Thursday, June 18, 2009

Return to Seeds!

“From hand to hand and from generation to generation, so that we don’t lose tomorrow what we have today” Peliti’s motto

Less than a week ago I was in Athens- tired, alone, and sinking into a deep sadness. I found myself wondering what the hell I was doing here, why I have lost my ability to be social, and what I was trying to accomplish. With only a month left to go in this epic journey I became anxious to get home and could think of nothing else other than my friends and family back in the states. However, I am now settled into Peliti (a seed saving community) in North Greece and I couldn’t be happier. My belly is full, my skin is dark from the sun, the calluses on my hands grow with each day, and my thoughts become filled again with seeds and farming. Yep, this is the life for me! I get to work hard outside and see another side of the seed saving movement. Once again I am amazed by the unique directions people take with preserving local seed. This movement is more widespread than I ever could have imagined.

The current agricultural situation here in Greece is obviously quite different from Ethiopia or India, but there are still many similarities as to why these seeds are important and the approaches being taken. Like nearly every project I’ve studied this year Peliti is a grassroots movement. It preserves an immense amount of agricultural diversity (over 1000 varieties) by connecting people to each other and working outside of established channels. The goal is to keep seeds in the hands of farmers and gardeners. Participants freely share and exchange seeds (as well as other goods and services) for a variety of reasons. As I’ve seen all year many value the more tangible aspects of traditional or heirloom varieties: the taste is much better, they grow with less water in the hot Greek summer, the plants are stronger and need no fertilizer, etc. Some are aware of the politics involved: they save and share their seeds out of fear or a desire to be free from corporate control. Lastly, many are involved for social and cultural reasons – they see how important these plants were to ancient Greece or their ancestors and they want to continue this history. The varieties these people grow have been given to them by the grandmother or they were found in an ancient Greek archaeological site.

Peliti was founded and is run by a man named Panayiotis Sainatoudis. Panayiotis and his family have taken me into their home, fed me, put me to work, shared seeds, and tried to explain every aspect of Peliti to me (through broken English and Greece). They renew my hope for humanity and our struggle for a happier, healthier, and more ecologically sensitive life. On my third day of volunteer work we finally found time to sit down for an interview. It was wonderful to learn about how Peliti works and what they have been able to accomplish. However, I was equally moved by Panayiotis’ life story. In the early 1990’s Panayiotis helped to organize agriculture courses here in Northern Greece. During January of 1991, a friend gave Panayiotis a packet of diverse seeds from an American seed bank. Panayiotis was immediately enticed by the feel of the seeds and the beauty of the Native American corn. A year later, while distributing invitations for his brother’s wedding in his birthplace, he saw a short-stemmed black maize plant. Panayiotis asked the old woman working in the garden about the plant. She happily explained to him that it was for making popcorn for her grandchildren and presented him with a few seeds. Panayiotis has called this “the corn which changed my life” and always carries some seeds from this plant in his pocket.

During our discussion he passionately handed me seeds from this life changing plant and asked me to continue the story. It was a powerful moment for me and one which filled me with joy. Throughout this entire year I have carried one colorful bean seed in my pocket. It is the first plant that exposed me to the beauty of seeds and the first one which I saved seeds from. Whenever I have gotten nervous, scared, sick or lonely on this voyage I take out my bean, breathe deeply, and rub it gently. It reminds me why am I here and provides me with hope for the future. I have never told anybody about this bean, so I was thrilled to see another man had a similar practice. Perhaps we both sound crazy, but at least we are not alone.
After receiving these corn seeds and the story from this old woman, Panayiotis asked for seeds in each house he delivered a wedding invitation to. By the end of the day he had an armful of corn, pumpkins, beans, etc. Since this day Panayiotis has always had seeds on his mind (like me). He has developed the habit of asking everywhere he goes about what seeds the people cultivate. Gradually, he began to ask other questions as well, such as how they cook their food and how they preserve it.

