Snake River Seed Cooperative
Casey O'Leary is a farmer, seedsaver, and powerful advocate for food sovereignty. The Snake River Seed Coop (SRSC), which she co-founded in 2014, works with over 50 Intermountain West family farms to steward nearly 400 varieties of seeds for our bioregion. In 2020 the seed Coop provided over 100,000 seed packets to regional gardeners and farmer. SRSC is returning control of seed production to small farmers and building a local seedshed that provides for our community. We caught up with Casey for this Local Food Hero profile.
How did you get to where you are today? What's your background, education, work experience in relation to food?
I am a fourth-generation Idahoan who did not grow up farming. I came to farming in my early 20s through political and environmental activism, seeking an adult career path that didn't destroy the earth or perpetuate injustice. I was drawn to the idea of small-scale urban agriculture because it seemed to offer solutions to a myriad of interlocking problems—environmental degradation, separation from nature, toxic food with a massive carbon footprint, socioeconomic inequity. I had no idea what I was doing when I started. Marty Camberlango and I started a farm called Local Grub together in the fall of 2004 by planting some garlic on a vacant lot across the street from my house. We took CSA members' money without having enough land to grow food for them the following spring and continued to wing it from there. When we parted ways in 2007, I continued farming under Earthly Delights Farm, steadily falling more in love with seed saving each year along with growing vegetables.
In 2012, I started the Common Wealth Seed Library with Carrie Jones, which morphed into the Snake River Seed Co-op in 2014. My farm is now a grower for SRSC.
I graduated with an MNR in Science Communication and Environmental Education from the University of Idaho. I pursued this degree to deepen my understanding of how to use storytelling, data, and education to convey the importance of and opportunities inherent in rethinking land-use strategies in Idaho amid rapid development.
Please provide a brief description of the Snake River Seed Cooperative (How did the idea of the cooperative turn into a business, the number of cooperative members, types of seeds offered, how long you've been in business):
We work with over 50 Intermountain West family farmers to steward nearly 400 varieties of seeds for our bioregion. Each of our growers agrees to grow specific crops for the Co-op each year, and we purchase their seeds from them, pack those seeds into packets, and distribute them around the region.
SRSC started as a seed library project called the Common Wealth Seed Library. With time, we found that, ironically, capitalism was a more useful vehicle for increasing our region's seed biodiversity. Folks were reluctant to check seeds out of the library with the obligation to try to grow and return seeds to the library. They were much more comfortable shelling out a few bucks for a packet of seeds with no further obligation attached.
We had limited participation in the seed library, but we have had massive demand for packets of seeds folks can buy. This demand has allowed us to consistently increase the number of growers in our Co-op and the quantity of seeds we steward. In 2020, over 100,000 packets of seeds left our little seed shack and found their way into gardens and farms all over the region. That is 100,000 packets of locally-grown, locally-adapted seeds that weren't available here ten years ago!
Tell us about the values of Snake River Seed Cooperative.
Our values are a living part of our everyday work at SRSC. We formally discuss them weekly and filter our daily decisions through them. They are:
Sacred Relationship with the Earth
Producer Driven Economic Models
Why is it important for gardeners and farmers to have a regional seed source?
Seeds are remarkable in their ability to adapt to a particular place. By saving seeds in our bioregion every year, they become better able to thrive in our unique place on earth. That fact is true for the present, and it will continue to be true as climate change accelerates. Each year we save seeds from plants that perform exceptionally well in our area. We allow them to adapt to climate change in real-time. They are our agricultural foundation, and they will enable us to adapt continually as the climate changes in our area.
Additionally, I don't want to be a downer, but an astonishingly small number of multi-national chemical corporations control the vast majority of the seeds underpinning our food system. We believe the dangers of having massive corporations in control of the basic foundation of agriculture—seeds, our collective birthright—makes us all increasingly vulnerable in our dependence on them. Seeds are safer the more hands who hold, plant, and tend them. We are part of a grassroots movement to return seeds to our communities and to regain the skills to care for them in the places we live.
