just interest about seeds, but in this film you can see people so excited they cry about the seeds. And it does make sense to me. This is what sustains us really, we had just forgotten about it – buying those granola bars and chips from the vending machines – who remembers seeds. .
      I only weed 4 hours a week at the CSA, and some more in my own yard, but those guys at the CSA do it five or six days a week, now that is dedication.
      I never heard the song either, or the the singer. So many good local singers and artists. Glad you like it. We were at a folk fest here for a couple of days, and it is awesome to see all the talent and excitement.

  8. Coree says:

    seeds. now you’re getting to the roots of things! good good good!!!!

    • BeeHappee says:

      Thank you, Coree, “it’s about time”, right? 😉 and I saw you were packaging your seeds and salsa dancing under the stars. We are for the most part watching the squirrels frantically prepping for winter, and they dug up some of our seeds.

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