Panayiotis left the city life and lived in a remote village in the mountains of Northern Greece with no money, in a house with no electricity. In the spring of 1995, at a moment of personal breakdown, Panayiotis became aware that the subject of local seed varieties was the most important topic for him and he began Peliti. Peliti began as a personal need for Panayiotis and slowly it spread and became a “point of reference and medium of expression for many people.”
Panayiotis spent years seeking out the cultivators of local varieties in Greece. He travelled all throughout the North and much of the country with no money – hitchhiking, walking and relying on the help of friends or strangers. Throughout these hundreds of trips he collected over 1,200 varieties of traditional seeds. In the mountainous villages near the border of Bulgaria, Panayiotis was surprised to find that nearly every house saved their own seed and many had noticeably different varieties. He followed people’s suggestions about where there were local seeds still left and journeyed to the most remote areas of Greece. Aside from collecting seeds he learned many lessons which changed his life. Some of the lessons he learned that “nothing happens by chance”, “when we decide to do something the whole universe conspires to help us succeed”, “we have nothing and nobody to fear apart from ourselves”, and that “we are significant and important irrespective of our economic condition.” While Panayiotis and I have very different stories it was amazing to see that seeds had a similar impact on our lives and we have come to learn some of the same lessons. Both of us have been led to incredible places and people through a passion for seed. We have benefited greatly from the kindness of strangers, seen how bright the human spirit is, and learned that we create our own destiny. Panayiotis put many of my own thoughts about this past year into eloquent words. Like him I have seen that when I fully put my mind to something it seems as if everything happens to help me reach my goal. Additionally, the most unexpected challenges or situations are the ones which often teach us the most (nothing happens by chance).

Starting in 1997 Panayiotis began travelling to the Pomak villages in the Xanthi province in Northern Greece. The Pomak are an ethnic minority in Greece. “Political, religious, linguistic, and other factors have led to their isolation.” As a result of their isolation, Panayiotis found an impressive diversity of plants, seeds, and animals. Since then, these people have been a source of seeds and knowledge for Panayiotis. This is also a similar story to ones I heard in India, Thailand, and other countries. After the seeds are lost, many passionate seed savers like Panayiotis travel to the isolated mountainous regions where people still rely on locally adapted seeds for survival. The majority of the traditional seeds being grown now in Punjab, India come from those collected by Vijay Jardihari in the Himalayas. In Thailand, many of the traditional varieties being grown and distributed by Pun Pun come from the isolated Northeast. In a way, my entire journey has been to these isolated, diverse places. Nearly all year, I have lived in mountainous areas where people still maintain agricultural diversity. Panayiotis explained to me that Greece has a huge amount of seed diversity because agriculture has been practiced here for nearly 10,000 years and because the land is extremely diverse with mountains, valleys, etc. The same is true of nearly all countries I’ve visited. Ethiopia has especially remained a center of crop diversity because of the mountainous and diverse terrain, isolated areas, and long history of farming. Similar factors led me to India, Thailand, and Peru.

Throughout the rest of the 1990’s Panayiotis worked at the Cereals institute in Thessaloniki, attended many seminars on biodiversity, spoke about his travels, and continued collecting seeds. After collecting over 1,200 varieties Panayiotis realized he needed to find a way to maintain these before they all went bad in his house. He organized various meetings that began to plan for seed exchange events in Greece. These first meetings were the beginning of a process that ended in the “Pan-Hellenic Local Seed Varieties Exchange Festival,” which is now in its 9th year. This past year over 1,500 people came to this festival, from small gardeners, to large farmers and even Athenian lawyers or businessmen. The yearly event begins with speeches and a closed exchange between farmers who came with seeds. The public is then invited to come and get the seeds they want from the farmers and gardeners. All seeds are given for free and people are recommended to grow them out and bring seeds back next year or give them to others.

Panayiotis continued to travel and live in the most remote areas of Greece. For nearly two years he stayed in a settlement of around ten houses scattered over the mountainside without electricity, telephone, television, etc. He worked the entire agricultural cycles with the people and collected seeds. Once again, seeds were a crucial part of life for these people because they needed them to survive. They couldn’t easily go to town to buy seeds and these traditional varieties were adapted to the harsh mountain climate. Panayiotis found many houses to be nearly self-sufficient and some cultivated up to 17 varieties of vegetables. A sample of all the seeds Panayiotis collected was sent to the national gene bank. Throughout all of these journeys to Greece and Bulgaria, the keepers of the seed taught Panayiotis what it means to be a good person. Similar to my own journey, the rural farmers showed Panayiotis that for seeds to be saved we need to make changes in our self. The journey has taught us both the power of community.

In 2000, Panayiotis organized the creation of a network of farmers and gardeners who still grew local seed varieties. Each year since then they have published a book with the names of these growers, their phone numbers, and the varieties they cultivate. Anybody who purchases this book from Peliti can contact the cultivators directly to request a small amount of the seed they desire. Now, 142 farmers and 18 animal breeders are participating in this network. As a result of this grassroots work, over 1,000 varieties are being actively preserved. Like many other community seed banks or village networks I’ve seen, Peliti is dynamic and participatory. The seeds are not simply collected and stored in a freezer. They remain in the people’s hands, continue to evolve, promote sustainable agriculture, and support local culture. The story of our agricultural history continues through Pelitis work and the cultivation of these seeds.