Describe what impact the pandemic had on Snake River Seed Cooperative and what changes have been put in place for this year?
Like most seed companies around the country, we experienced a staggering demand as grocery store shelves emptied and lockdowns made folks start thinking about growing some of their food. Our small staff struggled to keep up with such an insane demand, especially as we learned the basics of social distancing, quarantining, etc. We could not come up for air until last fall when we more than doubled our staff and moved into a bigger office to accommodate all this growth. Now we are riding the uncertain wave of navigating a second crazy-busy season, unsure if this growth is temporary or permanent. It makes it difficult to make strategic decisions when everything still feels very much in the air.
Luckily, we have an awesome group of folks dedicated to keeping everyone safe and healthy, physically and mentally, as we ride the wave together. And we have a network of excellent growers who are continuing to hone their seed production skills and capacity, so we feel confident we can continue to keep up with the demand for seeds if this is the "new normal"—and of course, we hope it is! (without the pandemic anxiety, obviously). Gardening is a satisfying, empowering way of spending time. There is real value in helping our communities engage in this worthwhile pursuit.
In addition to Snake River Seed Coop you are also an urban farmer. What seed crops or other crops do you grow?
Over the years, I have consistently stewarded around 100 seed crops for SRSC, including a mix of vegetables, herbs, and flowers. I also grow plant starts from our seeds as well as fresh vegetables for CSA.
You're a passionate advocate of seed saving. Why should everyone be saving seeds?
Snake River Seed Cooperative is a generous donor of seed packets to community organizations. What exciting things have you seen blossom out of these donations?
We are very fortunate to donate thousands of seed packets (and educational resources and other types of support) every year to organizations doing incredible work in our communities. We support school gardens, community gardens, fundraisers for non-profits, seed libraries, and other organizations working on greater food access or food justice for their communities.
Some of the most exciting collaborations for me have come from the relationships were are building with folks working on the issues of food access, food sovereignty, and food justice. These are huge, systemic problems with deep-rooted histories of inequity, discrimination and unthinkable violence. It can feel overwhelming to understand how we can best be of use in moving toward a more just and equitable society. But through these partnerships, we can take one step at a time. We are steadfastly committed to this work, and we are always open and available to listen, learn, and act as folks have ideas of how we can be useful. Please reach out!
What change(s) would you like to see in Idaho in terms of food and agriculture?
Oh gosh, where do I start?! It's an evocative question and a useful one, as it is often more comfortable for me to be critical of what isn't working than to be clear about a vision for what could work better.
I think it begins with acknowledging the agricultural legacy we've inherited. The history of agriculture in Idaho is steeped in government handouts. And yet, we in Idaho often tell a cultural story of rugged individualism, bootstrapping, and a distaste for the idea of government handouts. The legislature right now is awash with proposals to make laws that limit government's ability to make or change laws in the future. We are reaping the results of decades of what I would call throwing ourselves under the bus in the name of limited government interference. Now we are faced with an influx of newcomers into our state from wealthier locales driving up housing and farmland prices beyond what a person living and working for Idaho wages can afford.
Idaho is rapidly developing. To ensure agriculture can thrive amid this development, large-scale, collaborative, bioregional land use planning that brings all stakeholders to the table is necessary. By honestly acknowledging and owning our history—we did not arrive where we are today through the bootstrapping of rugged individuals operating in a vacuum—we can begin to engage in efforts to rebuild relationships with Native people. These relationships can restore the ancestral foodways of this area. We can also use our "by and for the people" government to serve the citizens' needs.
To succeed, we need robust and healthy agricultural corridors. A hodgepodge of individual landowners facing immense pressure to sell to developers and a lack of coordination between privately and communally held (public) lands currently challenges these corridors. Our small farmer counterparts in Washington and Oregon thrive through access to a suite of programs and benefits that help them succeed, including access to secure and affordable city - or county-owned farmland, unemployment benefits when starting a new business, and more. We can set ourselves up for success to feed ourselves, but we need to be honest about our interdependency and shift the collective resources at our disposal to their best possible use.
