Fiona Hamersley Chambers, the owner of Metchosin Farm, is taking on the seed shortage from the ground up through the sale of her seeds, with customers both local and from coast to coast. (Robyn Penn photo)

Fiona Hamersley Chambers, the owner of Metchosin Farm, is taking on the seed shortage from the ground up through the sale of her seeds, with customers both local and from coast to coast. (Robyn Penn photo)

The seeds of food security thrive in Metchosin

Ethnobotanist explores the relations between humans and plants

Almost everything we ingest at some point started with a seed.

“I’ve heard that eight out of every 10 bites in a day come directly from seeds,” said Fiona Hamersley Chambers, owner of Metchosin Farm. “Seeds are the basis of most of our food chain, and they don’t even hit our radar.”

Hamersley Chambers devotes much of her life to changing people’s perception of seeds through the ones she produces, as well as the integral role they play as a key link in our food chain.

“Unfortunately, 94 per cent of the food seed in North America has been lost,” she said. “As a plant breeder, we only have access to six per cent of what someone farming 100 years ago had. That’s why growing new varieties of food plants is so important.”

Fiona Hamersley Chambers, the owner of Metchosin Farm, is taking on the seed shortage from the ground up through the sale of her seeds, with customers both local and from coast to coast. (Robyn Penn photo)

Hamersley Chambers points out that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates 75 per cent of food seed varieties have been lost globally during the past century alone. “That’s catastrophic when you think of growing plants and adapting them to agricultural systems dealing with stresses such as climate change.”

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For example, she cites research that included a survey of Canadian seed catalogues that listed 427 varieties of lettuce circa 1885. Most people would have difficulty naming more than a couple of varieties today, she added.

Hamersley Chambers attributes part of that reduction to the massive number of people who moved away from farms to live in the city.

“Prior to World War Two, the Canadian government invested a lot of money in the development and dissemination of seed development,” she explained. “After World War Two, development has been done by corporations only, and they control the genetic lines. If you look at seed catalogues over the years, you see more and more hybrid seeds. Farmers and backyard farmers can’t save the seeds from those plants and expect them to be true. Most of the major Canadian seed companies are strictly re-sellers that don’t grow seed crops, purchasing the seeds instead on the international market. We’re in an extraordinary time of pandemic that’s exposed weaknesses in our food supply chain, especially for seeds.”

Hamersley Chambers was born in Vancouver and grew up homesteading with her farm-minded family in what’s now known as Pacific Rim National Park. She’s been churning the soil at Metchosin Farm for 16 years, cultivating about 260 varieties of seed crops that include vegetables, herbs, fruits and flowers on about 20 per cent of the 10-acre property. “Growing new varieties of food plants is a really important focus of the work we do.”

“Quite a few of those are native plants,” said Hamersley Chambers, who works as an ethnobotanist, exploring the relations between humans and plants. Her work in that field revolves around species that are culturally important for food, medicine, or fibres.

“For many farmers, the reality of being a small farmer on Vancouver Island is that you need to do off-farm work to keep things afloat. We’re old school farmers, not mechanical. We use traditional plant breeding methods, which is time-consuming and labour intensive. Fortunately, I have two teenaged sons who get reluctantly roped into helping.”

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Metchosin Farm produces about 50 varieties of tomatoes, some created through traditional breeding methods, including a new cherry tomato released last year they christened Strawberry.

Hamersley Chambers is taking on the seed shortage through the sale of her seeds, with customers both local and from coast to coast. She also works with remote Indigenous communities on food production.

“Last year seed sales on our little farm were up 5,000 per cent over previous years. We helped more than 900 individuals, families and community groups grow food last year. COVID has presented extraordinary challenges and many people are suffering. We are grateful to be one of the sectors that’s experienced positive growth during the crisis.”

Metchosin Farm starts selling vegetables at its stand from dusk to dawn on April 1. Hamersley Chambers is also planning to host workshops this spring. “There is no food security without seed security,” she said. “I’m doing my best to change that.”

Visit metchosinfarm.ca for information or to order seeds.

rick.stiebel@goldstreamgazette.com