In addition to the annual festival and book, Peliti also created April 7th as the day for local varieties in Greece. The first year began small, but celebrations or events have now been organized throughout much of Greece. Peliti works extensively with school groups. Panayiotis and his wife spend much of their time speaking and teaching, often to children. They have helped to create dozens of school gardens. The school children are also actively involved in the April 7th events for local seed varieties. Peliti provides various schools with traditional seeds and knowledge. The seeds are then grown by children in their classroom. When the plants are big enough they are given free of charge to interested farmers and gardeners. One school in Greece now distributes hundreds of free plants every April 7th in the central square of their city. The mayor provides a truck and people come out to get free plants, connect with each other, and learn about Peliti’s work.

One thing which is amazing is that Peliti is run entirely by volunteers. Panayiotis makes his money from the sale of books and donations. However, throughout the country and its islands there are volunteer groups that help to organize events, teach children, collect seeds, and much more. Panayiotis spends much of their time giving speeches, and presentations to schools. They also distribute out around 8,000 envelopes with seeds and 6,000 plants. All the seeds come free of charge from farmers or gardeners. The seeds are packaged and given to anyone who requests them. In total, they estimate they have distributed seeds to over 50,000 farmers, amateur gardeners, wine growers, etc.

What started out as a dream with no money and little organization has now involved into a widespread movement in Greece, and “the most important Ngo for the collection, preservation, and dissemination of local varieties”. Peliti has received extensive coverage in the media and is now supported not just by farmers but by many businessman and urbanites in Athens. In 2001 when an article was published in the Athens news about Peliti, they attached a packet of local corn to each newspaper (12,000 in total). Additionally, over 130 musicians and artists came together to create a CD and series of events for Peliti. The CD, “Singing for Peliti,” is now being sold to raise money for the further development of Peliti’s community. They are working to create a home base and more permanent community. Seeds remain central to Peliti’s work and they have succeeded in spreading not only seeds but stories and knowledge to many in Greece. The work continues here each day.

Panayiotis tells his story and about the work of Peliti with such passion and hope. He frantically ran around the office to show me various stories, photos of events or collections, and seeds. His energy was contagious and I couldn’t help but feel joyous to be back among another seed fanatic and brother. A major lesson I have been pondering the past weeks is how kind strangers have been to me and how everything has seemed to work out amazingly. Numerous times through this voyage I would get upset that something didn’t work out, I missed my bus, or got lost. However, each time it has worked out for the better. I had a crazy idealistic dream when I began this trip and an unwavering passion for seeds. Somehow, the journey has surpassed even my wildest dreams. All my dreams and hopes have come to be a reality. Panayiotis summarizes his life’s story and the story of Peliti with a similar sentiment. He believes we can accomplish anything we truly set our minds to.
“Everything created by a human being has passed first through his imagination: the clothes I wear, the computer I have in front of me, the houses we live in, the cars we drive. In the beginning everything seemed like intangible dreams. But, with patience and persistence they became a reality.”

You may read this and label Panayiotis and me as dreamers or idealists. However, we are not alone. Countless farmers, organizer, politicians, or average citizens this year have shown me the power of a dream and persistent dedication. One small example was a farmer in the highlands of Ethiopia. It was his dream to have a fruit tree farm. Everyone had told this man he couldn’t find water on his land and it would be impossible for him to dig a well or successfully grow fruit trees. For over a year he slowly dug a well. He made a rope out of horse hair and other fibers to pull the dirt and him out at the end of each day. Over 8 meters deep, he finally hit reliable water. This farmer then collected scrap pieces of tires, metal, and other “junk” from the city. With no previous knowledge he designed and built a hand pump that could irrigate his land and two neighbors. When I visited, his land was now filled with incredibly productive fruit trees. They had formed a group of innovative farmers in the area and were experimenting with organic fertilizers and pesticides, pruning techniques, and other methods they developed. The farmers in this group were making much more money than before, did not have to ask for food aid, and could afford to buy supplies for their children.

The story above is just one small example of a dream coming true through persistent work that I have seen this year. The large majority of people I’ve met and worked with are fighting against all odds. Companies, government, neighbors, and even family are often against them. Despite this, we are able to prevail. When Panayiotis first had the idea to publish a book with all the growers of local seeds he had no money, computer, or ability to publish a book. One wealthy Greek man from the city called right as Panayiotis was pondering how he could possibly create this book with no money. The man had read about Peliti in the paper and asked how he could help. He immediately committed to giving all the money needed to publish Peliti’s first book and from there the network began.

When not interviewing Panayiotis, or eating excellent vegetarian meals prepared by his kind wife Sophia I filled my time working in the garden. It felt great to be using my body again and they appreciated the work. I also helped a little to organize the seeds and Panayiotis took the time to tell me many stories about the different varieties (where they had come from, how they are used, how little water they need, etc.). During free time I have been biking to the river and enjoying life in the lush mountains of Northern Greece.

