VOICE 135 – Salt Spring Seeds

Dan Jason, owner of Salt Spring Seeds

“Save your seeds everybody. Because the seeds are the future and make sure you save the seeds that are simple savable ones. Not the hybrid, not the patented or not the genetically engineered but the good old seeds that we’ve had forever.”

Founded in 1986, Dan’s Salt Spring Seeds is a mail order seed company that offers organic, heirloom and open pollinated seeds to farmers and gardeners across Canada. Popular varieties include vegetables, grains, pulses (dry beans, lentils and chickpeas), medicinal herbs and flowers: they are all local and adapted to the west coast growing climate.

Through seeds, Dan has been demonstrating how the circular economy is the key to the future. He is a passionate advocate, promoting organic growing and encouraging people to be self-reliant in food and medicine as well as to save their own seeds. He has also written several books about growing and preparing food sustainably including the bestselling ‘Some Useful Plants: A Foraging Guide to Food and Medicine From Nature’. The book was first published in 1971 and has sold more than 30,000 copies. 

Like some children know they are born to be musicians, Dan knew from a very early age that he had a plant connection. The love for plants was in his blood and bones. Born and raised in Montreal, he always liked being outside rather than being inside. When he moved to BC after graduating from McGill University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Anthropology, he got involved with plants and wrote that famous foraging book that started him off. When he finally came to Salt Spring Island in 1976, he finally started a garden of his own and it got bigger and bigger over the years. Soon he realized all those plants, herbs and medicinal plants that he found in the wild, could be easily grown in the garden too.

Dan has been following his joy in growing heritage and heirloom varieties of seeds for all these years. His seed catalogues are built up from friends and neighbors and sometimes even from people in other parts of the world, asking Dan to grow and preserve heirloom seeds they keep from generations. His quaint barn-like office on beautiful Salt Spring Island is like a gallery of the United Nations of Seeds! There are some exotic seeds like 1000 Year Old Tobacco, Sunshine Coast Fava and Japanese varieties including Mitsuba, Green and Red Shiso, and Hokkaido Squash. Each seed has a loving story to tell and Dan is its guardian angel. He is empowering people to reconnect with the local plants and the land with the life of the seeds he passes on.

VOICE(V): “What is the story behind Salt Spring Seeds?”

Dan(D): “I have so many stories of who grew it, where they grew it, what it was used for, and all those special uses that are attached to the plant. For instance, I have about 150 tomato varieties. Some tomatoes are good for drying and some are good for preserving and canning. There is so much to be said for variety and diversity. Diversity is part of us being humans and all living beings. I am very lucky to be doing what I do and fortunate to do something I really love doing.
My seeds are all local and they have been kept by people for a really long time. They give me the privilege to keep it going. I have local seed growers who help me grow. Seeds are grown on not only Salt Spring Island but other places like Vancouver Island, Gabriola, Hornby, Cortes and Sunshine Coast, and they all become part of Salt Spring Seeds.” 

V: “How do you pick your seed growers?”

D: “That has evolved naturally. In the early days it was my friends who offered a hand to help grow seeds. Nowadays, it is through email inquiries asking how they can go about growing seeds. The beauty of seeds is that you only need a little bit. You can start with a packet of 50 seeds, then seeds multiply so much and after a couple of years you build it up and you have your own seeds. Nature is incredibly abundant and giving while our world makes everything look scarce and hard to get.”

V:” What is the easiest plant to grow in a garden?”

D: “Actually beans and grains are two of the easiest to grow. It is a wonder that certain crops like grains, chickpeas and soybeans have fed people all around the world for thousands of years yet not many are found in seed catalogues.
Beans and grains don’t have many diseases and they don’t require so much water. They can grow even in small gardens. People have a wrong perception that they are difficult to grow because in North America, we’ve let big industrial agriculture to do everything for us. The industrial agriculture worked for a while, but any big scale farming with machinery and big time fertilizers is like mining the Earth. We need to go back to a smaller scale agriculture like we have done it all along in the past. On small family farms, people are working together, are out in nature, interrelate with plants, and share love and joy of growing foods with their friends, neighbors and family. That is one of the most wonderful things that you can do. That’s what life is about. We have lost so much of that now.”

V: “What is the best way of keeping seeds and how long do they last?”

D: “They should be kept in cool and dark place, not in the light. Most important of all, keep them dry. If you take care of them, most seeds will last up to 5-10 years. 
Also, it’s not good to grow all your seeds at once because you never know what’s going to happen with climate change. Traditionally, people always have saved some seeds for future catastrophes and it is still important to do that.”

V: “Do you feel any impact by the Covid pandemic?”

D: “It’s been radical. All of a sudden people realize that maybe the very best thing they can do is to grow a garden. The end of the year is normally a quiet time for me, but not last year or the previous year. I am so busy just filling orders all the time because everybody is already ordering seeds for next year. There is such a rush on seeds. 
A lot of traditional seed companies are now having problems because of the climate change. Big scale seed growers sometimes grow their seeds in just one or two places in the world. Their seeds are not locally adapted to begin with and if those places were hit by unprecedented weather events, their seeds wouldn’t survive either.
With Salt Spring Seeds, I have small scale growers and the seeds that I have are much more locally adapted and diverse.”

V: “What is the message you like to tell through seeds?”

D: “I am trying to tell people that seeds shouldn’t be about money. Everybody should have access to seeds. It is such a basic thing and we should not be making fortunes selling seeds to people. If you start growing your own food in the community and make it not about money, that is a good place to start changing the whole system. Everybody, can participate in that. That is a beginning of a different kind of economy, which I think is really important for us to get back to. We have to work in relationship with everything, be grateful and live in harmony with the Earth and all the living beings on the Earth.”

V: “In your view, how has Salt Spring Island changed over the years?”

D: “Especially in the last couple of years, it has changed a lot. It is very hard for a lot of people to work here and find a place to live. The island has lost a sense of community. Although there are still some good things left, it is not integrated as it used to be. Covid has made it even worse because there’s so much fear and division, even within families.”

V: “How do you think Salt Spring Island is doing with sustainability?”

D: “It is hard to know. There are a lot of people talking about it but not a lot of people doing much. I think the events that happen force you to figure things out. Like  atmospheric rivers, for example. The reality will force you to be a community again. It is all about being kind, gentle and helping each other. We live in such a crazy world at this moment but I think we will come out of it on good terms. When push comes to shove, it is all about your friends and neighbors.”

V: “What does seed/food mean to you?”

D: “Seeds are the past, present and future. You can’t have good food unless you have good seeds. That is so simple and so straightforward. These seeds were handed down to us lovingly by so many people’s hands through so many generations. They are alive and we are not going to let them die. These seeds have sustained us for centuries and there is no reason why we can’t keep doing it. They represent community: everything from birds, bugs, animals, wind, trees to water that are all part of our interconnected web of the Earth.”