The 32nd Annual Winter Abundance Workshop, known by regulars as the Seed and Scion Exchange, was held this year at the Mendocino County fairgrounds in Boonville on the last day of January. The weather was more spring than winter though, with sunny skies and people sporting t-shirts and sun hats. Coming on the tail end of a dry January, the weather and climate were certainly being talked about by the attendees, some traveling from the Bay Area and others from closer by.
Winter weather or not, the abundance was clearly present. The Arts and Crafts building sported tables filled with seeds of beloved varieties of vegetables and flowers whose seeds have been painstakingly saved by growers throughout the area. Old standbys like summer squash and cucumbers nestled amongst lesser-known types of popcorn and lettuce. Tomato seeds stuck to newspapers, flowers unheard of, and herbs like milkweed were all available to gardeners with a sense of adventure and curiosity. And for those who have the patience and desire, scion wood and cuttings were also available for the taking.
One of the showcases of this event, the Scion Exchange is open to everyone from beginners to advanced grafters. Grafting is the horticultural practice of joining the vascular tissue of a tree selected for its strong root characteristics to a cutting from a tree (scion) selected for its fruit. Grafting also allows various types of fruits to be harvested off of one tree, and offers a wider range of seasonality for harvesting fruit.
As Rob Goodell, one of the founding members of the event and a grafter himself, put it, “The main advantage is that you can get the fruit you want, on the tree you want, when you want it… You not only get variety and taste, but you get a long season by being able to graft.”
Many different rootstocks, like apple, plum, pear, cherry, and peach were sold just above wholesale price, about $2 to $3 each. Participants chose scions, at no cost, from a wide array and built their own trees by joining the scion with the rootstock. Many people also brought the scions home for grafting on existing trees at their leisure. This pick-and-choose system allows growers to have the best rootstock and desired variety of tree that is also adapted to their particular soil and climate. Organizers of the event and seasoned orchardists Mark Albert, Patrick Schafer, and Goodell, were on hand to answer individual questions about the grafting process.
Albert kicked off the day’s schedule of classes, starting with ‘Scionology — The Basics of Making your Own Trees and Vines from Seeds, Scions and Cuttings’. Later, a more advanced class was led by Schafer: ‘Grafting, Budding, and Topworking Techniques and Strategies’. In addition to the formal classes in grafting techniques offered, five hands-on grafting clinics ran throughout the day. These clinics gave folks the chance to practice the techniques necessary to complete a successful graft, and the opportunity to ask questions and get the advice of experienced grafters. Goodell facilitated one of the clinics and insists that demonstrating simple grafts is his favorite part of the day.
One of the most attractive elements of this event is its combination of technical instruction with an over-arching philosophy of sustainable agriculture. Beginning and advanced grafting workshops plus seed saving workshops are taught every year, and make up the backbone of the day. But in addition, a fourth feature is offered annually as well: this year, Amigo Bob Cantisano and Jenifer Bliss of the Felix Gillet Institute presented ‘Saving & Identifying Local Heirloom Fruits and an Introduction to Arboreal Archaeology’. The Felix Gillet Institute is a non-profit organization, founded by Cantisano in 2003, that aims to ‘identify, preserve, and propagate’ varieties of fruit and nut trees introduced to California by horticulturalist Felix Gillet during the late 19th century. Gillet, who lived in Nevada City, imported, bred, and thereby pioneered the introduction of “most of the plants that comprise the foundation of California and Pacific Northwest perennial fruit, grapes and nuts,” according to FelixGillet.org. The organization’s aim is to educate the public about just how valuable and adaptable these tree crops are, especially as climate uncertainty creeps in. The institute works with a plant list comprised of Gillet’s varieties that thrive in California’s particular set of growing conditions, which often includes drought, heat, and pests.
The Boonville Winter Farmers' Market took a break from its usual spot on 128 and brought the market to the fairgrounds. Winter produce, onion sets, beverages, snacks, lunches, preserves, and dried fruit decorated vendors' booths, eagerly snapped up by hungry kids and gardeners alike.
One of the most valuable elements of an event like Mendocino Permaculture's Seed and Scion Exchange is its localized nature. When growers choose varieties of vegetables, flowers, and trees that are adapted to their environment, those plants are more likely to thrive and in turn produce better and bigger results. With the expensive price of land in California, as well as its increasingly extreme weather, the sharing of local horticultural knowledge amongst enthusiasts becomes evermore essential. No lack of enthusiasm was present in the classroom of Linda MacElwee and Tom Melcher, co-presenters of “Seed Saving Basics by Local Seed Savers.” Melcher is a passionate gardener and seed saver, drawing from gardening experience in his native Vermont to his extensive seed-saving pastime here in California. MacElwee and her partner, Andy Balestracci, run their own business, Diaspora Seeds, which sells seeds that are adapted to Mendocino County in specific, and a Mediterranean climate more generally. An important feature of Diaspora’s seeds is that they are all open-pollinated varieties, which means that as opposed to hybridized plants, their seeds are viable when saved.
Melcher and MacElwee finished out the day with their interactive discussion on the how-to’s of home seed-saving. Melcher narrated the discussion with a slideshow of his own seed-saving trials, scrolling through strategic photos he had taken of his garden throughout the season. MacElwee interspersed Melcher’s animated conversation with practical advice from her own experiences, and suggestions of certain tools and techniques to make the process easier. The audience was a lively one, and interjected often to ask questions and comment about everything from modern wheat strains and gluten intolerance to the life cycle of a tomato plant. Melcher and MacElwee fielded the questions while providing an illustrated narrative of how to save seeds from corn, lettuce, peas, beans, tomatoes, spinach, chard, and more.
The Winter Abundance Fair is a gem of an event, a valuable resource for locals wanting to share knowledge and skills amongst each other and beyond. Mendocino Permaculture, the group that’s been putting on the event for over 30 years, is “devoted to the concept that local real knowledge is free and is essential to our freedom and our health.” The Winter Abundance Workshop is their best illustration of that fact, and has found support in the community from the beginning. Groups such as the Anderson Valley Adult School, the UC Master Gardeners, and this year the A.V. Food Shed have co-sponsored the event. The day is truly about people coming together over a common goal of resilience. As we head into a fourth straight drought year, crucial food-secure communities are forced to adapt in order to survive and thrive. Mendocino County, as a rural oasis bordering one of the world’s largest metropolitan areas, has a mandate not only to learn to feed itself but also to provide a model for how it can be done. Although we are far from that point now, events like the Seed and Scion Exchange help bring us closer to a goal of self-sufficiency, of reverence for sustainable food and the farmers who produce it. “The way farming is done can be a really big part of the solution,” says Rob Goodell, “…because the way some farming has been done is a really big part of the problem.”
(This article is #26 in the Connecting With Local Food series organized by Anderson Valley Foodshed in order to promote locally grown food. All previous articles, the many ongoing AVFS activities, and the Mendocino Local Food Guide are at www.mendocinolocalfood.org. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with questions, comments, or join our email list.)