Another interesting aspect of Peliti is their work with wheat. They help to conserve around 10 ancient wheat varieties. Wheat came to Greece from the Fertile Crescent and has been cultivated here for over 8,000 years. It has been a crucial part of Greek culture and many stories, myths or songs depict wheat or bread. Peliti has helped distribute the seeds of Tritium Monoccocum to various growers here. This ancient wheat, often called einkorn, is the ancestor to our modern wheat. It has a hard hull, which cannot be removed easily, but is an extremely hardy plant and was important to ancient Greece. As a result of Peliti’s work three farmers are now growing Einkorn on a large scale and are connected to a mill in Athens which will soon start to sell flour. Peliti has also helped return Mavragani, black wheat, into cultivation. They have received small amounts of this and other seeds from the national gene bank. The samples are then grown out by farmers, multiplied, and distributed. Numerous varieties of ancient wheat and unique tomatoes would not be grown in Greece today if it wasn’t for Peliti’s work.

Weekend in Thessoliniki

This past weekend Panayiotis took me with his family to the city, Thessaloniki. Our main purpose was to attend a large agricultural fair on Friday. However, once again Panayiotis showed me extreme hospitality as he sacrificed his time to drive me around and introduce me to farmers. The farmers we met were truly inspiring. First of all, they got me excited again to be back in America working on my own farm project with friends. They also taught me a great deal about organic (or biologic) agriculture here in Greece. The first man we visited grows over 7 packed acres of organic vegetables and over 50 acres of organic wheat. Unbelievably he does all this on his own! He also collects many aromatic plants (oregano, thyme, etc.) and bakes and sells bread from his wheat. All the products are sold in local markets and Archilehas grows many ancient varieties to Greece. One wheat was given to him by an old man who said it bakes excellent bread and is grown by very few people. Other traditional beans and tomatoes had been selected by Archilehas because of their excellent flavor and hardiness to resist pests and climate conditions. He grows some hybrids but finds the taste is much worse and sometimes the plants don’t perform as well (sometimes they grow great). Many people are excited by the taste of his heirloom varieties, but some Greeks in the market won’t buy the products because they look different or strange. For a few hours Archilehas ran us through his farm picking anything that was ready and stopping to have us taste as much as we could. He worked incredibly hard and cannot sit still for a second. However, from the first moment we met you can see the joy and passion in his eyes. Like many organic farmers Archilehas truly loves his work. He said that he does not make enough money for how much he works, but you can see his contentment as he moves through the farm explaining his favorite bean or growing method (also a bean fanatic like myself).

One other farming couple we met was one of the first organic farmers in Greece, true pioneers. They were busy preparing for a summer solstice (St. John?) celebration, but stopped to serve me tea and explain their farm to me. While they grow a huge amount of organic, healthy food, their main passion is fostering community and farmer to urbanite relationship. They don’t like to use the word consumer and try to get the buyers of their products to become involved with the farm as much as possible. They have formed a committee of community members who work with the farmers to decide what will be grown, how the products are sold, and how the farm is run. These volunteer members help to organize events and design a system that works best for all. They have had a farm stand on the honor system, but are now working to create a better model. Children scampered around us preparing for the celebration that night where they would mill the small bundles of wheat they had cut and bake bread together. Aside from organizing community, these farmers were also working to return culture and traditions to the area. Some visitors came from the city while were there and explained to me how important the farm is to their lives. Another powerful day in which I could more ideas of what I want my future farm to look like!

In the morning we went to an organic farmers market. Panayiotis introduced me to many kind farmers who told me about why they grow the local varieties (their taste mainly, but also their colors, history, and strength). Many farmers also told me about the difficulty in growing old varieties because of the strict EU regulations. Technically, any variety grown and sold must be on the EU list. To get a variety on this list is very expensive and complex. In turn, there are only a few old Greek varieties on this list. To be certified organic, farmers are also required to purchase organic seeds each year and it is very difficult for them to use their own wheat or barley from the past year. The organic or biologic festival was nice, but not thrilling. The majority of the vendors were selling beauty products or other organic goods to elite clients. Some farmers had beans, sauces they had made, olive oil, and organic meat. Relatives of Panayiotis were there selling jewelry as well. The jewelry was all made from seeds collected in Greece. It was very beautiful and helped to raise awareness about seeds. Perhaps the most exciting part was the traditional music and dancing. I love seeing Greek dancing and it was interesting to see how the music and styles were different here in the north (Turkish or Balkan influences).

The past few days I’ve been back working in the garden and biking through the hills. Tomorrow, Panayiotis and I will hopefully embark on a journey to the mountains near Bulgaria. Panayiotis keeps saying it is a surprise, so we will see what this adventure has in store for me!

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