Laws like our cottage food laws and the small herd exemption provide common-sense legislation that supports the development of small-scale agricultural enterprises. I'd love to see similar laws enacted for our nonsensical bean seed laws that essentially allow me as a seed company to source any bean seeds I want from outside the state and sell them here. On the flip side, those same laws don't allow me as a farmer to grow and save bean seeds myself without wading through complicated bureaucracy. The current laws serve the needs of larger-scale bean seed exporters more than Idaho farmers growing seeds for their fellow Idahoans.
I often say that Idaho feels like a desert in more ways than one. Things often feel desperate. Many small farmers I know are hanging on by a thread. We do resources for beginning farmers, especially those who already own land, through programs like Cultivating Success and Harvest Heroes. I'm always inspired (and a little jealous) when I go to conferences in places west of here, where robust networks for small-scale farmers build a culture of collective intrigue, support, and fun that can sustain folks in this challenging work for the long haul. We are trying to do that through our SRSC grower network, with some success, but we still have a long way to go.
I desperately miss the old Grower's Own conferences and the opportunities they afforded me to connect with other farmers. I understand the reasons for the shift of that particular conference. Still, answering this question makes me want to commit to fostering these networks and connections. I welcome suggestions from other rockin' small farmers on how best to plug into existing efforts to keep our collective spirits high!
It's time to start planting seeds indoors. What quick advice can you give to home gardeners for successful indoor seeding?
Home gardeners can check out this blog post for all our tips for indoor seed starting: https://www.snakeriverseeds.com/blogs/news/the-srsc-guide-to-indoor-seeding
Who are your food heroes?
Thank you for asking this question! I have many food/seed (s)heroes & mentors. This is by no means a comprehensive list.
Diane Jones, who founded the first CSA farm in Boise and has been my farm's landowner for the past eight years.
Beth Rasgorshek, who got me started in commercial seed production and took me to my first Organic Seed Alliance conference in Washington.
Donna Ferguson, who helped breed the Dark Star zucchini and taught me how to clean seeds with box fans.
Janie Burns, who consistently provides guidance and food for thought for all of us in the local food movement.
Bill McDorman, who taught me that seed saving is a radical act that can and should exist outside the rigid confines of varietal purity and that a grassroots network of seed stewards is vital for a secure food system.
Joseph Lofthouse, who inspires me to think outside the plant breeding box and to pursue beauty in the work I do.
Rowen White, who is working to reconnect indigenous seedkeepers with their ancestral seeds and who generously offers guidance to me and many other white people about how to be helpful in that important work.
Beata Tsosie-Peña, who, among many other things, has taught me to call permaculture by its correct name—traditional indigenous agriculture.
Mary Alice Johnson, who hosted me as a WWOOFer for a weekend on her magical seed farm in Sooke, BC, and gave me the vision for what was possible on my farm.
Winona LaDuke, whose year 2000 vice-presidential candidacy was a rallying cry for me during my first foray into political activism and who has consistently been a down-to-earth voice for rebuilding our relationship with each other and the land through the foods we eat.
Vandana Shiva, who taught me to connect the seed with the seed (to learn to grow and save seeds year after year) but also to connect the seed with the food (to make the foods grown from the seeds you steward a relevant, sought-after, and vital part of your community's food culture)
Wendell Berry, for giving me a life-raft to cling to as a young person searching out an adult career that didn't destroy the earth.
Where can people buy Snake River Seed Cooperative seeds?
Folks can buy our seeds directly through our website (www.snakeriverseeds.com) or at one of the 50+ awesome independent garden centers, natural food stores, and other retailers that carry our seeds throughout Idaho & the Intermountain West. (A list of all our retail partners can be found here: https://www.snakeriverseeds.com/pages/find-our-seeds