The farmers still remember how skeptical they were, when Regassa Feyissa, the director of the Ethiopian Seeds of Survival movement, showed up in their village with his bags of seeds. It was in the mid-‘90s and USC Canada and our Seeds of Survival partners had just started working with farmers from Ejere – a small village in one of the most productive wheat growing regions of Ethiopia.
At that time, farmers in Ejere were no longer planting the diverse varieties of purple and yellow durum wheat they had farmed for centuries. They only had one type of wheat: a high-yielding “improved” variety that had been distributed by the Ethiopian government, following a devastating pest outbreak that had destroyed their crops in the mid-‘70s. The agricultural workers at the time had promised the high-yielding variety would provide better harvests. Unfortunately, the seeds came with side effects.
The new seeds required expensive fertilizers and pesticides, which cut into the money they received from selling their surpluses, and degraded their soils. Over time, the farmers also noticed that the wheat didn’t taste as good, and their kids just didn’t seem as healthy. And while the new wheat produced bigger grains than the old, the shorter, weaker stalks made for poor quality forage for their livestock.
So when Regassa showed up and told them he had their old varieties of seeds they were eager to listen to him, but skeptical. Where did he get our old seeds? And why would he come all this way to give them to us?
But they decided to give Regassa’s seeds a try. To this day, the farmers still laugh when they think back to their shock when they saw their old wheat varieties pushing their heads up through the soil. They couldn’t believe their eyes. They were so happy to be able once again to be able to plant their old wheat varieties, ones that didn’t require costly inputs and provided for a wide range of their needs.
A secure bank, a secure future
Thanks to the work of Regassa and his organization – Ethio-Organic Seed Action (EOSA) – local farmers have been able to reclaim their agricultural heritage. They have been able to set up a local Community Seed Bank, so they will never again be without their local seeds.
Now, after each harvest, they deposit samples of their local seed varieties in the Bank. By growing many varieties each year they are spreading risk and increasing their resources. Their seeds are allowing them to adapt to changing conditions, to recover cultural and culinary practices and to restore the health of their ecosystem.
Investing in Success
Today, In Welo, Ethiopia – the sorghum breadbasket of the country – EOSA is continuing to spread the success they had in Ejere. With a little help, farmers in Welo have now established their own Community Seed Bank Complex. It opened at the end of October 2009 and will not only house a collection of locally adapted seed ideally suited to the local growing conditions, but will also serve as a centre for knowledge sharing and international training.