Toni Kessler knows a lot about seeds.
She knows so much that, after hearing her story, her recent founding of West River Seeds comes off as something of an inevitability.
At her homestead in West Townshend, Vt. – also the headquarters for her budding start-up – Kessler tutored me on the merits and ethics of building a locally sourced, sustainable seed bank.
Kessler’s property offers an astonishing view of an iconic-looking ridgeline along the backbone of the Southern Green Mountains. Today the postcard-perfect scene is framed by a clear, azure sky above and bright white snow below. The spectacle is punctuated by a glimpse of Mount Snow’s not-so-distant peak looming off to the Southwest. Key to Kessler’s designs, the property offers many acres of South-facing, sun-soaking and gently sloping growing spaces, all of which are undergoing careful development.
Kessler arrives in Southern Vermont by a long and carefully studied road, one along which gardening, farming, farmers and (especially) seeds have been ever present.
Actually, there appears to be no period represented in Kessler’s memory when she was not in some way connected with seeds and loving it. The language of seed-work – amaranthine, pre-historic terms like ”threshing,” “winnowing” and “culling” – comprise her native dialect. Kessler vividly recounts with a smile her 3-year-old self gleefully riding along with her father in his truck on seed cleaning errands for local growers.
At that time, “local” referred to the borderlands around Western North Dakota and Eastern Montana.
As a North Dakota native, Kessler conveys a great deal of appreciation for the plants and gardeners of the Peace Garden state, even drawing on varieties from her native watersheds for selective breeding in the vastly different biosphere of Southern Vermont.
Kessler’s enthusiasm for seeds, along with the many labors associated with growing and preserving food, far outstripped and transcended her childhood, ultimately crystalizing into a unifying thread running through her many temporal and geographical transitions.
After pursuing a degree in home economics from North Dakota State, Kessler found herself teaching and advising vocational students on all things related to the family and consumer sciences. Teaching and advising would ultimately take Kessler from North Dakota to California to Oregon to Washington State and back.
According to Kessler, a crucial moment in all of these travels came while she was a student in a Seed Academy class at Siskiyou Seeds near Corvallis, Ore. An already earnest passion for seed saving and local food economies was further ignited.
That passion has brought Kessler all the way to Southern Vermont, where she has continued to evolve and grow her particular brand of permaculture, with a focus on seeds. Permaculture, broadly speaking, is a discipline offering a dynamic, systems-based approach to understanding and preserving the food economies of local ecosystems.
For Kessler, permaculture is as much a “lifestyle” and a “value system” as it is a sphere of knowledge and study. Her approach involves understanding permaculture as “landscape design for the worst-case scenario.”
To be clear, the aim is not specifically to dwell on what the local food economy might look like after the zombie apocalypse or some other doomsday scenario, though such contemplations surely do provide interesting fodder for thought experimentation. Rather, for Kessler, the philosophical underpinnings of permaculture revolve around basic and realistic food security, coupled with environmental ethics and long-term sustainability. It’s about “food sovereignty,” to borrow a memorable phrase from Kessler, and the responsible participation of local growers within the community of consumers.
All of this is very much at the heart of Kessler’s vision for West River Seeds, which she formed to address questions like: Which seeds are best adapted to Southern Vermont’s growing conditions and seasons? How can non-native varieties be bred, ethically and sustainably, to become hearty and helpful citizens of the regional biosphere? This specific focus on permaculture for Southern Vermont is reflected in West River Seeds’ slogan: “Vegetable, flower and herb varieties for short growing seasons.”
Kessler acknowledges that, in the grand scheme, West River Seeds is about neither revenue nor profit. Instead, the basic premises involve education and community-building. Kessler thus offers talks and lectures to tutor the public about the merits of permaculture and seed saving. She also brings her considerable knowledge to bear in her work as the Educational Manager at the Meadows Bee Farm in Windham, VT.
For a long-term ambition, Kessler envisions building a seedbank for the storage and preservation of plant varieties that are native to Southern Vermont and/or optimally adapted to Southern Green Mountain watersheds and their specific micro-climatic conditions.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out that building relationships among neighbors and other growers is an essential element of permaculture. Among the key players in the dynamics of a well-adapted local food economy are the growers and consumers themselves. Neighboring gardens and farms are not at all isolated from one another, and natural pollinators certainly do not observe property boundaries. Thus, controlled breeding for desired adaptations requires careful coordination among growers. Communication is indispensable, if undesirable hybridization and genetic diseases are to be culled out through the years-long, meticulous process of propagating and evolving strong genealogies.
Setting the philosophy of permaculture to one side for a moment, it bears recognizing that Kessler’s capabilities are apparent in her work. I’m struck by the rich sense of heartiness and wholesomeness in the mature produce of Kessler’s seeds. I observed, for instance, a bin full of plump, dense Dakota Tear onions. Next, a case of Dakota Black corn, each dried ear tinted by a remarkable volcanic obsidian black, glimmering with deep purple highlights. It’s apparent, too, that there is no contradiction at all between the serious practice of permaculture and the remarkable, singular aesthetic of a long and lovingly cultivated produce variety. Each one starts from a set of humble seed, pregnant with possibility for stronger future generations.
West River Seeds are currently available at the Brattleboro Winter Market and the West Townshend Country Store.
Toni Kessler will be an invited participant in the Living Earth Action Group’s Native Foods and Local Seed Panel on March 20 (6 p.m. at the First Congregational Church; Westminster, Vt.).
Michael Ferreira writes from Brattleboro. He enjoys writing about literature, philosophy, people and places. Feel free to get in touch: email@example.com